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The electronic records management challenge

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This article appears in the issue October 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 9]

Hype is a double-edged sword in the technology market. It often serves to raise the profile of a valuable but overlooked technology. But on the downside, it has a tendency to turn customer excitement into disillusionment quite rapidly, as yet another technology hailed as a cure-all proves to be more difficult than users had bargained for. Electronic records management (ERM) technology has been a victim of those positive and negative effects of hype. High-profile cases like Enron and WorldCom highlighted the value of the secure retention and destruction of documents that ERM technology supports. Yet there are still few examples of good ERM practice, much evidence of only half-won battles, and growth for the ERM market remains slow. ERM does not appear to be the complete answer we were looking for. Its identifiable benefits are real, though, and worth fighting for. Organizations should persist, perhaps with a renewed understanding of why they have not advanced as much as they wanted to. And also with a better understanding of what ERM can really do for them, and of what they themselves need to do to move forward. High-profile court cases have outlined the consequences of not managing information properly through secure, tamperproof retention to timely destruction. Those cases have in parallel raised the profile of technologies like ERM, but their main effect has simply been to convince organizations of the need to retain their information in an orderly manner, fast. Information retention has largely been achieved by acquiring more storage space and using it to keep more information for longer, rather than using technologies like ERM. Instead of being for all information, ERM is mainly suited for secure, tamper-proof retention of electronic documents. The electronic documents it manages can come directly from document management systems because a number of ECM vendors offer integrated record and document management. In the near future, some of those vendors will also offer ERM that can manage e-mail and whole collaborative team spaces and their contents as records. The problem is that few organizations have document management systems in place, so the majority of documents to manage as records have to be entered manually, either by drag-and drop from file systems or by scanning in from paper copies. ERM technology cannot deliver immediate results, mostly because organizations do not manage documents and data sources well enough to identify quickly what should be managed as a record and what can be disposed of.

Unviable, quick fixes

In the short term, organizations have opted for improved retention of all their information at the storage level, as a response to fears about exposure to litigation. They were right to do so, simply because that was the only choice they had. However, in the medium to long term, that simple retention of information is not going to protect organizations from regulatory pressures. It may even be counterproductive because much of the focus of new regulations is on ensuring certain information is destroyed rather than retained. Nor is it going to be healthy for the productivity and ongoing success of their business. Organizations will find that the increased volume of information generated by such a quick-fix information retention strategy strains the IT departments charged with storing and facilitating its retrieval on demand. Retrieval on demand is a key issue here. Most organizations have little sense of the real danger that stored information might not be found, because IT departments are managing so many storage media, with so many backups, that they've simply lost track.

Finally, organizations are missing out on the benefits of efficiency and effectiveness that ERM can bring. For example, if you can quickly find a record of last year's customer contracts, verify the discounts you gave and use them as a baseline for this year's contract, you're saving time and money, as well as looking good in the eyes of the customer.

What really needs to happen

Having gotten a handle on retaining information, the next logical step for organizations is to move toward managing that information. The aim is to destroy what needs to be destroyed within the proper time frame and to adequately protect access to what is retained, using ERM and other related technologies. One problem organizations will face when they start embarking on this step is that they may not understand all the factors that ERM depends on to be successful. A key factor in the success of ERM projects is coordinating ERM alongside the other technologies organizations need to manage information. The value of succeeding with ERM will be undermined if other parts of the information management jigsaw are not pieced together. For example, the value of having well managed documents within ERM is impaired if e-mail, discussion threads, Web content and instant messaging remain a liability. IM professionals must work together across the organization, pursuing each IM initiative in alignment with the others.

Another key realization is that delivering the potential benefits of managing electronic records to your organization depends not on ERM technology, but on employees managing their content properly before it is declared a record, or destroyed. In practice, this means that employees must move toward a consistent way of creating, saving and tagging their documents. In a world where the norm is to create, save and tag documents in a chaotic fashion, building that kind of system is easy to preach about but difficult to achieve. Steps to achieve it depend on agreeing on standard formats, tools and metadata. Rolling out agreed standards, phasing out the old and ultimately changing employee's document management practices will involve ongoing programs of awareness, training and enforcement.

Time is a critical factor in ERM projects, and anyone embarking on such a task should assume they face a long road ahead. As with any long journey, the best approach is to break it down into palatable but rewarding stages. At the end of each stage, take a deep breath, look back, recognize how far you've come and be prepared to retrace your steps to find the best route forward. Exactly how long it takes you to realize the benefits you are hoping for from ERM will depend on your starting point and your goals. Even if the path seems short, the complex interplay of ERM technology with people and process, and of ERM technology with other IM technology should not be underestimated.

Resources and buy-in

The majority of organizations have either not started with ERM, or have started and then become discouraged along the way because they were not prepared for the scale of effort involved. Nor were they prepared for the amount time it would take. Within organizations, an enlightened few may be striving to make it happen, but resource, commitment and buy-in are lacking. Those responsible for budgets are reluctant to dedicate limited resources when benefits are difficult to measure and delivered over a prolonged period. Busy employees are hesitant to change their work practices for something like ERM because it does not necessarily provide them with an immediate shortcut or productivity gain. Yet both resources and buy-in are critical to the success of ERM projects. The departments most likely to gain from ERM—like IT and legal--should lobby for resources for it. Those being asked to change their way of working will need careful, dedicated and ongoing attention. IT departments are generally overchallenged by the need to retain and retrieve on demand ever growing volumes of information. Of course, you can add new storage media to accommodate the volumes, but keeping track of where everything is becomes harder the more storage media you have. IT departments are simultaneously required to control costs. Good docu


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