Outlook sucks.
July 20, 2007 7:22 AM   Subscribe

My systems administrator won’t let me forward my company mail to Gmail. Outlook is making me crazy and not getting the job done. How can I either a.) configure Outlook to mimic some of Gmail’s best features, or b.) find an Outlook alternative that won’t invite the ire of the tech department? (Specifics inside.)

Part of my job is to track documents as they go through review by a group of about ten people. This involves keeping track of requested changes, making them, re-sending the document to the group, and making note of who’s given clearance. Gmail’s conversation threading is perfect for this; Outlook’s “sort by conversation” feature is not-- it can’t automatically group pieces of the conversation from the sent folder, inbox, and archive folders, so I waste a ton of time hunting for messages. (This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Outlook is only minimally searchable.)

The tech department won’t let me use Gmail because a lot of the work we do here is sensitive and they want messages to “stay on the server.” Honestly, I only have a vague understanding of what that means.

So my ideal email application would be
-Server-based or whatever the hell the systems administrator wants
-Capable of intelligently threading conversations
-Bonus: allow a Gmail-style system of labels/ tags/ stars.
Help, please!
posted by chickletworks to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I forgot-- I'd also like an email application that
-shows the first line of the email like Gmail does
-is sync-able with Treo.
Thanks in advance, all!
posted by chickletworks at 7:25 AM on July 20, 2007

Outlook 2007 can do everything you're looking for easily and more.

You could probably get away with Thunderbird too.
posted by zephyr_words at 7:36 AM on July 20, 2007

Part of my job is to track documents as they go through review by a group of about ten people. This involves keeping track of requested changes, making them, re-sending the document to the group, and making note of who’s given clearance.

I think part of your problem is using email to do document management & workflow, regardless of the email program.

It's not a field I know much about, but there's got to be something that your IT people would approve of that's designed for what you want, instead of being a workaround.

What IT wants is to be sure that sensitive documents for your organization aren't stored anywhere that they don't control. A pretty reasonable request, even if it's a PITA for you.

If there's somebody that you have a good rapport with, talk to them about getting a separate program for managing this process. If there isn't, talk to your supervisor about the problem and see if you can brainstorm an approach.
posted by epersonae at 7:52 AM on July 20, 2007

Why can't you use a versioning system (Subversion, for example) if this is simply a matter of document control? You can tag stuff, too, I believe...
posted by olinerd at 8:12 AM on July 20, 2007

Yes, your IT people are not being even a tiny bit unreasonable here. For you to use Gmail, internal company data has to live on Gmail's servers, and the protection on that data is only whatever Google offers. Google is technically ept, but they're not going to have the kind of focus on protecting your data that your IT team does. It's also likely, since you weren't aware of the implications of storing things in Gmail, that you yourself would not do as good a job protecting the data as IT would like, so they're right to tell you not to do that.

epersonae's got the right idea. You have a problem that's not being well-solved by your existing technology, so draft the resources of your company to help solve it.

One idea that might help: you can set up rules to sort emails based on title. If you put [project X] in the titles of all your emails, and set up a folder and a rule for each project, any replies will be automatically stored in the right folder. You do have to watch to make sure people don't reply to the wrong threads or make up their own titles out of whole cloth, but that should take only a bit of attention. This problem exists with threading too... if they reply to the wrong message, it goes in the wrong thread.

Overall, project folders aren't exactly what you're looking for, but they might come close enough to be useful. You can also make subfolders and more rules if projects split into multiple document tracks. Compared to threads, the extra time investment per project should only be about a minute, once you know how to do it.
posted by Malor at 8:12 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Outlook can be very frustrating if you don't understand its features. But you can do what you want with it:
First, if you're on Outlook 2003 or 2007, learn, understand, and adopt the Search Folders feature. They allow you to search - dynamically - for items in your mailbox and group them by setting up aliases within the search folder (i.e. set up a search folder for all emails with the word "Martha" in them, and pointers to all of the messages - regardless of where they actually are - will be displayed in the search folder).

Second, you can use Rules and Alerts to keep information grouped by copying or moving messages to a central folder for each document.

1. Set a rule on your inbox to forward messages after they arrive, based on subject or sender or whatever criteria works best for your workflow, to a given folder.
2. Set another rule to check messages after they've been sent, based on the same or slightly different criteria, to move a copy of messages from the sent items folder to the folder in question.

