Catalyst or cataclysm?
Now comes a shift in perspective that is reshaping ideas about what is required for good--or at least adequate--records management, the cumulative result of subtle changes over the past several years. Thanks to high-profile investigation, litigation, and regulation, RIM topics have moved from industry journals to general business magazines and even to the mainstream press, ending the image of RIM as a custodial function in the minds of many. Meanwhile smaller, subtler changes have occurred as well, and their cumulative effects will have an impact for years to come.
The coming change in RIM is like an earthquake at sea, washing a tidal wave over the entire profession. Broadly, it goes to the heart of why, how, and by whom records are managed. It has the power to drive progress and move issues forward, but it will also threaten basic tenets, accepted principles, and conventional knowledge. The force for change has many positive aspects in that things that languished will finally get done; but it may well divide records practitioners into two classes: those who learned records management in a paper-based world and are trying to adapt that knowledge to fit the electronic age, and those who, like the records they manage, have only lived in a digital world.
Changes in Discovery and Settlement
The justification for RIM, once based largely on avoiding legal discovery and settlement costs, has shifted. The pendulum on discovery costs is starting to swing from defendant to plaintiff: In Kubulake vs. UBS Warburg, a gender discrimination suit, UBS Warburg estimated its costs to produce e-mail in response to Kubulake's discovery request at $250,000. The company asked the court to consider making the plaintiff share the costs of document production. Kubulake countered that she was only one individual with limited resources, not a major corporation. The court held that Kubulake should pay $75,000 toward the cost of e-marl production for use in her case.
Given the costs associated with discovery and the knowledge that many companies want to avoid those costs, settlement demands have escalated in recent years. But, in another sign of change, some companies refuse to be intimidated by the threat of what may or may not be found in their records, choosing to take their chances in court rather than be intimidated by extortionist settlement demands. Pharmaceutical firm Bayer AG devised a two-part strategy for settlement of product liability lawsuits on its Baycol product, setting a range of amounts payable to those actually harmed and aggressively contesting other claims. In a turnabout on the usual practice of plaintiffs' demands for overreaching discovery, Bayer won an order requiring plaintiffs to document injury in order to proceed, a ruling that is expected to dismiss half of the 6,200 remaining Baycol cases.
Discovery costs and litigation will remain risk factors that can be met with sound records management, but the work of groups such as the Sedona Conference, a research and education institute dedicated to the advanced study of law and policy, will contain or erode these costs in the future.
Why Manage Records Redux
Displacing the emphasis on legal matters, broad-based legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley has had enormous effect on the RIM industry. The realization that records management is an important part of compliance has changed the perspectives of everyone responsible for controlling corporate risk, a fact not lost on the technology market. Forrester Research claims that the records management imperative is driving enterprise content management technologies, a market expected to be worth $1 billion by 2006. Forrester sets the compound annual growth rate (CAGR, that is, the year-over-year growth rate from a base amount) for RIM at 59 percent by 2006. To get an idea of how large this is, consider that the CAGR for the electronic storage market is about 20 percent.
Lucrative markets attract new players. The diversity is good in that many ideas are represented; it is bad in that, without a codified body of knowledge or best practice, everybody and anybody can claim RIM expertise regardless of their experience or depth of understanding, and this is already happening.
Lawyers are getting into the records business as consultants who advise their clients on discovery strategy, e-mail retention, and other records-related topics. One attorney author advises clients to save e-mail according to the job titles in organizations, so that all e-mail for the president, vice-presidents, board members, and others in senior-level positions would be kept forever. As most RIM professionals know, this practice, if followed, is tantamount to labeling a box "Jon Smith, VP of Marketing" that is then stored long after Smith's tenure without hope of review, retrieval, or disposal, taking up space and harboring who knows what.
