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The RM Challenge of Electronic Communications

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Records Management [September 2004]


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The world of a typical knowledge worker is changing once again. Over the last two decades the technology revolution has broadened access to authoring tools, e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. While the truly paperless office still has not arrived, business decisions, research and number-crunching activities have all moved into a predominantly online form. Records managers and other information professionals have been playing catch-up over the last decade to ensure that appropriate lifecycle management practices cover electronic as well as paper documents. The next wave of technology change is upon us: the proliferation of new communication methods and the ubiquitous presence of e-mail on a variety of portable devices. This paper will review the technology trends that are accelerating an increasingly decentralized and distributed workforce, and highlight the areas that records managers need to watch most closely.

Mainstream content and document management vendors recognize electronic records management (ERM) as the cornerstone to an enterprise approach to an information management strategy. Larger enterprise content management (ECM) vendors have acquired standalone ERM vendors over the last few years, and this industry consolidation is expected to continue. The culture of compliance that is permeating information management programs in corporate and public-sector enterprises has pushed records management practices onto the front burner for the first time. The recent string of financial scandals provoked a wave of legislation aimed at providing more guidance on information handling practices and forced additional accountability onto corporate executives. Records managers have been in the thick of this debate, and industry organizations such as ARMA (www.arma.org) and AIIM (www.aiim.org) have helped move their members into these leadership roles.

While many organizations have begun to review enterprise-wide information management practices, technology continues to move at an accelerating pace. Organizations with traditionally strong paper record management programs have begun to apply these principles and lifecycle rules to the electronic documents captured and controlled within their environments. Integrated ERM systems working synchronously with mainstream office applications and electronic document management (EDM) systems are becoming standard applications in law firms, government organizations and many regulated industries. Records managers and information professionals in IT need to continually look forward, and understand where the next source of corporate records will come from.

The E-Mail Problem

E-mail continues to be an area of weakness for many organizations. E-mail is not a new communication platform, but the compliance culture (and recognition that e-mails can have legal standing as records) has put increased pressure on IT and records staffs to ensure that appropriate capture, control and disposal rules are reviewed. Even where a firm has a structured approach to the management of electronic office documents, e-mail often is ignored or left exclusively to the realm of IT control. Organizations can face legal exposure, embarrassment and other forms of risk if e-mail is not managed according to context and content. Many IT departments, when left without guidance, will formulate disposition policies based purely on storage capacity or age of the message.

The sheer volume of incoming and outgoing e-mail is often overwhelming for the records manager to consider. This dilemma will continue to escalate as the proliferation of e-mail-enabled devices grows exponentially. According to research analysts IDC, in the year 2000, e-mail volume reached 9.7 billion per day worldwide, and has been increasing at a rate of approximately 19%, reaching a volume of 16.2 billion e-mail messages in 2002. At that rate, IDC predicts that e-mail volumes reached nearly 21 billion messages per day or about 7.6 trillion e-mail messages for 2003—and that e-mail volume will continue to increase to 60 billion per day in 2006.1

Wireless cards in laptops, Blackberry devices, smart phones and other PDAs are moving into the hands of mobile knowledge workers at an accelerating pace and are being used to keep on top of business issues 24/7 while away from the office. The sight of an attorney checking e-mails between appointments at the courthouse, the home office worker with a wireless hub catching up on e-mail from the patio, the field inspector filing reports and photos from the job site: this is the work environment becoming commonplace today. The more easily accessible e-mail becomes, the more consistently it is being used as the dominant form of business communication.

But e-mail is only the first wave in facilitating business in a distributed environment. New communication platforms are being adopted across public and private-sector organizations at an increasing rate. Instant messaging, on-line collaboration and threaded discussions, access to corporate portals and intranets from mobile devices: this is the technology shift we see today.

IM: The “New E-Mail”Industry Needs

Professional organizations such as law firms and accountancy firms have particularly stringent record-keeping requirements for client, case and matter data. Quick and accurate access to active matters is critical for professionals driven by billable time requirements. Insight into how client- specific communication transmitted via new platforms must be shared with information management specialists in the records and IT office. They must ensure this comprehensive picture of ongoing cases is maintained regardless of the source or format of the documents.

Governments also have strict information management requirements that must be taken into account when deploying new technologies. Respect for archival legislation, obligations to citizens under freedom of information and privacy legislation and requirements to share data with other agencies or other levels of government are all universal considerations for the public sector. Government, particularly, is seeing a wide adoption rate of mobile devices in areas related to law enforcement, inspections, election campaigns and emergency services.

Regardless of industry, most organizations have record-keeping obligations to clients, regulatory bodies, archives or other stakeholders. Technology is the vehicle by which the majority of corporate records are created and disseminated. The role of the records professional has changed tremendously in recent years and will continue to do so. It is critical that information management principles and best practices are taken into account as:

  • organizations move into more e-mail-centric communication architectures;

  • mobile workers demand access to documents and records in order to do their job; and

  • new discussion forums such as collaboration and instant messaging are introduced.

The pace of technology evolution will not slow. Enterprises must carefully consider the suites of products that are deployed to end users and ensure that all record-keeping requirements can be fulfilled seamlessly and with an integrated approach to information management.


Hummingbird Ltd. is a leading global provider of enterprise software solutions, employing over 1450 people in 40 offices worldwide. Hummingbird Enterprise™ 2004 is a state-of-the-art integrated enterprise content management platform that enables organizations to securely access and manage business information such as documents, records, e-mail or financial data. Please visit: www.hummingbird.com.

1 “Worldwide E-mail Usage Forecast: 2002-2006: Know What’s Coming Your Way,” IDC, September 2002.

2 Ken Dulaney, “Wireless E-Mail is Driving the Real Time Enterprise,” Gartner Research, March 31, 2003.


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