Is It Ever Okay to Copy "Final" Documents to a Separate System?

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Keywords: SharePoint, ECM, Records Management, ERM

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I had two very similar and very surprising discussions with different clients this week. Both organizations have mature ECM implementations and in both cases have had their ECM programs in place for more than a decade. The original mandate of their programs was to manage all information through its entire lifecycle, following AIIM's advice to capture, store, manage, deliver and preserve all unstructured content.

But a funny thing happened on the way to ECM nirvana.  Both organizations decided to pursue a "parallel" strategy; one system for collaboration and work-in-progress documents and one for "official records" or final versions (often copies) of documents that have completed the collaboration cycle (and yes, the rise of SharePoint plays a part in this decision, but that's a discussion for another day).

I will freely admit my first reaction was "are you nuts?" After all, as a red-blooded ECM professional my mission in life is to reduce duplication and promote information lifecycle management. But I'm always willing to listen to both sides of any story (and they're my clients so they're always right, right?).

On the positive side, establishing a process to manage only final copies of records mirrors the paper world; if an organization has a well-established physical file management system why not try to replicate that in the electronic world?  The other benefits are that final versions of documents are more likely to have a natural structure which leads to more intuitive metadata and greater discoverability (at least in theory), and content disposition is simplified because the retention schedule for "official" copies is often easier to determine.

On the other hand, isn't the point of ECM to manage information through it's lifecycle?  If we are never going to achieve true ECM why do it at all? You also have the problem of costs; the cost to train people to know when to move a document to its final state and to know where to put it can be high; this is especially true if those people don’t attend training or if they do, still choose not to move final copies to the approved location.  The alternative is to assume that any documents that need to be moved to an official repository will be managed by administrative personnel. Again, this increases costs and impacts efficiency, both areas ECM is intended to improve.  And there are always the potential risks (and risks always translate into costs one way or the other) from duplicate content in multiple systems. This is gravy for lawyers in an eDiscovery process because it creates the possibility of confusion about which version was used to make a decision.

At the end of the day it is difficult to say definitively which is the best approach. Every organization is unique and has its own history, business drivers, processes and rationale for certain courses of action.  General ECM best practice would dictate that information is managed through its lifecycle using a single system or at least seamlessly integrated systems, but this isn't always possible. What I will say is that minimizing duplication and streamlining business processes through good information management usually means managing the information lifecycle. This should be the approach wherever possible and I suspect in most cases this will be the most cost effective approach in the long term.

Ensuring you have a good understanding of the capabilities of your current platform will also help; in many cases the traditional ECM tool may be perceived to have "failed" but in fact meets all of your functional requirements. The other alternative is to look into the possibility of integrating a collaboration platform with a system of record. Even if the truth is both of these platforms are technically capable of managing the information lifecycle, if users perceive that one is better than the other for a particular task you will have more success managing more content, and that's really what we are trying to achieve.


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Wess Jolley

I feel their pain...

We are blessed(?) to be at the nexus of three infrastructure changes here at Dartmouth College, where I am the Records Manager:

* SharePoint 2010 in the cloud,
* a new Records and Content Management System,
* and a new file sharing system.

I know we're going to be faced with exactly the decision and scenario described in this post. The problem is, we don't feel SharePoint gives us all the Records Management, workflow and automation robustness we want, and we don't feel any of the ECM products we're looking at give us the collaboration and communication tools we're after. So taking the approach of tight integration, and declaring records out of SharePoint and into the ECM system is likely where we'll end up. At least for some systems.

I'd love to hear comments from others who are facing this same challenge!

--Wess Jolley, CRM
Records Manager
Dartmouth College
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Frederic Lorrain

Very common case

I have implemented such process many times for several customers?
In SharePoint the team collaborate on the document but the final version could be a signed document and/or PDF file that will be stored somewhere else for security or legal reasons (like Documentum).

There is alson the case when SharePoint is only used for collaboration and there is already another ECM in place.
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Cathy Redford

Standardized drop-down menus

We can easily identify all "final" documnts in our ECM repository. We have a field using a drop-down menu for the status of a document. Three fields would indiate the document is "final" -- (1) FINAL - for docs such as polices and guidelines, (2) SIGNED - for docs such as contracts and leases, or (3) FILED - for docs that would get filed with a government or regulatory office. We can search using that field, as well as other criteria -- in our quest for "one version of the truth."
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Ryan Buerger

ECM and Collaboration Coexist

"If we are never going to achieve true ECM why do it at all?" This statement seems to reflect the current state of IT consulting. If you can't achieve the ideal and conform to the desired end state of ECM why even bother? There is value to achieving some of the goals of ECM, it is not an all or nothing proposition. We happen to be in a similar situation to what you described above.

ECM at our company started as just storing final versions of documents for archiving and retention. But as additional goals were identified, i.e. the reduction of paper waste, electronic processes with more advanced audit control, and greater visibility into documents to complete a job, we found something. The traditional ECM vendors had bad collaboration tools. So although the ideal was end to end ECM in a central system the reality was the vendor space was not ready for this.

SharePoint did play a role in this, as collaborative capabilities were shown to provide high value to existing business processes. Obviously many of these processes required forms/paper in some form. Replacing these forms with electronic copies did not remove the need that we had initially started with. So we ended up with an enterprise ECM system for retention and discovery, with an enterprise collaboration system for content creation. Your content creation systems are rarely the same as your ECM systems.
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Greg Clark

I agree

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your comments. I agree completely that we shouldn't ignore quick wins or implementing point solutions on a path to true enterprise content management. This was the premise of my last blog post which you can find here:

At the end of the day our job is to provide solutions that align with and enable the core business of our organizations, and we should never let "perfect" get in the way of delivering real value.
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Irina Maria Kuhnen

Real practice differs from ECM best practice

I strongly believe what Frederic Lorrain says: it is neither surprising nor funny, but probably the most common case.

We actually face the same questions, but have this: our writing system ist different from our ECM system, even though both are interacting with each other at various stages. During document creation, involved parties write/contribute/comment/discuss, and this can produce quite a few (minor) versions, all in a 'draft' status.

A ready-to-implement approval workflow will link both systems: a fully finalized document enters the process in a 'proposed' state, will then be approved, which triggers a status change to 'released' with a major version, which again triggers pdf-rendering and publication to our ECM system, where these records are captured for the management of their other lifecycle phases.
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Thomas Martin

We're on this road too.

It's a very pertainent question for us too. We have big Portals, but you have to file to them (and nobody does). Sharepoint is unstructured and wild with few best practices. We are envisioning 2 possible solutions. Before either, we restructure Sharepoint to be more organized and metadata rich, with as much automated (default) metadata as we can. Next, give options to immediately file to Portals for broader visibility and longer term storage. If we don't do this, users will work in secret until THEY are ready to reveal. Second, investigate sweeping the Sharepoint sites and automatically "filing" the documents after preset periods. It's not perfect, but that's what our culture will allow.
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