Monday, September 21, 2009

BPE 2009: collaboration

Robert Vitello and Bill Travis detail the origins and goals of the New York State Economic Security and Human Services Advisory Board, Best Practices Exchange, 3 September 2009.

[I had hopes of wrapping up my Best Practices Exchange blogging last week, but life had other plans. I really wish I could say that I'm slow blogging, but unfortunately I'm merely late blogging -- and at present there's no manifesto for that.]

One of the most interesting Best Practices Exchange sessions I attended highlighted a couple of really productive collaborations.

The first presenter, Nancy Adgent of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), discussed the Collaborative Electronic Records Project (CERP), which allowed the RAC and the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) to develop tools for the preservation of e-mail.

Although the two institutions had some common strengths -- forward-thinking and pro-active directors, similar collecting policies, and above-average staffing levels -- they differed in their governance structures, level of authority over records creators, funding streams, staffing levels, and the e-mail formats for which they were responsible. They also had to contend with the challenges posed by physical distance, the need to develop a new knowledge base, various administrative and staffing problems, and the SIA's quasi-governmental status, which eliminated several sources of funding that the RAC could have otherwise pursued.

These differences and challenges forced the RAC and the SIA to develop e-mail tools that could handle a variety of of e-mail formats. It also exposed a number of issues that other archives might encounter: inadvertent changes wrought by global software upgrades pushed out to the SIA's networked CERP computers (but not the RAC's machines, which remained offline), and differences in the capacity of various virus detection applications.

Nancy then provided a brief overview of the tools that CERP uses to process e-mail, among them Aid4Mail, which converts Microsoft PST files to Microsoft .msg format and allowed staff to identify and remove non-record messages, and various tools that convert messages in various formats to the MBOX format, which CERP's parser converts to XML for preservation purposes. She also discussed how CERP and the E-mail Collection and Preservation (EMCAP) project, which also sought to use XML to preserve e-mail, developed a common XML schema.

Nancy made a really great closing point: odd couples can produce some good offspring! Even though the RAC and the SIA produced different guidance products tailored to the needs of their respective donor communities and their own institution-specific workflow processes, procedures, and forms, they developed and tested common tools for processing and preserving e-mail. And they look like really great tools! We're anticipating a transfer of e-mail pretty soon, and I'm really looking forward to giving CERP's parser a spin.

The next presentation was delivered by two New York State agency CIO's -- Bill Travis of the Office of Children and Family Services and Robert Vitello of the Department of Labor -- and focused on the work of the New York State Economic Security and Human Services Advisory Board. It underscored how shared problems can sometimes give rise to really effective collaboration.

Several years before the State CIO took office, the State had purchased a suite of out-of-the-box products that had been purchased to manage various human services programs and services. CIOs of agencies that were using these products had begun meeting to discuss that problems they encountered as they tried to make these products fit the State's county-administred, state-supervised model of service provision.

The agencies ultimately informed the State CIO that they would not use these products, and she accepted their decision. However, she also challenged them to develop an enterprise-wide approach. For years, the federal government has forced state human services agencies to construct IT silos, but the situation has changed in recent years, and there is real potential for cost savings is (the board's member agencies account for 70 percent -- approximately $1 billion per year -- of the State's IT expenditures)

The board has established a series of guiding principles:
  • Provide for interoperability using open standards and seamless data sharing through common enterprise systems.
  • Deploy an "Open New York" community approach to facilitate peer review and enhance quality control.
  • Leverage prior IT investments with software reuse when feasible to achieve greater cost efficiencies.
  • Implement agile systems development approaches to improve speed to market
  • Establish strong enterprise governance to ensure alignment of technology plans with business goals
  • Seek innovative collaborations to leverage State enterprise IT resources and assets
More information about these guiding principles is outlined in the board's January 2008 strategy document, and information about the board's work appears in its September 2009 progress report.

I was really struck by how Travis, Vitello, and the other board members were able to capitalize on their willingness to pool their expertise and share information. Thanks to this combination of characteristics -- plus strong support from the State CIO -- they've been able to make real headway, and it will be interesting to see how their work evolves. I get the sense that my employer will be well-positioned to do so: the board is just starting to focus on e-discovery and its relationship to records management.

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