Taming the document management beast

Document and records management isn’t a dark art, yet many organisations aren’t sure where to start tackling this great, white whale.

Overwhelmed by product information, many business managers struggle to overcome decision-paralysis and put off the adoption of formal strategies and solutions, sticking to ‘tried and true’ file server shares, or heaven-forbid, paper records.

How much organisational information lies invisible, silently but inevitably losing value as it evades discovery buried deep in some arcane folder structure, understood only by Philip or Betty who once diligently filed your essential information according to how they’d think to find it, but since they retired nobody else can?

When embarking upon a document or records management strategy, a great starting-point is to consider why you’re doing it. Do you need to meet compliance requirements for your industry? Is there legislation or an industry code of practice to which your record-keeping needs to conform? Do you wish to utilise BI tools to perform trend analysis to help with your resource planning? Are you concerned with disaster recovery? Are you wishing to automate data entry and task assignments? Or are you simply concerned with long-term archival of your intellectual property and business records?

It may seem obvious, but understanding the WHY informs the HOW, and ultimately the success of your project.

Most organisations are typically driven by some combination of the following drivers:

  • Visibility of information
  • Protecting IP
  • Conformance with data privacy and breach legislation
  • Controlling access
  • Enhancing or streamlining process
  • Reducing data entry
  • Eliminating filing errors
  • Meeting compliance standards
  • Ensuring business continuity / surviving disaster
  • Capacity and resource planning through trend analysis / BI

Each of these impact upon your strategy. There’s an old adage ‘Garbage in – Garbage out’, and this is especially true with records management. In considering how particular record types must be stored, one must first consider how they will be found. Who needs to find this document? What is their perspective?

Maybe this record was created by a service engineer, and they filed it based on how they’d need to find it in future – by the date of service, or the serial number, or the customer number – but does this document have value to your organisation for capacity planning? Resource planning? Does it offer insights into the failure rate of a particular part or assembly? Might you need this information in deciding to whom you will award your manufacturing contract for these assemblies in future? Might your HR department be interested in what systems the service team are regularly repairing so they can hire the right personnel? Might your training department be interested in the same information in order to ensure your new hires are trained in the systems they’ll most often be servicing?

These perspectives must be considered too, as they inform the indexing applied to any given document. Document management systems offer a multi-dimensional view of your business records, unlocking their secrets and increasing their actual value. Applying index information – or meta-data – to documents, adds facets which increases their exposure, like diamonds cut to maximise sparkle and shine.

But of course this introduces an new issue: Access. Once you add these facets, more people within your organisation can find these documents and extract value. Do you want everyone to know everything about this document or record? Does it contain privileged information? You need access policies. Confidentiality levels. That’s another index field, and you need to be able to apply permissions to document types and even index fields.

Then there’s compliance. Industry codes of practice, privacy legislation, occupational health and safety legislation, council regulations, statutory warranties, financial record regulations, union regulations – these all inform your document and records management strategy. How long do you need to store this type of document? How likely is it that you’ll need to find it again? If you do need to find it again, how much effort will that consume?

What about audit? Compliance often goes hand-in-hand with audit, and you could be making the auditor’s job much easier. If your auditor asks you to provide all these records pertaining to this engagement, or this client, or this account – how do you do that? Can you just type in a search and serve them on a platter? Or is someone going to be spending hours trawling through records to find them? Odds are, your customer is paying for that auditor. Odds are your customer would appreciate not paying so much for that. Odds are they’ll see that your services are better for their bottom line if you can make that less costly.

Speaking of which – does your client need access to their records? How do they access them now? Maybe they ask for the records and you deploy a knowledge worker to find and send them. What if the client could find their own records? What if that’s something they’d actually value, since let’s face it – we’re all busy and sometimes you just don’t have time to call your consulting firm to ask for it? Maybe you can provide them with a portal to find their own records. Maybe they’ll see this as a value-add whilst they’re actually doing the work for you. It’s a win-win.

Any document has a life-cycle. Most documents or records are subject to a flurry of activity or tasks early in their life-cycle, where people do things, add information, add value, and then they go into storage. Sometimes they’re retrieved, but mostly they just sit there. For years. Until they’re not needed anymore. How do you handle that? Do your documents just automatically disappear, leaving only their index-data to mark their existence? Or do they sit on your servers forever, eating up storage and hampering attempts to find everything else? Do they sit in filing cabinets, or in plastic-wrapped boxes on pallets in your warehouse, using space which could be used for something far more useful?

You also need to consider different strategies for today-onwards, versus yesterday and before. Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand and say from this day forward, we will save documents to redundant cloud storage with multi-faceted indices and a robust retention policy framed around the requirements of each document type, but everything which came before is going to be digitised and indexed by far fewer fields. Or maybe due to your needs and the value locked within these documents it’s worthwhile expending the effort to index them more fully. Either way – the strategies for future and past are often different.

If your documents are on paper, you’re accepting a risk. Perhaps your business can move on without them, should disaster strike, perhaps it can’t. Businesses in the New Zealand city of Christchurch learned the hard way whether they could survive without their records. One fateful day in February 2011, an earthquake struck the city and nearly every business in the CBD found themselves with neither premises nor access to their records. Buildings were condemned. Filing cabinets and servers sat for years until these buildings were eventually demolished, and in many cases due to safety concerns, workers were never permitted access again.

So there are many things to consider when it comes to document management. Start from the end goal, then work backwards. Make a plan. Discuss it with various vendors and gauge their competency. Most of all, get started. The longer you leave it, the more backlog you’ll need to handle. Unless you’re Phil or Betty, and retirement is just around the corner.

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