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Records report says: “You are at risk”

By Andy Moore, KMWorld publisher

Electronic records—the vast bulk of all an organization's vital content and communications resources—are desperately under-managed, and most companies are at serious risk as a result.

So says a new report, created by Cohasset Associates, that is so critical of the state of electronic record-keeping that the author has titled it: "A Call For Action."

The report was the result of an unprecedented joint effort between its sponsors, AIIM and ARMA, two associations that are generally considered competitive, not cooperative. "This problem is not something either association can solve on its own," explains Robert F. Williams, president of Cohasset Associates and author of the report. "The condition of electronic records is a shoehorn in the path of progress."

The report emphasizes the fundamental "sea change" that has occurred in records management: that the previous "media-centric" notion of records—i.e., paper, film, files—has been eclipsed in most organizations by the need to manage "content-centric" records. Those content-centric electronic records have entirely different characteristics, ranging from the "non-physical" location of where they reside, to the dependence on technology to access them, to the skill sets necessary for those who are responsible for their retention and disposition. Those differences have not been adequately addressed by the records management community, nor IT or any other corporate governance entity, alleges the report.

The report's conclusions are based on a survey conducted last September of AIIM and ARMA members, plus participants in the Cohasset-sponsored Managing Electronic Records (MER) events and the Records Management LISTSERV. There were 2,206 participants in all.

Among the key findings are that electronic records, particularly e-mail, are neglected in most organizations' record retention policies. And that most respondents thought that their company's records policies overall were only "fair to marginal," the lowest category possible in the survey.

In fact, one finding was that 65% of the respondents do not even consider electronic records as part of the "hold" required in the event of litigation and associated discovery demands.

That is particularly disturbing, according to Williams, because of the nature of the discovery process. "Judges don't need perfection," he says "but they look for a good faith effort." But if none seems to be in place, the plaintiff will ask for the broadest possible discovery … and will probably get it. "At that point, the judge has no choice--he has to ask for a broad discovery," explains Williams.

"Broad discovery" means "give us everything," electronic records included. Because most organizations aren't able to fulfill a broad discovery--the point of the report—then the defense is forced into a settlement that is expensive, distracting, resource-intensive and ultimately critically damaging to the operation and reputation of the organization.

"Now do you see why an electronics records retention policy is important?" asks Williams rhetorically.

In titling the report "A Call for Action," Williams has sounded an alarm that he thinks is starting to be heard. "I spoke at a conference recently with 20 to 30 federal judges, corporate lawyers, etc. When I told them the findings of the report, they gasped out loud."

Williams' report includes a self-assessment test that can help indicate the level of readiness of your organization. It can be downloaded at Cohasset

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