An analyst has said that BP's reported issuing of advice to staff not to communicate electronically on a business-sensitive subject could be a move to ease pressure on the group's IT department and head off future problems around access to and storage of sensitive electronic documents.

According to report in the Financial Times this week, BP recently sent a confidential email to staff working on its much-delayed Thunder Horse oil platform instructing them not to send emails or BlackBerry messages, or create digital documents on the topic “if a telephone call or meeting will suffice”.

According to the report, project manager Stan Bond wrote in the email: “Whenever possible, avoid written communication on this issue outside of BP and its direct contractor personnel.”

Jeffrey Mann, research VP at Gartner, said that the details of BP’s situation in relation to the oil platform were not well known to him or others outside the company. But he said any move by a firm to prevent messages being created could help avoid a large, expensive job for the IT department and lawyers if litigation on the subject subsequently arose.

Such a move could also help prevent sensitive information being leaked to competitors, he said.

“It suggests they [BP] might have something to worry about,” said Mann. “It could be to do with compliance, safety or due diligence.”

Mann said if court or regulatory orders were made for specific messages or terms to be rediscovered, it would be a very large and expensive task, particularly in a company the size of BP. The IT department and lawyers would have to trawl through emails, instant messages, BlackBerry messages, and communications from multiple mobile devices. This was best avoided by a policy to prevent such situations in the first place, he said.

Technology could not realistically filter out sensitive messages, Mann said, because any mention of terms involved in the project might actually be in emails about a different subject and be unfairly removed. “There are products that search for specific keywords. But if you said ‘Never mention Thunder Horse’ it wouldn’t be practical,” he said. “It’s just easier to send out a message saying ‘Don’t do it’.”

The issue of carefully archiving and managing messages recently hit the headlines when Tesco and Asda were ordered to release millions of stored emails to the Competition Commission as part of an investigation into allegations of supermarket abuse of suppliers. At the time, a legal observer told CIO sister title Computerworld UK: "It is up to businesses and their legal departments, company secretaries and compliance officers to make sure they are ready for such circumstances."