Best Practices for Electronic Records Management

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Community Topic(s): ERM


Records management is a process by which an institution organizes and manages its information assets. Formal processes have existed for at least some four thousand years, since Mesopotamians began using blunt reeds to press symbols onto clay tablets known as cuneiform documents to record land, grain, and cattle transactions.

Other than by virtue of scale and rudimentary improvements, however, the science of records management really did not leap forward by an order of magnitude until the latter half of the 20th century, with the wide-scale adoption of business computing and the miracle of electronic records management (ERM), which computers made possible. Prior to that time it improved only in increments: by means of better writing instruments, such as paper, typewriters, and the printing press; more robust storage mechanisms, such as file cabinets and microfilm; and methods of duplication, including the mimeograph and photocopy machines.

Sadly, many organizations today, both large and small, still have not fully realized the manifold benefits of ERM, despite the penetration of inexpensive and powerful personal computer into virtually every enterprise. This is because far too many records still consist of paper-based office documents, which are difficult to control, and because management has not made the commitment to invest in ERM and take the necessary steps to implement it.

In the article that follows, we will explain each of those steps.

Mind your “Four Cs”: compliance, cost, collaboration, and (business) continuity
Solutions fall into three main categories: Enterprise Content Management (ECM), ERM, and Email Management. With these three tools, we can address the key business drivers, or benefits, identified as “The Four Cs:” Compliance, Cost, Collaboration and (business) Continuity.

Properly employed, these three tools will help your company meet compliance goals for civil litigation and government regulations; reduce business costs; enable collaboration both within and without the organization; and help to ensure that the business can sustain the loss of key employees and other threats.

Take a holistic approach
For optimal productivity, organizations must take a holistic approach to managing their data. Policies and processes must address information across the entire enterprise. In recent years, we have seen technology often applied as narrow solutions: isolated efforts to scan paper records; capture emails; create isolated collaboration forums; and manage functional collections of information. This has lead to separate repositories of electronic “information silos” that hinder the sharing and proper management of data.

Assign responsibility at the top
To be successful, records management must start at the top. A senior executive must be held accountable. There is a growing, but not yet universal understanding of this fact within the business community. Management often shuns the term “records management,” opting instead for somewhat slippery descriptors such as “compliance and information” or “knowledge management.” Records management is a not a dirty word; it is a precise, transparent term – it means what it says, and it says what it means – and it does not connote a lowly function. On the contrary, organizations that really get it assign responsibilities for records management to the chief information officer or senior legal executive.

Create a recognized, central discipline within the enterprise
Similar to the human resources and finance specialties, organizations must have information- and records-management professionals employed in a central function. These professionals should partner with legal staff and IT staff to ensure that information is managed in a way to achieve compliance and ediscovery requirements. Records-management professionals are also needed to support policy development and maintenance, to provide oversight of information management systems, perform legal research, coordinate ediscovery and disclosure demands, and to develop standards, procedures, and guidelines. They should also have direct oversight and responsibility for any physical (hard-copy) record repositories.

Create a common language and controlled vocabulary
To collaborate and share information, organizations must develop information management structures and terminologies that everyone can understand. This will promote a common understanding throughout the enterprise, support the retrieval of information from throughout the organization, and provide a user-friendly means of dealing with information.

Create classification schemes
An information and records-classification scheme is a management control structure that represents a controlled vocabulary structure. We have comparable devices in the human resources and accounting specialties. Think about your organizational chart and the chart of accounts. These two charts have been around for so long, and have been so widely accepted and understood for so long that we take them for granted. In an organization that truly understands the importance of records management, all employees will receive a chart detailing the flow of records and responsibilities for them.

Like the organizational chart and the chart of accounts, this classification scheme needs to be maintained and changes and improvements should be made as new concerns arise from employees, auditing staff, and external sources. A systematic approach is required. I like to use the analogy of wanting to hire a records management assistant. Clearly, if my organization has not approved a director of records management position, the chances are quite slim that they will approve this hiring effort.

Apply standard indexing terms across the organization via metadata
For decades before ERM, we have been applying indexing terms to hard-copy information and records. During this period, we were limited by the amount of information we could put on file folder labels and boxes and even the old four-by-six-inch index cards. Worse still, we had no means of rapidly searching through these indexing terms.

