If you keep an eye out during your day, you will see a lot of paper floating around. Much of it started out digitally. People may be printing copies for convenience, but the original electronic file is sitting on a computer somewhere. When it comes to records, the same behavior applies. There are a lot of physical records, but most of those records have a digital origin.
Your organization should be managing as many of its records as possible electronically. While it may be too much work to scan all of your older records, you need to be managing newer records as electronic documents in an electronic records management system. As we will see in a moment, this approach enables you to perform enhanced tasks and reduces the burden on your records managers.
What is electronic records management?
Electronic records management (ERM) is the management of electronic files and documents as records. The key difference between ERM and the traditional records management of physical records is the focus. ERM captures records as part of a digital business process. You are preserving the original digital records, not paper copies that pile up in boxes in storerooms or warehouses. This enables you to create efficiencies by improving automation of your business activities, providing accurate auditing and applying your records schedules reliably.
Why do you need ERM?
ERM is a key component of any digital transformation strategy and information governance effort. Many organizations have an deep fear of ERM efforts because they have a history of adding risk and overhead to projects. But the reality is that when you view ERM as part of your information management efforts, you can realize great gains for your business. By managing records electronically, you can automatically capture document metadata, which your ERM can use for identifying records, categorizing them, and facilitating their retrieval. Additionally, your records managers can place tighter controls on the files, and eliminating duplicate copies becomes a simple maintenance task.
Digital records management helps ensure that information is captured, older versions are removed and people can find the right information when they need it. It helps you understand past decisions and respond to eDiscovery requests, because you can quickly find all relevant evidence. You can also prove that any requested document that has reached the end of its records retention schedule is truly gone.
In addition, ERM helps you achieve and quickly prove your compliance with internal policies and external requirements, so your organization can get back to delivering on its mission.
What are the most important capabilities of a modern electronic records management system?
ERM systems have been around since the late 1990s. For years, they integrated with leading document management systems. As electronic records increased, file plans, automated disposition of records and integration with archiving software became standard features of document management solutions.
However, systems that simply copy records management practices from the physical to digital world miss out on many of the benefits of working with electronic information. Therefore, modern ERM systems understand that your digital files are not going to be created in or reside in the same location; they must be able to manage and ingest records automatically from multiple source (e.g., SharePoint, file stores and email). Those records must then be readily available to people regardless of their business context.
ERM systems also need to be able to manage records in place. Records are not stale snapshots that are taken and then archived. Records provide information that can drive business processes throughout the organization.
There are two additional important features of a modern ERM system: auto-classification and records federation. Both of them help people focus more on their work and less on the records management happening around them.
- Auto-classification is essential for accuracy and completeness. Even people with the best intentions are fallible and will make mistakes when declaring records. Other people will simply skip the task altogether; the biggest lie ever told to a records manager is, “I will declare those as records after lunch.” Making the declaration of records automatic removes the burden from your employees and ensures records are declared and managed properly.
- Federated records management enables you to manage records where they live. Historically, ERMs ingested all electronic files and placed them in a central repository. This led to problems when people needed to find, access and use content after it had been declared a record. Federation enables an ERM to reach out to other systems, identify records and place them under proper management and retention schedules — without negatively impacting business processes.
How do you choose an ERM system?
To choose the right ERM system for your organization, you need to take into account two main factors: your current level of risk exposure and the maturity of your information management systems. These are tightly coupled together but will drive your decision process from two distinct angles.
When considering risk, look at how records are currently managed. Are they already stored in a management system? Even if it is not a proper ERM, having your electronic information already in an information management application is a good start. If something happened, you could likely find what you needed. If, on the other hand, your records are on people’s personal network drives and shared via email, that is a high-risk situation.
This brings us to the maturity of your current information management infrastructure. Many organizations are using a mix of systems to store their information. This is normal, since different groups in the organizations work with information in different ways and they need systems that match how they work. More mature organizations realize this and ensure that the systems used are known and fit within the broader architecture. Organizations with less mature information management infrastructures aren’t even sure what is out there beyond email and financial management tools.
Looking at these two factors, you can determine whether your organization needs a system that can also serve as a repository for some of your records. On the other hand, you might need an ERM that simply acts as a policy manager, applying controls to records where they are currently living. Knowing where you are and where you are going will make a big difference in picking the right ERM.
The real question isn’t whether your organization needs an ERM; it’s what kind of system you need and how much work you need to do to improve your digital processes first. ERMs work best when they are integrated into your business processes, so having your processes defined and digital is always a good first step.
Remember, implementing an ERM is more than just solving a records problem. It is the final step of managing your digital world and bringing your digital processes under control. Capturing records enables your organization to look back and determine how to do things better. Only by fully grasping the size and scope of your electronic information can you truly prepare your organization for the digital world of the next decade.