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Records management: a journey, not a task

This article appears in the issue May 2010, [Volume 19, Issue 5]
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It sounds simple, keeping track of records—after all, people have been keeping records for several millennia. But in today’s world, a record is more complex than any of those early custodians of clay tablets could have imagined. And as a result, only about half the organizations that should have put policies in place have done so. Even among studies in which the numbers are higher, managers fret that the policies are not that good.

Digitizing D.C. documents

The challenges include the obvious: the sheer volume of information and a changing set of regulations. Less obvious are such hurdles as the amount of time it takes to decide criteria for identifying a bit of information as an official record, and the retirement of the one employee who really understood the content of a certain document. Yet slowly but surely, organizations are confronting and dealing with the task, or more accurately, the process, of managing records.

Since 1800, when the federal government moved to Washington, D.C., the city has had a unique and multidimensional role. Its establishment as the site of the federal government was authorized by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which specified its location and dimensions. Along with its federal roots, though, the city also has a local government that carries out administrative activities for its residents. Each department has records that may include documents and physical items, which until now have been tracked using a manual, paper-based records management (RM) system.

Two years ago, the city government began a project to digitize government documents. With about 60 agencies and 35,000 employees serving a population of 600,000 residents, the district has a daunting task. So far, 11 district agencies have implemented enterprise content management (ECM) using IBM FileNet, and millions of documents have been digitized. Mark Mandel, who began serving as the public records administrator in the Office of Public Records in August 2009, is directing a five-year plan to automate and modernize the management of public records. “Washington, D.C., has a robust IT infrastructure,” says Mandel. “We plan to build on this, leveraging our enterprise ECM infrastructure as we bring additional agencies into the system.”

Training opportunities

An early step in the plan was to hold a workshop—sponsored by the Secretary of the District of Columbia—that brought together stakeholders from different agencies to assess their needs and provide information about policies and procedures for records management. That workshop resulted in recommendations for proactive training, standard operating procedures and use of automation to modernize the records management process.

 “We have formed a records officer user group, in which we will have regular opportunities for training and collaboration,” says Mandel, “so that knowledge about records management will be proactively disseminated throughout district agencies.” Mandel believes that while the IT infrastructure is vital, the development of processes for records management should reside with the operational units of an organization, and has structured the plan accordingly.

Potential benefits

Like most jurisdictions, the city is struggling with budgetary constraints, but is moving ahead to implement an enterprise electronic records management solution. “This approach provides many benefits,” Mandel explains, “including lower paper handling and storage costs, prompt and complete responses to compliance requirements, and transparency in government.” Policy and procedure information, FAQs, links to industry resources, laws and regulations, and retention plans are maintained in Microsoft SharePoint, which provides a collaboration environment for the agency records officers.

One of the driving forces for the transition is that many of the agencies are moving to new facilities. “Agencies are examining their records to see what they really need,” Mandel continues. “They are moving to new, ‘greener’ offices that have less space.” The agencies are approaching Mandel’s office with questions about retention policy, scanning and archiving alternatives, and proper procedures for destroying records that have reached the end of their official life cycle. The agencies would like to conform with best practices, and are not always certain what those are. “We help them keep up to speed in an environment of evolving technology,” Mandel says.

An evolution

Municipalities across the country are facing the same challenges. “This environment is a microcosm of what is happening everywhere,” says Craig Rhinehart, director of ECM product strategy at IBM. “Government at all levels is required to manage records, whether physical or electronic, with the same rigor. Yet the agencies are faced with hundreds of different information systems, a plethora of regulations and staffing issues.”

Automating records management offers greater accuracy, lower costs and consistent application of rules, Rhinehart says, but the complex nature of the endeavor means that records management is a journey, not a task. “You don’t just install the software and turn the lights out,” he adds. Records management must be understood at a deep level, and integrated with business processes so that it becomes part of the work rather than a separate activity.

SharePoint for RM

DuPage Medical Group (DMG) is a physician-owned, multi-specialty medical group in Illinois. The group has used a medical records system from Epic (epic.com) since 1998. With the implementation of the electronic medical record system in 2006, DMG wanted to add a content management system to handle the increasing volume of patient-related documents. Those included scanned documents and medical images received as PDF files. In addition, DMG had some broader objectives, such as managing images of invoices, which required improved content management.

During the evaluation process, DMG initially looked at some well-known products that integrated with Epic, but they were not suited for some of the other business requirements the company had identified. After assessing Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007, DMG concluded that it was a good match. “We found that MOSS 2007 was an enterprise-class document management system that could handle high volumes,” says Jeff Crowell, manager of server and application architecture at DMG. “This was important because we anticipated the need for a system that could accommodate 5 million new pages each year.”

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