You Don't Know What You Don't Know
Bassam Zarkout, CTO, RSD
One of the things I've learned from talking with leading executives in the various knowledge management disciplines is that you can't predict how they got there. I knew a guy once who ran a very hoity-toity consulting firm. I found out later he was once in the "Banana Splits" kiddie cartoon music act. You just never know.
"I know!" agrees Bassam Zarkout, chief technology officer for RSD. "I have two college-age kids," he says. "One knows exactly the plan for her future—where she'll be in two years, five years, 10 years... The other less so, but makes up for it with great intuition," he laughs.
But what is consistent is that the most successful executives eventually pick a course, and pursue it without fail. As Bassam puts it: "One of the phases of learning is to finally realize you don't know what you don't know."
Bassam grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. He went to the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB), one of the largest American universities not on US soil. "It was a beautiful campus on the Mediterranean," he describes. "But then the civil war started, and plans had to change." After several years of work in the construction field, he emigrated to Canada (somewhat unpredictably, but like I said, you never know).
His trade was mechanical engineering. He participated in the building of massive petrochemical complexes and various giant pumping facilities. As a result, Bassam found himself using—and often re-programming—those fancy HP calculators of the time. "And that's how I got interested in the computing industry."
And HP got interested in him, so they hired him to work with his petrochem customers from the "solutions" side of the spectrum. He moved to Canada with HP. "I worked in the early days of 3D CAD/CAM design, and at that time we were lucky if we could manage to render a 3D image overnight! We'd start the program and then take the customers to dinner. Now you can do it on your phone!" he says.
Bassam stumbled into records management—at a time when the term was barely apparent—through a convoluted lawsuit between the Canadian Department of National Defense (they insist on the metric spelling, "Defence") and some of its suppliers. No need to go into details, but the experience introduced Bassam to the world of records and governance at the very sharp tip of the sword. Few people knew anything about electronic records management at the time. "This was in the ‘90s, and the first presentation I heard on records management was about managing paper records using concepts that dated from the late 1940s!" he remembers, incredulously.
So to be there when electronic records became a critical issue was one of those "ground-floor" opportunities. "I had never heard the term ‘records management.' It was the creation of consultants who were trying to sell something. The software that WAS available was clunky, and didn't scale," he says, which probably started him thinking about a solution.
"One of the realizations we came to was that—unlike current thinking of the time—records management and document management were NOT two separate applications. Records management was a feature of document management." Did you believe that to be true? I asked. "At the time I did! We worked very hard to figure that out. But we were working with (the venerable and memorable) PC DOCS in competition with OpenText at the time, and that work really evolved our RM offering," he remembers.
"In the beginning, the majority of customers for records management were government agencies. So most of the vendors set up offices in Washington, including us. During this time, the DoD had created certification requirements that basically became the de facto standard." That wasn't all-the Federal Records Act demanded that government records be made available upon demand. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was also a huge driver for RM. Then came the Privacy Act. So it could be said that legislation created the records management business.
In fact, in 2001, as Bassam remembers for me, the DoD issued a very important RFP that was specifically focused on creating greater value from records management. Called the "KM Prototype," the goal was to figure out how organizations could deal with the huge stream of electronic records coming in, and turn them into something that could be used to propel the activities and performance of the users' organizations. Targeted mainly at government agencies at the time, it has had a major and lingering impact on business organizations as well.
But it has also presented complications. There are certain components of information resources that are protected by the Privacy Act—personal information, social security numbers, etc.—but at the same time are also subject to FOIA requests. How do you protect what must be protected while also allowing access? It's almost as though the various federal requirements are in opposition. If someone requests a document—whether it's CNN or a private citizen—you are required by law to provide it. However, if there are protected portions of that document that refer to someone's personal privacy, you cannot provide those sections. How do you determine the difference between a Social Security number-protected—and date of employment—not protected? How do you identify the date of birth of an individual, which can appear in many formats, but not reveal other personal information? Tough business to be in, but Bassam seems to be comfortable with it.
He shared an amusing and classic example of the challenges facing records protection, and just imagine how they get especially difficult at large scales and volume: "One document says John Smith goes to the Baptist Church every Sunday." he says. "The other one reads, John Smith goes to the Baptist Church every Sunday to fix the windows. The first one is protected; the second is not." That, by the way, was part of the "test" for that DoD RFP I mentioned earlier. One company passed it: Bassam's.
Bustin' the Business Move
Enterprises have shown interest in RM since the '90s, but starting in the mid-2000s, large enterprises were showing interest in RM at the enterprise level. They began to realize they had five or six departmental "records management" systems (I use those quote marks both deliberately and ironically.) They had tens of "document management" systems (again). And following Enron and some other high-profile fiascos, interest in records management at an enterprise level began to rise to the surface and get the attention of C-level people as well as IT.
It's back to the "you don't know what you don't know" paradigm. In the mid-2000s, vendors tried their best to pitch their solutions to large businesses, for all the reasons that seem clear to us now. "For the most part, those companies decided to do nothing," Bassam says. But slowly it dawned on most companies, and on Bassam, that the problem in the market at that time was that there were too many "me-too" vendors trying to create omnipotent RM solutions (for anti-potent problems, BTW) and not thinking about what the enterprise really needed, such as information governance as a shared service within the enterprise, support for multiple jurisdictions, policy management, the fact that information assets may need to move across systems without losing their lifecycle properties... the list of contingencies is long. "Nobody called it ‘information governance' at the time," he says. "We were among the first—if not the first—to coin that term and use it in our strategy."
The trend in the early- to mid-2000s was for the big document management companies to acquire RM solutions, and try to tack them onto their existing platforms. "That was OK for a while, but the challenge is different today," explains Bassam. "I was talking to a customer the other day, and asked an innocent question: ‘How many ECM systems do you currently have?' I was trying to figure in my head how many connectors we would have to provide. And he said, ‘All of them. If it's on the market, we have it somewhere.'"
That was a profound statement for me. For I have been bubbling this idea for a while now, and I was pleased that Bassam agreed with me about this very poignant fact in enterprise content management today: That there is no such thing. Enterprise content management is a strategy, not a product. It took us a while to arrive at this truth, but I think now we have. Vendors like RSD and Bassam get it. Many still don't. We will see who prevails in the long run. But I think I know.
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