The Microsoft methodology for the kind of document collaboration epersonae is referencing is called Sharepoint, which is using web integration with Outlook and Word to make an "intranet" site for document management. It can be excellent for this kind of work. A limited version of it is bundled with Microsoft server products or is a free download. A larger, "portal" version can handle true workflow but is a significant investment in time and resources to implement.
posted by disclaimer at 8:13 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Outlook has everything you need to mimic GMail's best features, tagging and search "folders" based on those tags. This leaves all email's in your main Inbox, like GMail.

Should work with at least Outlook 2003.

Set up rules to assign Outlook categories(GMail's tags) to an email on receipt, either based on subject, or sender, etc...
Set up Outlook search folders based on those categories.
Give yourself a search folder called 'Untagged', this search folder is anything that your categorization rules haven't caught. This would be GMail's main Inbox.
posted by mnology at 8:23 AM on July 20, 2007

Oh, I've also further hidden stuff from myself by having the default view for my main Inbox to filter out Unread items. Everything should either show up in my category search folders, or in my Untagged folder.
posted by mnology at 8:25 AM on July 20, 2007

do you have your email username and password? You could get gmail to pull the mail from your work account instead of forwarding. Granted if they find out you will be in trouble.
posted by jlowen at 8:47 AM on July 20, 2007

Oh, please don't use Subversion for this... Waay overkill.
posted by tmcw at 8:48 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: If you're running WinXP as your desktop OS, you might ask your IT folks to install Windows Desktop Search on your workstation, configured to index you Outlook mail store on the Exchange server. It may take your desktop machine several hours to index your mail store initially, but thereafter, indexing will be a background task, and you'll find Outlook searches to be a lot more effective, and nearly instaneous.

This functionality is already built-in to Vista/Outlook 2007.
posted by paulsc at 8:51 AM on July 20, 2007

SharePoint will do this and a lot of other things you would probably find very handy. Windows SharePoint Services comes with Server 2003 and has some more minimal Workflow options, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server costs money and does fancier Workflow tricks, but both of them have document libraries which would go a long way toward simplifying your life. Tell your IT department to stick that in their pipe and smoke it, since you had to go find your own solution instead of them telling you how they can solve your problem.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:56 AM on July 20, 2007

Sharepoint does what you're describing and integrates with the Office suite. Does your company have a copy?
posted by bfranklin at 8:57 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: If they let you use Outlook Web Access you could try this java program that fetches your mail through OWA and forwards it to SMTP server of your choice, or an mbox. http://personal.inet.fi/atk/fetchexc/
posted by xueexueg at 9:10 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Fetchmail will allow you to d/l and forward your mail as well. I'll leave the question of whether it's appropriate to be ignoring IT and forwarding your company mail to you.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:45 AM on July 20, 2007

Just to mirror the predominant answer here, it seems that Outlook *can* do what you're looking for, but you shouldn't expect for it to behave exactly like GMail -- it won't. But I've been very impressed with Outlook 2007's interface, and a good understanding of Outlook 200[3|7]'s rules and filters will help you get the rest of the way there.

(Oh, and I love all the people who are recommending that the OP use this or that workaround to the IT's policy of not having corporate mail live on GMail. Hopefully, you'll all also reply to the OP's next thread, where he or she asks for advice on hiding a few-year gap in a resume while hunting for a new job...)
posted by delfuego at 9:46 AM on July 20, 2007

nthing the suggestion to use Sharepoint or Sharepoint Services for this. Sharepoint Services is free with any server license, and is a snap to install and configure, so I don't think you'll get too much resistance.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:02 AM on July 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everybody, and thanks for helping me see IT's point of view. I marked as best answers some of the re-routing suggestions for the sake of future questioners, but I guess I'll just settle for a re-configured Outlook.

Thanks again!
posted by chickletworks at 10:47 AM on July 20, 2007

Sharepoint sounds like exactly what you are looking for and can be set up, as mentioned, by anyone with a server licence. Also, it integrates with MS Office versions 2003 or later.
posted by slavlin at 12:31 PM on July 20, 2007

I recommend you look into the Clearcontext plugin for Outlook. It can do all kinds of intelligent threading and sorting and makes management of tasks based on email very easy. It is a bit pricey, but the basic verion is free.
posted by ihyperion at 10:37 PM on July 20, 2007

« Older How do I market and sell cuteness?   |   What's with the UK weather in July 2007? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.