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Records management vendors, this is your reality check

Software vendors need to stop building complex systems and grasp that users are still struggling with the basics of records management strategy.

Talking to records managers always provides a much-needed reality check on the state of the field. While vendors are often galloping ahead of users with new software features, the discipline is still paper-based, manual and plodding. Most companies are far from cutting edge.

Alexander Campbell, a records manager at Cohen & Gresser, is a prime example of this situation. Campbell joined the New York law firm about a year ago, with the mandate to develop a records management strategy. At the time, the firm had only Excel files to track the physical records that the firm houses in the basement.

More "sophisticated" records management presumes that all files are digitized and that a company has a sophisticated enterprise content management system and possibly other software to easily scan, track, manage, archive and destroy records. But the reality is that most companies are still wrestling with stacks of paper and software that isn't automated or even purpose-fit to manage records. This is a dangerous state of affairs. Companies are increasingly vulnerable to costly legal action if they don't manage, categorize and destroy their information.

Campbell's goal has been to get records management practices in order and one of his first moves was to research new technology. But upgrading from spreadsheets wasn't as simple as shopping for a new package and signing a check. As Campbell learned the hard way, he needed to consult with his IT department to ensure that the chosen software fit the existing IT architecture. After an eight-month search for a new technology, Campbell had to scrap his software choice and develop a new plan.

The firm is still researching options, but it won't choose a costly or sophisticated records management package. It wants a cost-effective system and will likely continue to track physical and digital files separately -- not generally considered a best practice. Indeed as Steve Weissman has noted, records management shouldn't discriminate between format types. "Content is content" and should be approached holistically, where all record types are managed with one system.

The immaturity trifecta

But Cohen & Gresser is hardly an outlier. Many companies are struggling with the basics of records management. Often their first step is to introduce records management practices -- and software -- to eliminate paper and paper costs. Then, only gradually, they benefit from other operational efficiencies along the way, including automating workflows, centralizing communication, document version control and, potentially, reducing costs.

So why are companies still struggling with the core principles of records management? When I talk to experts, they point to three suspects: people, process and technology.

People are the first hurdle, because modernizing records management practices almost always involves making changes to the way people work. Second, processes are often inefficient, outmoded or difficult to capture as discrete steps in a software package. So processes, too, need to be revamped to truly update records practices.

Technology is the third hurdle -- and is in some ways the most difficult issue to resolve because it involves many factors, such as company budget, staff expertise and the long-term business strategy. Until recently, records management and ECM software were heavy, non-intuitive and hard to configure. Users didn't want to change their work processes to accommodate software that was so difficult to use. So they often went rogue and fled to file-sharing systems such as Dropbox. Over the past few years, vendors have been making efforts to change that, but balancing rich feature sets with intuitive user interfaces is an ongoing ground war between ECM vendors and the users they purport to serve.

Users want simplicity, not every feature under the sun. They don't want to spend months mapping out workflows and optimizing business processes for the software to be useful. They don't want to take two months off from their real jobs, that is, to make the software part of their workflow -- and vendors need to realize this.

If records management software providers can make software people want to use, they have a chance to serve their constituency and make records management a critical part of companies' information management and governance toolkits. Until then, introducing costly, complex software may never be as appealing as just managing records by spreadsheet.

Records management vendors, it's your move.

Next Steps

Records management : How mature is it?

A guide to records management

Records management for information chaos

This was first published in August 2014

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