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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

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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Feeling the Squeeze

York lies between Lake Simcoe and Toronto, with a 2005 population of 890,000, expected to surpass 1.5 million residents by 2020. The entire York Region is part of the Greater Toronto Area. Like other local governments, it records and receives correspondence, minutes and briefing notes, content posted on public Web sites or e-mails recording communication with government staff and contractors or suppliers every day.

It is already feeling the squeeze of new provisions under the Canadian Municipal Act of 2001, which forces municipalities to retain all of their paper and electronic records in a secure and accessible manner. Equally the Evidence Act mandates that governments not only maintain the integrity of court documents but show the processes that surround them. And like other governments at all levels, its workers have legislated responsibilities towards documents and records to ensure compliance with Freedom of Information (FOI) requirements. Kelly says York Region began looking at the mounting document management problem in 2000 in response to the growing proliferation of documents across the municipality.

So in December 2002 York began deployment of an enterprise content management (ECM) system to preserve, protect and manage its electronic documents and records as part of its RIM program. The fully integrated document and records management, imaging and workflow technologies gives York an organized, secure environment to manage the complete life cycle of electronic documents from creation to ultimate disposition.

"Compliance with provincial legislation and the crisis of September 11 [2001] prompted us to look seriously at alternatives to our traditional record-keeping practices," Kelly says. "The document and records management and imaging solutions have automated our paper-based system. With the secure search, retrieval and backup/restore capabilities, the [York] Region's staff can better manage and access our electronic content, improving our approval cycles and enhancing productivity."

With this system, which York Region has called "eDOCS", every document, record and file activity is carefully maintained in a detailed audit trail. Electronic information is stored, managed and categorized in a single, integrated interface and shared document management repositories. With the software, York Region staff can convert paper-based documents into electronic data through the capture, mark-up and optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities, enabling access and storage of paper-based and electronic documents in a single document management repository. Users can quickly categorize electronic information using intuitive Web and Windows interfaces where they can easily search for, share and access protected records. The familiar interfaces reduce training requirements, easing administration burdens.

"Over time, the RIM program has expanded to meet the needs of customers and our electronic environment including training in the use of the software, setting policies and business rules and a much bigger linkage between the RIM staff, IT and the individual users," Kelly says.

But records and information manager Clayson says management's evolution in this area has been gradual: awareness of the demands of records and information had until recently passed them by. In fact, several years after its initial introduction, it was obvious many of them were clearly in need of a reminder of the role and value of York's relatively low-profile RIM program.

"As we got the pilot project rolling and extended it to some of the support staff, including our commissioner's assistants, of which there are six or seven, they approached us and indicated they needed more records and information management training," Kelly says. "People in the past had not had to apply classification codes to their electronic documents on what we call the 'network'."

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Getting the Big Picture

So, for all its benefits, the RIM program has had a low profile until recently, and the importance of information management to the organization has enjoyed little prominence. In addition, managers who cut their corporate teeth in a paper-based environment have tended to see filing, or classification, as someone else's problem. York's answer has been to get managers to sit in on staff awareness sessions, giving them the big picture of records and information management.

"We are trying to brand this as management of information, which is a key corporate asset," Kelly says. "That's a really important distinction. And then clearly the bedrock of these systems is to have file classification systems and record retention schedules that meet user and legislative needs. You also need your records and information management staff to have new competencies."

The small RIM team had introduced training of front-line staff as part of its comprehensive records management program in late 2003, with a program devised by the RIM team and an information management specialist who lectures at the University of Toronto. However, Kelly says feedback highlighted the need to increase management awareness of RIM issues. Those management awareness sessions began early in 2005, conducted in unison with IT staff and underlining the "Why?" of RIM, including topics such as business needs, risk, legislative compliance and e-mail.

"We realized that we needed to do a major York Region awareness session geared to management," Kelly says. "Those managers need to lead, and their considerations are somewhat different from staff's: they care about why we need to do this, while staff care more about how to do it. We've been doing some research and we thought it was time to share it with management."

Clayson says the team was keen to motivate managers to classify their records according to the retention legislation by showing management how classification could lead to improved business efficiencies. Kelly and Clayson set up a sweeping program to train senior managers on the electronic records system and to complete a roll-out begun in pilot three years before. To get management on side, Kelly and his team have discovered there is value in telling information managers about the big picture. His presentations therefore explore the lessons learned and challenges associated with:

• global trends in records and information management

• specific organizational challenges in RIM

• developing a training and awareness program geared to both staff and management

• exploring legal and risk ramifications

• customizing the presentation to specific client requirements

• technology and RIM tools to improve efficiency and compliance

• managing e-mail and other electronic records

• protecting confidential documents.

