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Trusting “Corporate Memory”

By Robert Williams

Businesses and governments are not prepared for the inevitable: the inability to access digital records over time due to the technological obsolescence of software and hardware. According to a recent survey by Cohasset Associatesk, longer-term digital preservation is an issue that is just not being adequately addressed by most organizations.

Information that comprises the organization's "corporate memory" has been retained on media that is no longer accessible to those who need to use it. Because more than 90% of all records are born electronically now, the problem is increasing in frequency and magnitude of potential consequences.

Cohasset Associates' recently completed survey of more than 2,000 records management professionals clearly shows that most organizations are not addressing the issue of digital preservation. The survey, which was co-sponsored by ARMA and AIIMk, identified an extraordinary lack of confidence in current electronic records management practices. There is serious doubt that today's records will be successfully preserved for future use--in an accurate and reliable manner.

In response to the question, "If legally challenged, how confident are you that your business organization could successfully demonstrate that its electronic records are accurate, reliable and trustworthy many years after they were created?" a majority (62%) indicated they were less than confident--either "not confident at all" (33%) or only "slightly confident" (29%). Further, only a combined total of 38% responded that they had any substantive confidence: "confident" (24%), "quite confident" (9%) or "very confident" (5%). By nearly a 2-1 ratio, those most responsible for the management of records lack confidence in the ability of their own organizations to demonstrate the accuracy and reliability of their business records.

In contrast, the overwhelming majority (93%) believed that the process by which electronic records are managed will be "very important" (57%), "quite important" (20%) or "important" (16%) when asked: "How important do you believe that the process by which electronic records are currently managed will be important in future litigation?"

When those "importance" and "confidence" findings are compared, a large gap is revealed. The result is a 55% gap between importance and confidence (93% and 38%). The good news is that the gap decreased 12% between 2001 and 2003--from 67% to 55%. The bad news is that projecting forward at that rate of reduction, it will be nearly another two decades (2020) before the gap is reduced to less than 10%.

Cohasset concludes that the unacceptably high, existing gap must be significantly reduced and the current rate of reduction greatly accelerated so that an acceptable level of confidence in digital preservation practices is achieved much sooner than projected from the survey results.

Other survey questions clearly identified three reasons for the growing problem of retaining corporate memory: IT's limited understanding of the need for digital migration to preserve records with long retentions, limited formal planning (policies and procedures) addressing digital preservation, and seriously deficient funding.

With respect to digital preservation, the Cohasset survey showed that "rarely, if ever, have so many organizations been so ill-prepared for something so important to the successful long-term management of their information assets." Four primary conclusions from the survey are:

  • Most organizations have serious operational problems regarding the processes by which they manage electronic records, one of their most important assets.

  • Many of the survey's findings reflect the presence of proverbial "silos" among members of the business functions (technical, legal and records management) required to successfully manage electronic records.

  • The number and magnitude of organizational and operational problems reflected in the survey findings collectively create stunning, unacceptable business risks.

  • Electronic records issues should be the focus of immediate corrective action, and the integration of electronic records into the organization's records management program should be a priority.

The complete results of the Electronic Records Management Survey is available at: merresource.com/whitepapers/survey.htm.


Robert Williams is president of the consulting firm Cohasset Associates and chairman of the National Conference on Managing Electronic Records (MER), e-mail williams@cohasset.com.

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