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You can’t do records management in SharePoint (part 2) — but you’re probably not doing it anyway

April 15, 2013

In the last post, I called it like I seen it: SharePoint out of the box can’t do records management. 2007, 2010, 2013—none of ‘em left to their own devices are worth much when it comes to automating the retention and (more importantly) disposition of your records according to the retention schedule.

But as if that weren’t provocative enough, I also argued that, regardless of system (SharePoint, IBM FileNet/P8/CMOD, EMC Documentum, OpenText, Hyland OnBase, whatever), and regardless of the capabilities of that system, pretty much no one is actually doing real records management on their electronic content.

Check out the last post to see my reasoning for this being true (and let me know what you think of it). In this post, however, let’s turn to what might be driving the fact that almost no one is doing electronic records management (whether in SharePoint or any other enterprise content management system).

If only technology were the problem

I find myself saying this a lot in my day-to-day travels as a strategy consultant focused on ECM, but it’s especially true of automated records management. Here’s why.

Imagine you’re a Fortune 500 bank. One of your record types will be some flavor of account holder documentation, which in the U.S. will likely have an event-based retention trigger along the lines of death of the account holder plus three years. So far so good, except your ECM system has no idea when an account holder dies, which means it won’t be able to automate the retention and disposition of account holder documentation—at least not easily.

One option is to pull a list of all deceased account holders from your customer relationship management (CRM)system into your ECM system and then use that to drive the trigger. Except that at most organizations, simply getting an account holder’s correct phone number or email requires a database administrator to write a custom query, let alone something as exotic as the date they died.

Another option, and this is the most common, is to simply take the account opening date and add 100 years, because this should reasonably cover the lifespan of 99.999% of your account holders. The downside is that you’re keeping account holder documentation 97 years too long, which is akin to not disposing of it at all.

Let’s leave aside the issue of joint account holders (because you’ll need to check for them every time you’re getting ready to dispose three years after the death of a primary account holder), and just assume that you’re able to find accurate and timely death dates for all account holders in your CRM and pull them into your ECM system to automate the disposition of account holder documentation. Give yourself a pat on the back, but don’t celebrate too long: all that work only solved your problem for a single record type—now get cracking on the other few hundred you likely have kicking around.

Semantics

Ok, some of you might be saying, “But what you’ve described is a technology problem—if only the system could manage to know when an account holder dies, we could do RM!” And there’s a measure of truth in this, but that’s sort of like saying technology problems are what mainly prevent us from colonizing Venus. Yes, if we had the technology, we could do it, but really it’s the practical constraints on colonization (temperature, atmosphere, etc.) that are the problem.

Electronic records management offers analogous challenges: the way most organizations approach records management as well as the way regulators have framed the requirements for corporate record keeping are primarily what make electronic records management difficult/impossible, not weaknesses in technology (although these don’t help).

The final word

We’ve gotten away from the intentionally provocative start to this series of posts (SharePoint can’t do records management) and have reached the people/process heart of the matter: organizations need to reframe how they approach records management if they hope to manage electronic records in an automated way. Hopefully I got past sensationalism to offer insights you found valuable and maybe inspired you to think about how you could better address electronic records at your organization, whether or not you use SharePoint.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. empecee permalink
    April 15, 2013 7:51 pm

    Reblogged this on 3MPC Information Solutions and commented:
    As always a very though provoking article from agile ramblings about why records management is not being done properly.

    • April 16, 2013 10:33 am

      Thanks for the reblog and the support–as always, I appreciate it!

  2. Michael Addiego permalink
    April 16, 2013 10:12 am

    There needs to be a totally new orientation of information management. Only a more integrated approach to system implementation will this issue. We have yet to resolve the”silos” of information issue.

    • April 16, 2013 10:34 am

      Michael,

      I totally agree! It can be a bit defeating as an ECM practitioner to see so many organizations struggling with silos after so many years of banging away at it and so much time and money spent on software…

      Thanks for jumping in and sharing your thoughts.

      Cheers,

      Joe

  3. April 16, 2013 10:28 pm

    Joe,

    I think you’ve provided a very good illustration of why records managers can’t do recordkeeping in their own little cave any more.

    I think essentially what has changed is that recordkeepers used to dispose of records primarily to free up space. That’s not true anymore.

    Let’s face it, if it were just the cost of records storage vs the cost of disposal, well, let’s whack in another rack of disks. But the gathering cruft of records has other costs and risks, particularly around system performance, administrative overhead, and handling requests like Freedom of Information.

    These are the reasons for disposal far more than the fact that we are “allowed” to dispose of records.

    • April 17, 2013 9:32 am

      Stephen,

      You make a great point that often raises some eyebrows when I make it at conferences or for clients: compliance (recordkeeping or otherwise) is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end, i.e., allowing an organization to make a profit (or at least not suffer a loss).

      The compliance function does this in three ways: first, by keeping the organization on the right side of laws, regulations, and industry standards; second, by not imposing such burdonsome requirements on the organization that it can’t do business (after all, no need to be compliant if you’re not in business); and third, it allows the organization to reach new markets or offer new products and services (or both) by clearing compliance-related barriers to entry.

      In terms of RM, then, records managers need to see their job as bigger than simply publishing a records schedule and trying to make sure folks follow it. Instead, they need to realize that they are helping the organization be more profitable (or at least less unprofitable) by improving how it manages its information both to comply with laws, regulations, and industry standards more efficiently and effectively, but also by improving how employees are able to use information in their day-to-day jobs. Once records managers start viewing their jobs in this light, the organizations they work for will begin to see and experience the benefits of RM as a transformational business activity rather than adminsitrative overhead, which is unfortunately how most firms see it today.

      Thanks for taking the time to jump in and share your thoughts–I appreciate it!

      Cheers,

      Joe

  4. dhorwatt permalink
    August 7, 2013 9:33 pm

    Wonderful analysis, as is part one.

    I don’t follow your last comment:
    “…organizations need to reframe how they approach records management if they hope to manage electronic records in an automated way.”

    Unless the rules of retention are rewritten by regulators, how can an organization that reframes its approach to managing records retention (whatever that means) solve the problem?

    David

  5. August 12, 2013 10:41 am

    David,

    You bring up a good point, because I am beginning to feel more and more that the majority of our struggles with RM have their root in the paper-based mindset of regulators in this space. So for sure the underlying problem will never go away until this changes.

    However, in the meantime, organizations can attack the problem differently to try to (1) meet the requirements of regulation while (2) doing so in a sustainable, scalable way. An example of this is so-called “big bucket” approaches to retention, which attempt to simplify compliance with recordkeeping regulations by reducing the number of record categories in play at an organization. Another example is converting event based rules into time based ones, e.g., instead of “life of the insured”, using policy effective date + 100.

    I hope this explains better what I was thinking. If not, let me know–more than happy to continue the discussion!

    Thanks for jumping in and sharing your thoughts and questions.

    Cheers,

    Joe

    • Ruth Phillip permalink
      May 1, 2014 6:39 am

      How can you drive home the point of RM helping the organization to “save” in terms of dollars when some still see the role as glorified File Clerks? I also have a problem in terms of measurable KPIs for Records Management/Document Control. I would appreciate it very much if you can do some articles on that aspect of the topic.

      • May 20, 2014 11:54 am

        Ruth,

        The ROI of compliance is a tough sell. It’s there, but takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to find. I’ll definitely sharpen up the pencil and write a post on this soon.

        Thanks for jumping in!

        Cheers,

        Joe

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