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Records management strategy still in infancy in many enterprises

Even law firms -- often the proving ground for records management practices -- are struggling with the basics of records management strategy.

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In 2013, when Alexander Campbell joined Cohen & Gresser, a New York-based law firm that was expanding, he already had substantial experience as a records manager under his belt. Following his work as a consultant on the dissolution of Dewey & LeBoeuf, a firm that had gone into bankruptcy, as well as four years at Latham & Watkins, Campbell had gone through some tours of duty in records management programs.

After handling complex retention and destruction of corporate information, he was a natural candidate to overhaul practices at his new firm, which needed to establish a records management strategy. The firm was tracking physical records through myriad Excel spreadsheets and continuing to shop around for technology to manage these records. Moreover, file tracking was flawed: The firm's spreadsheets didn't always match what was on the shelves, recalled Campbell, the records manager for the firm.

"If I'm looking for a file, I'm going to go to the file room before checking the spreadsheets," he said. "They often don't match."

Alexander CampbellAlexander Campbell

As with many other industries, law firms still struggle to incorporate the basics of records management systems, from how to use a single system to manage physical and digital records to automating manual tasks. While records management software encompasses a variety of features, it most commonly tracks all corporate information regardless of content format, includes workflows to route files through processes automatically, saves documents as the definitive file for version control in a searchable repository, and applies retention schedules so records can be archived and destroyed according to industry regulations. More advanced systems often work in concert with other productivity applications such as email.

But software purchases can fuel bad blood, job burnout post-deployment and sundry other career killers. The common thread with these problems is that companies focus so much on the technology that they lose sight of a company's broader requirements. Campbell's journey illustrates how to put these important buying decisions in the context of IT and business needs.

Buying new software stalls

At Cohen & Gresser, Campbell was hired to get disorganized records under control -- but not without project challenges along the way. Campbell knew that tracking physical files through spreadsheets was becoming unwieldy and unreliable. "Excel presents a lot of problems for sharing, mainly that two people cannot be in it at the same time."

Cheryl McKinnon, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., agreed that Excel may be a go-to for records management, but it's not a good idea. "When all that corporate memory is wrapped up in a spreadsheet, that is a significant weak link in the chain," she said.

Campbell launched his new records strategy by researching potential new records management systems. He spent eight months identifying software requirements and evaluating technology. In particular, Cohen & Gresser wanted a records management system that wouldn't break the bank, so Campbell narrowed the field from five systems to one. Believing he had a solid candidate, he developed the request for proposal (RFP) for FileBridge from Archive Systems Inc.

But when Campbell presented his choice, the firm’s IT manager was concerned about the system not being aligned with the current IT infrastructure: FileBridge is built on a SharePoint architecture. Campbell said that while he was initially surprised, he came to understand why FileBridge didn't fit the bill.

"SharePoint can get ugly fast," Campbell said. "It's not meant for general use. These proprietary systems are also costly and difficult to customize." As a result, Campbell recommends involving IT sooner rather than later in the RFP process and is now working even more closely with his IT department.

McKinnon said the decision-making processes for evaluating and implementing software has changed to encompass IT, business units and other relevant stakeholders.

"Two years ago, the traditional big-bang project management methodology dominated," McKinnon said. "'Here's my requirements. I'm going to go away from six to nine months, then roll it out and go live.' But now, organizations are employing more agile, iterative methodologies. There is more daily, regular engagement and testing with users."

Back to the future?

For records managers, getting the information landscape under control has to start with upgrading outmoded technology. But as Campbell's experience indicates, buying something new isn't always as simple as demoing systems and writing a check. Finding a technology that the broad range of stakeholders will accept has become a more elaborate process.

The firm was using Canon's Worldox as its document management system, but Campbell, who had used LegalKey at two previous law firms, was looking for something more sophisticated to track files.

Confusion during the buying process may be the mixed blessing of a maturing market with many options, McKinnon said. Choosing a document management system has become exponentially more complex, she said, partly because users' expectations have grown in response to new application options. So, for example, while SharePoint was initially a viable competitor to conventional enterprise content management systems for records management, SharePoint, too, has succumbed to poor-usability allegations.

"[Poor usability] was a criticism of traditional ECM vendors," McKinnon said. "They were complex, hard to use, hard to learn. When SharePoint came into the market, users said, 'This is more intuitive, this integrates better into my Office apps, it has a better UI [user interface].' But now consumerization of IT -- all our mobile, Web-friendly experience -- has changed our expectations yet again on what we want from a usability perspective from enterprise software."

A hybrid solution for the right price tag

With the software purchasing process stalled, Campbell has had to rethink his software plan and has subsequently pursued a hybrid approach. After a colleague noted that the company uses Intuit's QuickBase to track projects on the e-discovery side, Campbell considered it as an alternative to Excel to track physical files on the shelf.

"I was skeptical at first," Campbell said. "Then I kicked the tires. Given its price for 10 users -- and we have three -- it's fairly cost-effective for us." With the price tag in the low thousands per month, it meets the firm’s requirements.

As a result, Campbell says he has a two-track proposal to purchase QuickBase for physical file tracking, and a second proposal to begin reorganizing the Worldox real estate with better categorization for records, cleanup and archiving of inactive files. On the plus side, Campbell said, the second proposal "needs to happen regardless" of whatever software is chosen. With nearly 200,000 digital files in the system, Campbell and his current team of three must bring order to their records department regardless of the software they ultimately choose.

For Campbell, the ability to use one system to search and access records, rather than relying on several spreadsheets, will be the first major improvement. "The first step is to get ahold of what we have so we have a single point of entry where we can find that information," he said.

Down the road, Campbell said, he envisions bringing in more sophisticated capabilities such as workflow, alerting and auto-classification of records.

"I would love to be able to repurpose our file room into office space," Campbell said. "Then our job would be to categorize information -- to be content managers."

Next Steps

Cloud-based records management

A guide to records management

Records management for information chaos

This was first published in July 2014

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