Records management: rebirth of the dinosaur

After several decades of decline'records management' has re-entered the business vocabulary. Ovum examines why it has an...


Over the past 12 months, the phrase 'records management' has re-entered the business vocabulary, after several decades of decline. Until recently, records management was seen as a dinosaur of the pre-PC era - something that was necessary for handling paper documents, but which was unnecessary in a world where everything is online. Angela Ashenden and Alan Pelz-Sharpe comment on how all that is about to change in a big way.

A case of déjà vu?

In the rush to implement e-business many principles were ignored, and we are now starting to pay the price.

Records management has been with us for a very long time; methods of managing the lifecycle of important records go back millennia. However, in the rush to implement e-business and the myth of the new economy, many fundamental principles were ignored, and we are now starting to pay the price.

Records management is an important organisational function, whether the organisation is a local government or a major enterprise. It not only ensures that our organisations remain compliant with the many regulations that govern records retention, but also enables the organisation to access important information as and when it is needed, while also addressing the major issues of storage management.

Why now?

The events of the past 18 months have served to shock the business world back into reality. The tragic events of 11 September 2001 showed us that electronic records can be lost as easily as paper records, and highlighted only too clearly the impact that this can have on a previously stable and secure business. Many finance and insurance companies lost everything in the World Trade Center, and will never be able to retrieve that knowledge again. While many of the lessons from this should focus on storage and disaster management, the reminder that records need to be managed properly is at least an underlying factor, if one that is somewhat overplayed by some software vendors.

Similarly, the discoveries that were made following the collapse of Enron and WorldCom have highlighted the need for proper procedures to be followed when handling records. They have also highlighted the complex ambiguities that surround what is a record and what is not. Much of the legal argument in the Andersen case focused on what should be kept, and what could be kept. While the average business organisation has no idea what it should or should not be keeping, it now knows that it is responsible, and that the courts are unlikely to accept excuses.

 The situation is made all the more difficult to manage when we consider the huge growth in electronic records of all types. Twenty years ago, we only had to worry about memos and letters. Today, we have the added medium of e-mail; and for every letter within an organisation, there are probably over a hundred related emails, many of which form an intricate chain in the audit trail. The reaction from organisations such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in drawing up new rules and regulations to prevent further scandals, is helping financial directors to understand the consequences of these problems and the need to re-establish corporate governance. The need to maintain full audit trails of activities within the organisation, along with formal archives of all business-related documents, whether electronic or paper, is finally being recognised again.

A third factor in the rebirth of records management is the continued need to manage records within the government. Governments have always had huge volumes of important documents that need to be stored and managed, and this has not changed today. What has changed is that governments all over the world have been mandated to "go digital" - e-government initiatives are forcing authorities to move all records online. Being public bodies, they are aware that they need to take the same records management disciplines into this digital age that they have in their existing paper one.

So what is records management?

Records management as a discipline covers the whole range of records, from paper files, objects, letters and deeds, through to electronic records such as Microsoft Word files, engineering drawings and e-mails. Also known as recorded information management (RIM), it denotes an entire business discipline and methodology focused on managing the lifecycle of business-related information from creation through to archive and deletion.

The importance of records management is highlighted by the multitude of government regulations and policies outlining the processes for storing records. The most commonly quoted regulation in the US is the recent Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was brought into force following the debacle of Andersen employees shredding important documents in the wake of the Enron collapse. The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) organisation and the UK's Public Records Office are two examples of bodies whose entire business is focused on ensuring records are maintained correctly and effectively.

However, while there are specific pieces of legislation in both Europe and the US that focus on records management issues, the reality is that there are in fact thousands of pieces of legislation on the subject. Which ones are important for your particular organisation is a matter for your lawyers to advise on.

The role of technology

In the same way as the practice of records management, records management software is not new. It has been in existence in some form or another for almost 15 years, and despite the introduction of the Internet, very little has changed in that time in terms of its goals and purpose. Records management software, from vendors such as Tower Software and OmniRIM, focuses on providing a means to electronically store, version, track and retrieve paper and electronic records, as well as enabling them to be archived and deleted according to a specific set of rules.

However, the recent events have brought the technology back into the limelight, and this is highlighted by the recent acquisitions by two high-profile content management (CM) vendors, Documentum and IBM. On 4 December 2002, both companies issued press releases announcing their acquisitions of records management companies - Documentum acquired TrueArc, and IBM acquired Tarian. These acquisitions are particularly interesting, because they blur the already unclear lines between software that has been designed specifically for managing records, and more generic document management software.

The records management software market remains small in comparison to the wider CM market, although it has the potential for growth over the coming years, as organisations address the issues of accountability. The majority of vendors in this market are small niche players that have a key role to play due to their domain expertise. This list includes Tower Software, OmniRIM, Impact Systems, eManage and Cuadra. The acquisitions of TrueArc and Tarian present significant opportunities to these niche vendors, as the two companies had important OEM partnerships within the CM market.

However, IBM and Documentum are not the only large vendors with specialist records management solutions; Open Text and Hummingbird both entered the records management market through acquisition in 1999, with Open Text acquiring PSSoftware, and Hummingbird acquiring PC Docs. These vendors are all targeting the larger organisation market through the inclusion of records management in their wider enterprise CM offerings.

Software will only play a supporting role in the overall solution of records management, but it is a vital part of that solution

The question is whether systems such as these are sufficient to solve the many records management problems that exist in the new electronic era. With the quantity of electronic records that are created today, simply keeping everything is just not practical. Even though the cost of storage is cheap, actually managing all that information is not. The problem is complicated further as we try to understand the context of all those records - how they relate to each other and to events in time. As technology progresses, we can expect voicemails and rich media to also become major factors in the records management portfolio. However, how the content of voicemails can be managed without listening to every one of them is a major hurdle in the making.

No records management software vendor can provide a complete solution to records management issues. The solution will come through the implementation of procedures designed to manage an organisation's specific records. Software will only ever play a small supporting role in the overall solution of records management, but it is a vital part of that solution.

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