But today, we can employ “metadata” – essentially create “information about information” to categorize all of our electronic records, vastly increasing the speed and simplicity with which we can sort through them. Think about the labels you put on file boxes at home to describe the sort of information they hold – e.g. “health records,” “income tax records,” “photographs,” and so forth. That’s metadata in its simplest form.

Wikipedia describes the term as follows: “metadata means data about data elements or attributes (name, size, data type, etc), and data about records or data structures (length, fields, columns, etc), and data about data (where it is located, how it is associated, ownership, etc.). Metadata may include descriptive information about the context, quality and condition, or characteristics of the data.”

Keep it simple
With ERM, we have the ability to apply an unlimited amount of metadata to our information and records, but it’s important to limit the burden placed on company staff. The key is to identify what metadata can be captured from our computer systems and associated computer applications without the input of the users. Organizations need to develop a metadata model that will be used throughout the organization. A metadata model is a collection of approved names and descriptions that will be used to manage and retrieve information and records throughout the organization.

A wonderful feature of computer applications is that they can force the application of metadata and allow only the use of approved terms. Fields can be designed in the computer applications with drop-down menus and required checklists. Below are just a few standard metadata headings in use by many public and private concerns:

Accessibility: Addressee: Aggregation: Audience: Contributor: Coverage: Creator: Date: Description: Digital signature: Disposal: Format: Identifier: Language: Location: Mandate: Preservation: Publisher: Relation: Rights: Source: Status: Title: Type:

Train staff and hold them accountable
For effective ERM, each employee must understand and appreciate the importance of information and records. Information and records cannot be considered merely as byproducts of office work but as essential components of compliance, business performance, strategic goals, and ethical standards.

Far too often records management is still carried out in a reactive mode. Office workers, for instance, often create work and then simply dump it on their C drives or shared drives, or let emails get buried in their inbox or sent folders. The result is that their work becomes lost or difficult to find, and they often waste substantial time and effort looking for this information later. Employees should work in a proactive way: When first creating or receiving information, they should do something with it quickly: either destroy it, if it has no value to the organization, or capture it in a repository where it will be properly managed and available for quick retrieval and use.

Essential computer applications
Effective records management cannot be achieved without the effective use of information and records-management software, including the following applications:

  • Capture and scanning management
  • Classification/file plan management
  • Retention and disposition management
  • Access and library management
  • Storage management
  • Email and other communication management

These programs can help you manage both electronic and physical records. They provide powerful search capabilities to locate information generated by you or stored in other locations and divisions and across all information formats.

Getting rid of what you don’t need or shouldn’t have is almost as important as saving and classifying what you do need. Thus information and records that have no value to the organization should be destroyed promptly, in the normal course of business. It's also important to standardize on one ERM platform. It’s not uncommon to find organizations using a number of different records management solutions across their locations or divisions, resulting in different ERM repositories that do not allow information to be shared.

Institute training and change management
To achieve effective ERM, senior management must lay out a strategy and institute training and change management throughout the organization. They should begin by communicating the need for a culture of good governance and compliance. Employees must understand that the consequences of failure can even lead to jail time for individuals and substantial fines and sanctions against the organization, to say nothing of lost revenues and a tarnished company name.

Point out the positives
At the same time, however, employees need to be educated on the many positive benefits they will experience. Dealing with information and records in a structured way can make life a lot easier. If classification schemes and indexing are well-thoughtout, simple, and intuitive, individuals will not have to “reinvent the wheel,” wasting precious time and energy when creating records, accessing them, or storing them. Recently I was talking to a partner at a law firm that was introducing an electronic document records management system. His most telling comment was: “I just want to be able to find my records”. That’s the bottom line. Employees should be left free to concentrate on doing their jobs, instead of trying to decide what labels they should apply to records or trying to decide where they should be stored.

Avoid techie jargon
You should solicit users' active input, however, when creating classification schemes and metadata, because you'll want to know how they describe their daily activities to understand what terms make sense. Above all, avoid the seductive trap of "jargon". Do not become over-impressed with your own intelligence and create terms and labels that only you can understand. That can be the kiss of death to even the best-intentioned records management program.

Based on an original article by Carl Weise, CRM, and an AIIM trainer. The article, Best Practices in Electronic Records Management, was written for the May/June 2009 issue of Infonomics and can be read at http://www.aiim.org/Infonomics/Best-Practices-Electronic-Records-Mgmt.aspx


The wiki text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License agreement.