Thursday, October 2, 2008

NYS Electronic Records Symposium

Today, I attended Taming the Wild Frontier: EDMS Implementations for State and Local Government, one of an ongoing series of electronic records symposia sponsored by the NYS Archives’ Regional Advisory Committees (Regions 3 & 4 for today's event), the State Records Advisory Committee, the NYS Association of Local Government Records Officers, the and NYS Association of County Clerks. The Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library graciously allowed us to use its brand-new, attractive, and environmentally friendly facility.

Steve Goodfellow of Access Systems Consulting kicked off the morning by providing a working definition of an electronic document management system (EDMS): a system that facilitates access to scanned and born-digital documents (e.g., e-mail, GIS data, reports from other systems, office productivity suite files). According to Steve, EDMS’s are distinct from: imaging systems, which convert paper records to electronic form; electronic content management systems; which also support management of Web sites; and electronic records management systems, which also support development and application of records schedules and allow for legal holds.

EDMS’s can offer a lot of benefits: faster and more convenient access, cross referencing and searching capability, reduction of paper volume, managing of compliance needs (records schedules, security, authenticity), and improvement of collaboration and workflow.

EDMS projects typically start because someone wants to be more efficient, get to information more quickly, comply with records schedules, or improve collaboration and information sharing. However, some people decide that they want an EDMS because they want to get rid of paper records that are taking up space. Steve strongly emphasized -- and other presenters seconded this point throughout the day -- that this is not a good reason to initiate an EDM project. People who simply want paper to disappear will not engage in the careful planning needed to make the project a success.

Steve then outlined how to develop a successful EDMS:
  • Understand your current process and workflows: work processes vary from unit to unit, and in many units, different people do things differently. You really need to understand how things are currently being done -- looking both at the forest and the trees -- and avoid assuming that the vendor’s default, e.g., accounts processing routine will meet your needs.
  • Complete a full-scale business process analysis and draw upon it when designing your system; simply throwing technology at a dysfunctional work process won’t fix it. If at all possible, conduct your needs assessment and business process analysis before talking to vendors. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you want and need, you can easily become overly impressed with features and “neat stuff” that might not be all that useful to you.
  • Review and update your organization’s policies and procedures and make sure that all employees are aware of them. You may need to develop training for new and veteran staff.
  • Clearly define project roles and responsibilities. Every EDMS project needs: a project leader to guide the initial implementation and subsequent expansion; a system owner who is in charge of the EDMS; a technical systems administrator who provides backend support; a business process analyst who studies existing and proposed workflows; an application administrator responsible for developing indexes, applying retention schedules, etc.; and a system support resource that end users know to contact in the event of a problem. Bad project management has killed off many a worthy EDM project.
  • Devote lots of attention to designing index fields that are appropriate and reasonable in number. People are busy enough; they will avoid using a system that forces them to do large amounts of additional work. Developing a set of index terms that is “good enough for now” is a surefire way to make everyone miserable. Careful planning upfront will save a lot of effort and heartache down the road. Try to be logical: if your paper system organizes records by, e.g., case number and this approach more than meets your needs, why insist upon twenty additional terms? A handful may suffice.
  • Think about retention, disposition, and preservation of records that have long-term or permanent value. Your system will be replaced some day, and the data within it will be migrated. Avoid systems that will make these actions more difficult. Keep in mind that every record added to the system will eventually need to have a schedule applied and that you may need to apply legal holds, etc., to some records in the system.
  • Throughout the project and afterward, communicate with staff. Provide staff with initial training, follow-up sessions, and use training sessions or focus groups to identify any problems that end users have -- and be sure to address these problems ASAP.
The remainder of the symposium was devoted to breakout sessions in which state and local government personnel discussed their own EDM projects, lessons learned, and next steps. Highlights of the presentations I attended:
  • Jay Ruparel of Sunrise Systems discussed the two EDMS’s that his firm is building for the New Jersey Division of Archives and Records Management (NJDARM). One will allow NJDARM to create and update its records retention schedules for state and local government, review requests to destroy records that have reached the end of their retention period (NJDARM’s legal control over records destruction is substantially greater than that of the NYS Archives!), run reports, and provide some online services to state agencies. The other will allow local governments to track paper and electronic records, submit records destruction requests to NJDARM, provide access to shared scanning and COM services, and produce management reports. The systems are in the pilot phase of development, but they seem extraordinarily promising.
  • Steve Goodfellow and Diane Myers, Tammy Hayes, and Suzanne Palmer of the Madison County (N.Y.) Department of Social Services discussed the development of an EDMS used to manage the department’s case files. They carefully planned the pilot project and made sure that their test users consisted of senior and veteran employees at all levels of the organization. They also devoted a lot of thought to indexing and quality control; every item that is scanned goes into a holding pen until a supervisor confirms that it is legible and properly indexed. Finally, in order to save time and reduce confusion, the department scans all records from 2006-01-01 onward at the point of receipt; as a result, everyone knows that all records received before this date are in paper form. Each staffer who does the scanning keeps a box at his or her desk and files paper originals chronologically. Once the box is full, it goes to remote storage; in the event that another staffer needs to retrieve the paper original, he or she uses the EDMS to identify the date it was scanned and the name of the staffer who scanned it and then has the appropriate box retrieved from storage.
  • Kevin Broderick of the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal detailed his agency’s development of an EDMS that manages its case files. He reinforced, charmingly and vividly, many of the points that Steve Goodfellow made earlier that day. He debunked the Big Hopper Theorem, the false but all-too-common belief that an organization can simply dump documents into an EDMS and have the system sort them out. He also stressed the difference between pitching and throwing: to be a good pitcher, you have to think about your situation and figure out how you’re going to deliver a given pitch. A good scanning project demands the same analysis and care. He also refuted the widespread and erroneous notion that an EDMS is a “virtual shredder” that frees up physical space that could be used to house additional staff, etc. In reality, there is no free lunch: vendors typically charge $.10-$.15 per image, and there are other costs associated with developing and implementing an EDMS. Reducing the amount of physical office or storage space might offset the cost of implementing an EDMS, but it might not.
At the end of the day, my very cool colleague Andy Raymond offered the following summary of the day's discussions:
  • All of us have huge problems managing electronic records—hence the theme of today’s symposium. All of the protocols we’ve developed for paper records must be applied, albeit in different ways, to electronic records, the volume of which continues to increase.
  • We can see the functionality and potential functionality of EDMS’s: these systems can help us get a grip on the ever-increasing volume of electronic records. However, with great potential comes great complexity and, for the most part, substantial expense.
  • Implementing these systems will lead us to a new paradigm of records management. In the past, we’ve allowed individual units, agencies, etc. to develop their own records management records programs. We need to move to a more collaborative solution. The complexity of EDMS’s will force us to work with other units in our organizations and with outside entities that have similar needs. For many of us, that’s new and challenging.
  • In a time of reduced budgets, hiring freezes, and fiscal crises, our organizations are under pressure to sustain existing levels of service and meet new challenges. How can we do this? What are the next steps for us?
All in all, a wonderful and, to put it mildly, information-packed day. We all have a lot to think about.

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