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The evolution of Federated records management

Launches of new electronic records management (ERM) technology over the past year under the banner "federated records management" (FRM) represent an important step forward for the information management market as a whole. The FRM concept will likely be an integral part of how organizations manage their business records in the future. Information is held in content, stored in multiple locations across organizations, as is the subset of the content that needs to be managed as a record.

FRM technology can reach into an enterprise's content stores and identify and manage records within them. It has tremendous potential, but for now FRM is unlikely to accelerate the slow rate at which organizations implement records management. Organizations have far more basic information management issues to solve, and FRM must do more to help organizations with those issues by getting better at identifying content that should be a record. This article traces the evolution to FRM and weighs the unresolved issues.

Electronic records management has been a prominent branch of the information management market for the last couple of years, following a number of high-profile cases that highlighted the importance of managing electronic content over long periods in a secure manner. In spite of its potential to help, in revenue terms, ERM still represents just a tiny part of the market. And few organizations have fully embraced it. In many ways, the technology simply has not been ready for the challenge of managing all electronic records across the enterprise. It was originally built on paper-based record-keeping concepts. But what is generated in an electronic world is vastly different from what used to get documented on paper. The volumes involved are much higher and what is of importance is proportionally lower, yet much more difficult to locate.

Vendors have been working hard to make ERM technology suitable for today's electronic world. FRM is the most recent of a number of ERM technology evolutions over the past years, which have come about in response to limitations of earlier stages. IBM, FileNet and Open Text are at the forefront of the FRM movement. The effect of those evolutions combined is that organizations can control more content across the enterprise as records in an easier way.

Stage 1:

Standalone ERM had records capture problems.

ERM technology has been around for about a decade and originally redirected the records management concept that had been in existence for hundreds of years in the physical, paper world toward electronic content. The vision was that records management staff would identify the electronic content that was really important to the organization and place it under the control of the ERM system, in a similar manner to gathering paper records. The ERM system would then control access to it, control what storage medium it was held on and eventually get rid of it, leaving an audit trail behind.

ERM systems creators quickly identified one of the key issues facing records management in a digital world--that of actually finding digital content that should be managed as a record. ERM systems creators wanted to combat that issue by integrating with a range of other systems including e-mail, thus automating the process of capturing content that should be preserved as a record into a single records repository. While somewhat successful, the approach was soon overtaken by the integration of ERM technology with enterprise content management (ECM) products.

Stage 2:

Integration with ECM left content consolidation issues.

At the same time that the scandals pushed ERM into the spotlight on the information management stage two years ago, the information management market landscape was going through its own dramatic change. The post-dot.com-boom/economic collapse meant that the content management section of the market had to reinvent itself. It did so under the enterprise content management slogan.

Since then, ERM has been almost completely incorporated into the broader ECM market. Many ERM and electronic document and records management (EDRM) vendors have been acquired or merged with ECM vendors. IBM, EMC/Documentum, Open Text, Vignette, Mobius and Hummingbirdk all extended their offerings in that manner. At the same time, ECM vendors that have not acquired ERM or electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) vendors have developed records management functionality, but with a different approach than the initial efforts of ERM vendors.

ECM vendors aimed to integrate ERM within their products, using it to manage any content securely and in a controlled way as a record, should its importance to the business merit that treatment. The standalone notion of the early examples of ERM technologies disappeared. Managing content as a record was understood as an integral and inherent part of the overall content life cycle and the management that content receives at each part of the life cycle.

While the life cycle model at the heart of the ECM approach makes sense, the overall success of records management within ECM products has depended on organizations being prepared to consolidate all their content in a single vendor's ECM product. It has become increasingly clear that this is unlikely to happen. Up until now, ECM technology itself has not been suitable for enterprisewide deployment, in terms of either initial or running costs. Organizations have not been able to justify deploying it beyond focused, departmental solutions.

Stage 3:

FRM solves limits of initial ECM vision.