"A 2002 study from a university here in Ontario indicated that only about 5 percent of executives, managers and professionals had received any records and information and management training. We see ourselves as meeting a need here for basic awareness of records and information management needs and principles," Kelly says. "Management typically feels that the 'How to Do' stuff is for support staff. What we needed to do to engage management was to tell them why we needed a records management program in the first place and why we needed to continue to protect our electronic records."

At the same time Kelly has been able to ease concerns about the amount of staff resources required to fulfil the RIM vision and provide some valuable return on investment. ("In terms of staff resources one of the key selling points of this system is that it is going to save them staff time, but you need to invest time to create time," he says.)

"Without management support - and that goes right up to council support for the eDOCS program over the past five years - we would be nowhere. Ultimately you need managers to use it and support it with their staff so their staff will actually implement it," Kelly says "Then the corporate culture needs to be one of sharing and progressiveness and we have that in York Region."

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Carrot or Stick?

In the choice between carrots and sticks, York Region goes for carrots every time. Rather than suggesting to managers their career prospects are now closely tied to their document classification efforts, the training program stresses how quick and simple the software has made it to look up classification codes and information. The trainers stress it only takes about 45 seconds to profile a document and store it in the central system, while studies suggest doing so can save a manager three to four hours every week. And they highlight the efficiency dividend that comes with version control and drag-and-drop e-mail management.

"This particular system allows you to drag-and-drop from your Outlook folder into the central system and creates a library card that takes you 45 seconds or so to complete," Kelly says.

During its efforts, York has learned that training and ease of use are important elements in helping people to overcome their reluctance to classify electronic records. With 300 classification codes, it also helps to devise a "Top 10" list of classifications for each department to help them memorize the code.

"Often I will take sample documents from a department, prepare the Top 10 classification codes for them with examples and let them go through a 15-minute exercise classifying these documents," Clayson says. "It sounds a bit like a remedial thing for a management group, but it gives them a level of comfort in profiling the electronic records and adding classification codes."

The standard presentation comprises some 50 slides, with customization for each branch achieved by adding several slides geared to that which makes it unique. Managers and staff typically attend the presentation together ("staff needs to be informed about the big picture too," Kelly says), although staff can also attend a two-day training course on RIM. He says the success of the program can be measured by the new "gung-ho" attitude displayed as people leave the presentation.

And as the team works to complete its training of all employees, it is also "spreading the word": it has been invited to give its presentation to numbers of RIM interest groups and IT groups across Canada. "I'm a little bit surprised at the interest in this; I didn't know it was meeting such a need." Kelly remarks.

The training program is a high rater: surveys and evaluations put its ratings out of a potential top score of 5.0 at 4.18, considered highly successful by training and learning industry measures.

An Ongoing Process

The number of users of the system has grown dramatically, and Kelly expects further improvements as more users complete the training program. "Right now we're actually at a key point where we're trying to be more strategic about future roll-out of the electronic records management system in terms of what branches will be next and under what criteria. We are reviewing that as we speak," Kelly says.

The system also is being discussed and recommended more frequently in departmental meetings. "We are actually hearing departments talking among themselves in meetings, saying: 'Oh, you know we have a great tool that will help you do this, if you get on to eDOCS this will let you share the information'," Clayson says.

"I have seen a lot of the departments now interested in cleaning up their old, antiquated databases and systems, so they can be prepared to start using eDOCS feeling as though they have a clean slate to move forward. That includes paper records. There has been more effort to clean up their paper records: to clean up, get them out of there, because now we no longer have to rely on that, we can really rely more heavily on electronic records. We're really building a good competence," she says.

Clayson says it is important to realize that building records and information awareness is a process, not an event, and that persistence is vital to success.

"This is really a process, a day-to-day process that people should buy in to - not just an event that takes place because you're bringing in new software," Kelly says. "And just to take it a little bit further, implementing electronic document management solutions requires businesses to know what records they have in the first place. It's important to do an analysis from a records and information management standpoint of what documents exist in the first place and look at the business processes along the way."

Kelly says they have learned that training and communication are often overlooked in RIM projects, yet are key parts of the process, and that it helps to sell the benefits of the system to the individual, rather than just to the corporation that employs them.

It also helps to demonstrate that RIM projects are about enhancing accountability by preserving a document trail of your decision-making process and a historical record of your actions.

In addition, there are real benefits in demonstrating that when it comes to the soaring problems with records and information management, your organization is far from alone. "In order to increase records and information management awareness, it's important to indicate that trends in your own organization are consistent with global trends, so that folks will not think that we are alone in this," Kelly says. "It helps them recognize the challenges are global in nature and that it's not that somebody was sort of asleep at the switch."

Selling information management to management is an important component in meeting these challenges.