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Modern records management: 'It's not the format, stupid'

Modern records management has to incorporate a range of data types, including the unstructured data that resides in email and social media.

Previously, records management centered on putting important pieces of paper into boxes and storing those boxes in a safe location -- just in case they were needed in the future.

Today, however, savvy observers recognize that the discipline involves many media types other than paper and, increasingly, information outlets that may not even be under an organization's control. The question is how to adapt to this modern records management environment.

The key is to train people to become familiar with all the electronic media channels.

In the center of the crosshairs are, of course, the likes of such corporate mainstays as email messages, PDF files and digital images, as well as more social dispatches like Tweets, texts, blog posts and Facebook status updates. The content in these communications types is no less potentially records-worthy than the information stored in long-familiar hard-copy "documents," so they must be included in any cohesive records strategy -- even if it requires bringing some psychological comfort to the obstinate old-fashioned records manager in charge.

Keep your eye on the evidence

Step one in modern-day records management is to help your organization understand that new technologies don't change the definition of a record and thus don't affect the fundamental responsibility of anyone engaged in the records management process. As I noted previously, a "record" is documented evidence of an organization's activities, and information qualifies for the designation based on the value of the content that resides in it, not the format. This means that the same record stored on paper, as a TIFF image or in a voice recording all share equal potential importance. The medium, like the format, is irrelevant.

This means that any artifact that attests to a particular event having taken place potentially qualifies as a record, whether it's a birth certificate, an X-ray, an audiotape of a customer service interaction, a contract approval stamp (physical or virtual), the sending and receipt of an email, or (perish the thought) a text containing an insider trading tip. The importance of the information is the same regardless of how it is communicated.

Spread the word

Despite the logic of this chain of thought, plenty of people -- including, surprisingly, many records professionals -- still cling to the notion that records must exist on paper in order for it to be considered a record. This is a function of how long paper has performed the function and how long records managers have performed theirs. But times and technology are changing the discipline of records management, and organizations must change outmoded perceptions to address modern-day records management needs.

Most often, the key is to train people to become familiar with all the electronic media channels and their potential to create records. Take, for example, a scenario in which two board-level executives create an email thread to discuss an acquisition strategy. This electronic conversation may need to be treated as a record because it is evidence that a meeting was held and, especially if they reach agreement, that a decision was made, even though all critical information resides digitally, not on paper.

Bring the outside in

Now consider the same scenario but substitute social media for email. Imagine a marketing vice president engaging a customer in a Twitter- or Facebook-based discussion to resolve a problem with an account. Properly handled, the end result is a decision that needs to be captured as a matter of record. But Twitter and Facebook are third-party organizations that have their own infrastructure separate from the enterprise. Even if the direct-messaging function keeps the matter private, the online conversation is stored on Twitter or Facebook servers -- that is, externally to the organization. How, then, can this "record" be captured?

For more on modernizing records management:

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Records management and SharePoint

Screenshots are an option and can store the conversation as it happens. More efficient, however, are tools that enable the downloading of Tweets and direct messages for local backup and storage. Similarly, RSS feeds can bring public conversations inside an organization so they can be combed for record worthiness.

The good news is that ingesting such material is relatively automated; the less-than-good news is that it can be difficult to devise the keywords necessary to automate this search process. Still, if your organization actively uses social media, it is worth developing a monitoring process, even if only every few months.

Play tag (you're it!)

Keywords raise a final point, which is that metadata is the thread that ties old and new together. Just as these descriptive tags enable search of records and "regular" content, they also unify old-school and modern-day business records.

A major challenge is that social media content tends not to be as structured as, say, Word documents. Some handles, for example, can be a starting point; Twitter, for instance, has the @ or direct message to which it is an addressee), a unique Twitter ID, date and time sent, and perhaps a hashtag, which may or may not represent the Tweet's subject. From here, it may be a matter of developing a mapping capability to match, say, the @username in a Tweet to a username in the company directory.

New technologies fuel records management strategy

As social media becomes more mainstream, it contributes to the urgency of incorporating these new record types into daily operations. For organizations that have internalized mobile devices into their infrastructure, this need is especially acute as more users do work from locations beyond the four walls of the enterprise and, thus, the IT departments' direct reach.

Even old-fashioned records managers acknowledge that their world is changing as these new information channels take hold and expand the data formats that must be incorporated into a records management strategy. But habit and hesitation often hold them back. It takes education and training to bring modern records management to the enterprise -- not to mention a whole lot of hand-holding.

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