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Broad view helps put records management policy, system on right track

Measuring the progress of a records management policy initiative is a key to its success and can be helped by taking some broad essential steps.

In the boardroom and in the classroom, I'll be the first person to wave his arms and jump up and down to try to focus attention on the importance of metrics for properly planning and evaluating an information management initiative. After all, I joke, how else will we know how far behind we are?

The reality, of course, is that without metrics, it is impossible to gauge how much progress you are making and at what point you can declare your efforts to be successful. Sometimes this is obvious. For example, when the time needed to collaborate on creating marketing materials drops below a certain pre-established threshold, you can label that a success. But in other cases measuring an initiative's success can be less clear-cut. For example, you might be trying to establish an electronic records management policy and system as part of a program in which the goals might be less directly quantifiable. What then?

Cost-benefit analysis is easy at times

But sometimes the benefits of an automated records management program are easy to quantify. Consider this scenario: a storage room full of insurance policy and claims documents, which are important records of the commitments and transactions between an insurer and its customers. The company might want to repurpose that space from storing boxes to accommodating cubicles and thereby obviate the need to invest in additional office space as it grows. In this case, the executive team is facing a fairly direct financial decision; it can easily determine at what point the cost of implementing an electronic records management system becomes less expensive than acquiring more room. Measuring success in this case is a simple budgetary matter and doesn't require a traditional return on investment (ROI) analysis of establishing a records management policy that includes converting paper files into electronic ones.

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Things might be different, though, in the contracts unit of an organization's legal department, where automating records management are often based on the need to respond more quickly to regulatory audits or legal discovery requests -- activities that do not occur every day but are mission-critical whenever they do. The primary ROI issue here is delays in responding, which can result in penalties, be they fines or contempt-of-court citations. But the success factor is more heavily risk-based than fiscal in nature, and it has more to do with measuring how quickly particular pieces of information can be retrieved and shared than with adding up operational expenditures.

These examples illustrate just how closely related records management is to "regular" content management, and yet how important the differences are between them. I often counsel my clients and students to approach the two in the same way and, if possible, at the same time so that the greatest economies and efficiencies can be achieved as they work toward making their organizations more agile. Unifying your strategy and implementation plans will enable you to tackle both sides in a single effort and deploy a well-integrated set of capabilities.

Macro steps reveal a broad view

There are three macro steps that can help you take a broad view in the initial stages of setting up a records management policy and automated procedures.

First, form a steering committee to oversee your records management planning or reconvene one you might already have in place. It is critical that all relevant perspectives -- records management, IT, legal, lines of business, finance -- be represented so nothing gets missed either from the document or the records side. Adding something to the policy later on can be difficult and costly, and it can engender a fair amount of ill will on the part of those left out of the planning process.

Next, review the records and classifications you have targeted and amend those classifications as needed. Here is where records and content management might part ways: While it is important to inventory your content and meta tags as part of any major information management program, it's essential in a records management environment, which ties retention schedules, disposal mechanisms and other specific practices to particular classifications in a way that broader document and content management programs might not.

Finally, validate the findings you made in that second step with the people and line-of-business functions identified in the first. That's so specific recommendations can be made on where improvements should be applied (by department, function, records type), what the nature of those improvements are to be (risk mitigation, enhanced compliance, cost reduction) and -- let's not forget -- how much improvement is expected (in time, dollars, throughput). This sounds simple, but the breadth of perspective and range of personalities involved can make it challenging indeed to reach a consensus.

The last bit of wisdom to impart has to do with the need to revisit all of this periodically, as mergers and acquisitions, product expansions, new regulations, heightened competitive threats and other business changes exert their influence on the way work gets done and recorded. With that in mind, it's important to treat your meeting minutes, recommended actions and measures of success as records unto themselves -- so you and your successors can see and understand all that you did and leverage that work in the future.

Steve Weissman is a consultant and best-practices instructor in process and information management. President of AIIM's New England Chapter and a Certified Information Professional, he is the principal analyst at Holly Group, where he works with clients on organizational strategy, requirements gathering, requests for proposal and user adoption initiatives with a goal of helping them to derive "maximum total value"from their IT investments. He can be reached at 617-383-4655 or

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