The key to getting content management right is to make the hand-off from gatekeepers to content owners beneficial to both parties while at the same time making everything work for the organization as a whole
For decades, computers in government served mainly as number crunchers, chomping steadily through a stodgy diet of revenue and tax records, financial reports and payroll data. Then governments added documents to the menu as computers gradually converted from data processors to document processors.
The shift has been dramatic: some estimate that up to 80 percent of government electronic information is now in the form of text files or documents.
So today most government IT departments are less in the data processing business than they are in the document- and records-management business. But while the information specialists struggle heroically to manage vast amounts of electronic records and pick up records management expertise, outside the IT shop much of management is trying to catch up with the new reality.
Take the Regional Municipality of York, Canada's sixth-largest municipality and its fastest growing. Document and records management is a major issue at York: internal research has found it spends some $C30 million yearly on e-mail. It has also quadrupled the number of phones and PCs available to municipal staff since 1998, causing a domino effect on the quantity of documents it creates and manages.
York grapples with a total of about 38 million paper records and nine million electronic documents (including seven million e-mails) in its general office and storage areas and on its network. (This does not include the records in electronic databases.) The total paper and electronic records have grown by 40 percent in the past three years. And it is slowly learning just how much useful "discoverable" information is hiding on backup tapes acquired for business continuity purposes. "In fact, finding the records that are responsive to access and privacy requests can be a very big challenge, especially within e-mails. It's doubled the workload - you're doing electronic and paper as well," regional clerk Denis Kelly says.
Of course, that does not make the administration unique. Hospitals, banks, universities and government agencies are all facing a burgeoning crisis as they struggle to tame their ever-expanding data collections. Tom Hawk, general manager for enterprise storage at IBM, told Technology Review last year that in the next three years, humanity will create more data from all sources than it created in the previous 1000 years. "It's a whole new set of challenges to IT organizations that have not been dealing with that level of data and complexity," Hawk says.
However, it is the new discipline demanded of managers, who have not had to take responsibility for their own document processing before, which has until recently troubled York.
In the Canadian municipality, those ever-growing volumes of data and the associated severe storage capacity issues have long beleaguered IT. Yet while IT has fretted about that growing mountain of records, until recently management's brows have remained fairly unfurrowed. Kelly says that for a long while supervisors and senior managers proved largely impervious to IT's and records and information management's concerns, not even fully aware of their own key role in information management.
It is not so surprising really. When historically you have had a multitude of secretaries, clerks and personal assistants to type and file your documents, you are not likely to spend a lot of time philosophizing about issues like content classification or the difference between official and transitory documents.
Still, these days most of York's managers are progressive, creating their own documentation electronically and handling their own e-mail, says records and information manager Penny Clayson. "Part of the culture in the [York] Region is that managers have a little bit more of a hands-on role with the electronic information. That means they must identify this information according to our life cycle management tools. They are accountable, and they are responsible for managing their own information," she says. In addressing that problem York has shown that even the most valuable and useful new records and information management (RIM) program or policy will do nothing to benefit either employees or organizational efficiency and effectiveness if ignored. Like others before them, Kelly's team has found there is no use just sitting at your desk and hoping employees will find out about it or stumble over it. Rather, you have to sell those benefits, and you have to train users thoroughly if you want to build confidence in the system.
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