FRM is a logical move given the limitations of ECM vendors' first attempts to solve the ERM problem. The capabilities now offered resolve two key challenges at which previous approaches failed. One challenge is managing records that are spread across the wide range of repositories and files servers where content has been created or stored. Organizations tend to have a multitude of content repositories and file servers, meaning that applying a consistent records management approach has been very labor-intensive. A second challenge is in identifying what is a record. Formerly, ERM products have often placed that responsibility squarely at the feet of users. For many organizations, that has been an unacceptable burden. It's been too time-consuming for regular employees creating content to also think about records management, and has often required knowledge and information that most employees cannot be expected to have.

Controlling content

IBM's Federated Records Management, FileNet Records Manager and Open Text's Livelink Records Manager provide records management that is capable of controlling content that resides in different repositories, including on the file servers that so many employees use to save and share their content, for example, using Windows Explorer.

In effect, the solutions manipulate the security settings on the content within the repository, invoking the security capabilities within the owning repository. This means that content can no longer be edited. It also means that content may not be visible to all users, but instead will be visible to just a select few with the appropriate permission sets. In addition, content can no longer be deleted by users.

While content is under the control of one of the federated records management products, it is effectively being controlled by a set of rules that have been centrally defined within a file plan. Most file plans have a hierarchical, tree-like structure, consisting of branches and nodes. Each node in the structure has rules about how content categorized within that node should be managed as a record. What rules govern content depend on which file plan node it has been categorized against. That categorization happens after the record has been declared. Rules determine how long it should be retained after its declaration as a record, who can view it during that retention period and what approval process it must go through prior to ultimate destruction.

Auto-declaration of records

Federated records management products can support the automatic declaration of records--irrespective of where content is residing. Federated records management just needs to know of the existence of that content location and what makes content eligible to be a record. FileNet has branded its system's capabilities in that regard as "zero-click," while IBM has chosen "touchless."

In effect, those capabilities offer two key features. First is the ability to declare content as a record as part of a workflow process. For example, when an item of content is approved via a workflow step, the systems can automatically declare that approved version of content as a record. Also, they have the ability to "listen" for content as it gets placed in folders in the repositories and file servers they control, so for example, when a document is saved in a certain folder, it is detected and declared as a record, potentially double-checking that it meets other criteria.

Ready for FRM, or not?

The limitations of today's FRM products reside partly with the technology itself and partly with the complexity of the information management scenarios it needs to work in. The majority of information within organizations is not actively managed, even if it is held on accessible file servers. Where that is the case, FRM products have little to help them determine what content is, whether it should be a record and if so, how it should be handled. Unmanaged information is not organized into a meaningful, reliable folder structure, and there are no guarantees that content within a folder should be there. Because of that, FRM products cannot assume that just because content is in a particular folder, that it should be a record.

Vendors recognize that issue and are working on incorporating content analysis technology within their federated records management products. That will enable them to do more in the area of identifying what content is, whether it should be declared as a record and how it should be managed if so, without having to rely so heavily on content being in the right place. But it will be some time before more is offered.

That leaves many organizations still grappling with some of the traditional problems that have cursed ERM implementations across the globe. Organizations find they need to do too much preparatory work before they can decide how to deploy records management technology, including studies of what content they have, what content they need to manage as records, what conditions to apply to those records--for example, how long to keep them, where to put them, etc. FRM adds to those tasks. Organizations have to understand where everything is now in order to connect the federated records management system to the appropriate repositories. In order to enable the auto-declaration of records, organizations must understand the conditions that can identify them ongoing. All of those pre-implementation steps will be a turn-off for many, particularly as more pressing operational priorities continue to present themselves.

Stop deleting electronic information

Leaving employees without guidance to determine what content to keep and what to delete is no longer acceptable. Organizations must make efforts to at least retain electronic content if they are to avoid being in breach of their compliance requirements. Archiving systems are available to ingest content from e-mail systems and file servers. Content management vendors like EMC/Documentum are offering retention services that allow the rapid application of retention and disposition policies to folders containing content, without the need to set up a full file plan.

Once potentially dangerous deletions of content are no longer occurring, organizations can over time turn their attention to a more studied approach. The overall quality of information management still needs to be improved. What to keep, for how long and by extension, what to delete must be fully understood. The next generations of today's FRM are likely to be component pieces in the approach, but for many, it is too early for records management, federated or otherwise.

Sarah Kittmer is a senior analyst with Ovum's Technology Group, specializing in enterprise content management, e-mail sarah.kittmer@ovum.com.

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