New technologies take on records management challenges

An explosion of information is forcing organizations to recycle their folders and go digital. But change won't come easy.

Welcome to part one of our two-part spotlight on records management. In this installment, we discuss the central problem for records management—lack of modernization—and highlight companies that have begun to pave the way forward through digitization, automation and more. In part two, we continue the spotlight with a discussion of the future of the discipline: cloud-based records management.

Whatcom Educational Credit Union had no choice but to turn to digital records management for customer service.

In 2003, when it began digitizing business processes, branches were still relying on fax and phone to share account information about members, so retrieval was painfully slow. A member who asked for a copy of his loan application might have to wait 20 minutes or more while employees tracked it down.

 "It can be quite time-consuming," said Patti Moser, IT manager at WECU, based in Bellingham, Wash. "You have to wait for a fax, find a person in another building, worry about misfiling when you put the document back in the file. Digitizing our member documents was the solution."

Inefficiency has long plagued records management, which has historically been anything but cutting-edge. It has earned the reputation of attracting librarian types who fuss with musty file folders destined for the company basement -- not technology-savvy information managers governing complex digital data. But wasted dollars combined with plodding, manual operations have forced organizations to update how they handle information.

New technology trends have made the challenge of modernization more complex as well. The proliferation of information, with an array of new formats for unstructured data -- such as video, audio and social media conversations -- and the wide dispersal of data on mobile devices and in the cloud have also pushed records management out of the physical realm, but without a larger mandate for a well-managed digital future. "The term record is dead," said Steve Goodfellow of consultancy Access Systems Inc. "The mission now is enterprise information management and governance -- not records management."

Getting with the (digital) program

As the consumerization of IT services has seeped into virtually every corner of daily life, consumers' expectations have raised the stakes. As a result, companies are waking up to the reality that digitizing their records isn't just a nice-to-have information governance initiative. It's business-critical. At WECU, digitizing, centralizing and organizing enterprise content is now part of satisfying its customer base.

"Members don't want to come into a brick-and-mortar building or wait for [information] in the mail," Moser said. "They want it instantly."

Companies now recognize the need to get a better handle on their information to reduce storage costs, improve information management and accessibility and ensure the efficient retention and destruction of information.

But many organizations have struggled with digital records management, in part because of the limitations of the tools. Enterprise content management software (ECM), the principal software for managing records, was costly and hard to use. Once cloud-based file-sharing companies like Box and Dropbox swept in with simpler user interfaces, they challenged the software's hold on the market. These new tools made it easy to share content without jumping through the hoops of a virtual private network. At the same time, cloud-based file-sharing services have posed privacy concerns, and most businesses still default to ECM software for records management, which can be subject to compliance and other security issues.

No paper? No problem

Digital records management may start with a need to eliminate paper and manual processes, but as at WECU, organizations often evolve beyond those rudimentary gains.

According to Moser, the credit union has saved more than $150,000 in paper and associated costs since 2003. But the bigger win, she said, was in process improvements: Migrating various departmental processes to Hyland Software's OnBase ECM system streamlined sluggish, paper-based operations. After starting with a few member services, departments began clamoring to digitize other processes -- developing workflows for internal audits, moving toward digital signatures in documents and digitizing other key reports that previously required stacks of paper.

Virtually all of WECU now uses OnBase for back-office and customer-facing processes. Other organizations have also derived real savings from automating processes. Sanitation District No. 1, of Northern Kentucky, digitized records management to keep pace with growth. In 2009, it began to take on additional water and sewer trunk lines. As the district absorbed 33 new municipalities, it to deal with more work and more staff. The number of physical records was ballooning out of control.

"It was a daily grind to get the work done, let alone trying to track, maintain and work on processes," said records manager Kathy Jenisch.

The district initially deployed Laserfiche's document management system for records, then extended the project into an effort to hone processes and define responsibilities in workflows: who gets a document when, replete with alerts to all involved about what tasks need to be done along the way. "We wanted a central place to get to documents," Jenisch said. "We wanted some workflows … so that people could know that it was their turn to do something with a document."

Staff processes that used to entail back-and-forth emails have now been automated, she said. Employees can now find forms for travel requests, cash advances and expense reports in Laserfiche's central repository. Forms are automatically routed for approval, payment or whatever action the process requires.

Another project has automated reports sent to third-party contractors following site inspections. Contractors now immediately receive emailed reports outlining concerns that arise during inspection. Formerly, Jenisch said, the reports had to be sent out manually as public records requests, which was time-consuming and error-prone. Now there's a golden copy of each report in Laserfiche. The system integrates with the state's email management system and generates emails containing a link to the relevant report. 

For more on records management, check out part two of this series.

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