Managing Electronic Records Conference (MER) 2016

Last week I spent a very fun and engaging  time at the Managing Electronic Records (MER) Conference. The MER conference is held annually in downtown Chicago and brings together the different kinds of information management lifecycle experts from the legal, Records and Information Management (RIM), and IT fields to discuss the latest approaches in electronic information management.

Given the context of the Government of Canada (GC) IM work we do at Systemscope and its intimate relationship with electronic records management, I came to MER hoping to bring back some advanced thinking on electronic records management from an international perspective with a particular view to what other governments/public sector organizations are doing. Here are some of the themes, topics and discussions that stayed with me in particular:

Alternative Methods to the Usual GC Electronic Records Management

I came away from MER with no single answer to this, but with a much greater appreciation for the variety of methods employed. In general the approaches proposed both in the sessions attended and in discussions with various RIM practitioners stressed a similar difficulty in persuading business to own the problem.

One clear difference was the emphasis on Information Governance (IG) as the formal “synergy of disciplines” as one participant put it, that is over and above just records, information management or policy compliance. IG focuses on the “total information management governance” throughout the entirety of its lifecycle. As both a sell and a formalization of the relationships between RIM, IT, management, operations and legal, several sessions made a very convincing case for IG as a powerful paradigm that I think might take-off nicely in the National Capital Region as well.

Karen Knight and Carol Stainbrook further emphasized that IG “is the fulcrum upon which all disciplines tilt”, making such grandiose elevator pitches that organizations “achieve goals because of IG.”

Ultimately, they framed IG as the “building of alliances”, which is, in my view, a powerful and oft-missing element in our GC Electronic Document and Records Management (EDRM) projects. These are too often about the modelling and the design, and not enough about building of alliances with the business so necessary for the process to work.

A particularly interesting approach was offered by Teresa Britton and William Sulima, who, flying in the face of a typical activity or function-based approach, promoted an explicitly organization based design for their EDRMS. The reason being precisely why we avoid it: organizations change so much, and so frequently…And that is exactly what they wanted to keep track of. Forcing the system to change along with the organization forces both parties to stay in constant communication. Linking RIM with everyday business, by means of a tool is the which is the real intent and driving force behind an EDRMS

Chatting with Mr. Sulima afterwards, he stressed to me that the challenges lay not so much in the shifting org chart as in keeping the different decentralized records managers in-line with the centralized RM policy and implementation approach.

Integrating case or event based retention and disposition periods

I got a very fascinating proposition on how to do this in a discussion over lunch with a records manager from a California energy regulation facility. While we both agreed that it was incredibly difficult to actively engage business in RM processes such as closing a case or file (hence the huge bugbear of event-based retention triggers in the GC), there were compromise methods that might help. He basically suggested you could attach an averaged-out time-based retention period for a given set of closed files based on previous data or criteria. This would mean that instead of kicking off at the signal from an end-user (which we know is very hard to get them to provide), a time-based retention based on best-knowledge would be applied, not as an end in itself, but as prompt to get end-users to converse with you about the actual situation. Very clever…

“If you have RM but no schedule, your tool will not bring you a lot of value.”

User-acceptance and training

There was a lot of debate around users especially in connection with the right way to frame RIM and IG requirements. However, the concept of “usability” as such was presented less about offering new gadgets to users and more about confronting the reality of forcing the users to classify objects in the least intrusive manner possible. In particular, Jim Coulson’s presentation “Are RIM Managers Asking Too Much of the Business?” introduced the very useful concept of the “minimum ask” as a guiding principle I think applies equally well to GC RIM – what is the least I can get away with demanding of my users? Jim’s answer was simply to get them to determine if it was a record or not, and have RM take care of the rest. The debate at the end of this session further hinged on whether asking even that much was too much.

The concept of “document vs record” in an EDRM

The concept of “transitory” information (or non-IRBV in GC lingo) was framed very frequently by the legal professionals at the conference as the difference between a “document” and a “record”. The debate got quite interesting during a presentation in which a lawyer (John Isaza, Esq). and a New Jersey judge (Hon.  Ronald Hedges) debated the audience over what can be considered a “convenience copy” and when, even if it is an original document that has been scanned. In the end, there ended up being a distinction for information as required in a legal context, versus a document management context, versus a records management context, versus a business continuity context… “Record” applied to all of these. I informed some of the attendees of the idea of “Information Resources of Business Value” in Canada, which not many found helpful…In the end we agreed that “information” plain and simple in combination with its business context was probably the most useful terminology to employ.

Overall, the conference was quite illuminating and touched on a much broader range of subjects than I had anticipated. It gave me confidence that the framework of Information Governance and its subsidiary branches were applicable and indeed quite useful concepts in the framing of GC IM projects.

Jason Abdelhadi is an information management professional who has had experience doing IM work for both the federal government and in charitable organizations. He has worked on a variety of IM initiatives including enterprise information architecture, GCDOCS and EDRMS implementations, IRBV identification as well as user experience design and testing. Jason has a multifaceted educational background that speaks to interests in information technology, library and information science and the humanities.


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