The attorneys are not alone: Technology vendors, systems integrators, value-added resellers, industry analysts, big four consulting firms, and others are offering records management services, sponsoring or writing white papers, and generally holding forth with how to do records management. Well-known consulting firms such as Price Waterhouse (now owned by IBM), KPMG, and Booz Allen Hamilton all offer records management consulting as part of their corporate compliance practices. Systems integrators actively seek alliances with records management consultants in order to provide added value to their technical projects.
Meanwhile, document management companies have reinvented themselves as enterprise content management players and are actively acquiring records management software companies. Recent examples include Documentum's purchase of TruArc (formerly Provenance) and Optika's (now Stellent) acquisition of Select Extempore. Some content management firms are also hiring to acquire records management industry experience and expertise: FileNet recently announced its newly developed records management software module and hired the former U.S. president of Tower Software.
From this mix a whole new generation of records management "experts" has emerged. The president of a well-known storage management firm, speaking as a panel member at a records industry event, advocated keeping everything because storage is relatively cheap. An industry analyst at the same conference responded to a question about where to start with electronic records management by offering the advice to inventory all electronic content. The point is that when pundits rather than practitioners offer advice, it is likely to be oversimplified and impractical, but an inexperienced audience may not be able to tell the difference.
Who Manages Records and How
Perhaps the biggest change is the audience listening to the advice. In a recently completed survey for ARMA International (see the July/August 2004 issue), Forrester Research found that most electronic records projects are headed by information technology (IT) and legal, not by records managers. The argument is that electronic records management is an enterprise-wide project and the RIM function, viewed as a back-office operation until very recently, does not have the political clout to secure the funding and resources for such a project.
If they are in the lead, how will lawyers and technologists approach electronic records requirements? Probably not by letting perfection stand in the way of progress, for as a general rule, the higher someone's level, the less patience there is with detail. Both IT and legal are under pressure to provide solutions for complying with new requirements. Coupled with the staggering volume of electronic records and the attitude that anything is better than nothing, the emphasis will be on ways to automatically process, retain, and dispose of e-records as easily and as efficiently as possible.
This means trade-offs: The new e-records project leaders will be willing to sacrifice classification precision for better throughput. The traditional classification hierarchy with primary, secondary, and tertiary levels will yield to fewer, broader records types and retention rules. For example, 12 records series for accounting, each with its own retention rule, will consolidate to one or two broader series instead. Classification will be more likely to result from process workflows rather than records creators' manual selections. Linking records to processes is already in the ISO 15489 standard, and it is easy to see that technology will take the concept further.
But within the IT world, retention management--the idea that records have an "expiration" date--is 'already gaining ground. Its effect on retention rules in private industry will likely be that finite periods rather than event-based triggers govern records, because the former are easier to implement. The capabilities for a litigation hold may be entirely absent from products designed around a retention management base, a danger that RIM professionals are likely to spot easily.
The good news is that RIM will get the attention, funding, and resources it needs, and diverse, creative minds will focus their capabilities on finding better, or at least different, ways of doing things. More will get done, and some degree of complexity and complication will be smoothed out or smoothed over in the name of for ward movement. Influences on RIM practices will change and, outside of government, long-held archival and records management principles will be adapted to fit new circumstances. In the new environment, the need to capture 16 metadata fields could meet with lengthy debate rather than unquestioning acceptance. RIM practitioners who find themselves reporting to legal or compliance functions may find that performance expectations and value judgments in these settings are very different than those found in facilities or administrative departments.
Some RIM professionals will feel betrayed that the knowledge they have acquired over a lifetime is suddenly dismissed as irrelevant--the same way that mainframe programmers felt when the world embraced a different computing model. It will do no good, because for all its imperfections, the world does not move backward. The old standby answers are not adequate for new questions, so the imperative for RIM practitioners is to learn, grow, and change with the world around them.
Unlike the past's incremental moves, today's changes don't just raise the bar; they change the entire field of endeavor. Some contend that most RIM professionals have neither the desire nor capability to change and are content to remain within the records center's confines. They underestimate their colleagues. An old adage from athletics maintains that playing on a great team makes each individual perform at or above their personal best. Prepare to excel.