Coping with digital recordkeeping

Responding to court rulings mandating that the government maintain its digital documents in electronic form, federal information technology managers are moving electronic records management (ERM) to the front burner.

But as agencies start looking for ways to maintain a digital record of agency business decisions, they are finding the task involves much more than choosing ERM software. They may have to re-engineer their business processes to include digital recordkeeping, and they must ensure that their new ERM solutions integrate seamlessly into their IT infrastructures.

Consequently, electronic recordkeeping is emerging as a huge integration challenge with no straightforward solutions.

"This industry is so nascent that all the pieces are just being assembled,'' said Richard Medina, senior research analyst with Doculabs, a Chicago-based consulting firm that tests office automation software.

According to industry experts, an ERM solution requires more than just the software needed to catalog—or, in records management parlance, schedule—office automation files and track them until they are either no longer needed or they become part of the government's permanent archive.

Users also need front-end applications, such as e-mail, workflow, resource planning and the World Wide Web, that can support digital recordkeeping as well as storage systems for maintaining and retrieving documents.

Although Medina predicted that vendors will develop solutions to meet these needs, Bruce Evans, a consultant who served recently with the National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Work Group, said those products have not surfaced yet. "There doesn't exist a package or set of packages that control the entire [document] life cycle,'' he said.

The Court Ruling

Interest in electronic recordkeeping stems from an October 1997 decision in the case Public Citizen v. Carlin that voided a government policy allowing agencies to delete their digital documents if they saved paper copies. The case is under appeal, with a decision expected within the next few weeks.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, however, federal records officers and some IT managers have concluded that it is time their agencies build systems to keep track of electronic files. They reason that with more business being done by e-mail or electronic memoranda, digital recordkeeping systems can help agencies document their decisions, whether for legal purposes or to help formulate new policies.

"[My] agency does a lot of its work electronically,'' said Mary Rawlings-Milton, manager of the records branch with the Office of Thrift Supervision, which is testing Trim, an ERM package from Tower Software Corp. "We were concerned that there was a lot of electronic information out there that was not getting put into the file copies.''

Rawlings-Milton added that she hopes the system will give her agency a means of organizing electronic files, thereby eliminating the problem of employees keeping extra copies of documents on their hard drives or file servers.

The Defense Department largely is setting the pace for the industry with its functional requirements for ERM applications, known as the 5015.2 standard. The standard, which is mandatory for Defense agencies and is seen by civilian agencies as the best existing model, describes what ERM software should be able to do to satisfy federal recordkeeping laws.

Those capabilities include allowing users to file records according to their agency's file plan, capturing header information and attachments from e-mail and destroying records when they are no longer needed.

"I think most people are using DOD 5015 as a short-listing process,'' said Geoff Moore, vice president of operations at Tower. "Then they're moving to their own specific requirements.'' To date, nine companies have been certified as having 5015.2-compliant products, and several more are being tested. Current versions of these products work with a variety of office automation suites, e-mail platforms and databases and are primarily, though not exclusively, Microsoft Corp. Windows-based.

These companies are Provenance Systems Inc., Tower, PSSoftware Solutions Ltd., FileNet Corp., DynSolutions Inc., PC DOCS Inc., Universal Systems Inc. (USI), Eastman Software Inc. and IBM Corp. Provenance, Tower and PSSoftware make ERM software. IBM has crafted an ERM solution with document management vendor Documentum Inc., and the rest are workflow or document management vendors that have integrated their software with an ERM package from Provenance. Tower and PSSoftware also offer interfaces to popular workflow and document management applications.

"Minimal Interference"

For IT managers, a seamless integration between the ERM applications and front-end business software is emerging as a top demand. "If they can't rig a system so there is minimal interference with the rest of the work that people do, it will never get ordered," said Hal Piper, a technical development manager who runs the computer-aided design center for the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service.

At the request of GSA's records office, Piper is including electronic recordkeeping in his requirements for a new document management system. Vendors report that Piper's approach is typical.

"People have to figure out how to save some money,'' said Tom Harper, vice president for major initiatives with USI, whose e.Power software combines workflow functionality with Provenance's Foremost ERM package and document management software from PC DOCS. "An integrated approach certainly does that, and that's what gets their attention.''

Highland Technologies Inc. and its parent company, integrator Vredenberg, are developing a 5015.2-compliant version of their HighView imaging and database software. "If you have the documents electronically stored and you deal with issues of putting them on the desktop so people can use them, that's 90 percent of [the solution],'' said Carl Muller, vice president with Highland. "Ten percent is packaging them up so they meet legal requirements later.''

Dave Gibbard, president of PSSoftware, which makes RIMS Studio, agreed. "The real driving force is either productivity or the fact that you're getting your money cut and have [fewer] people, so you have to automate,'' he said.

But agencies are finding that building a system that satisfies their operational and recordkeeping needs is easier said than done. In a two-month test last summer, NASA concluded that the current version of Foremost was hard to use, time-consuming to install and did not perform consistently on all the agency's software and hardware platforms, said Lee Holcomb, NASA's chief information officer.

Mark Hogan, vice president of sales and marketing with Provenance, said an upgraded version of Foremost that addresses some of those problems was not available at the time of the test.

Holcomb acknowledged that Provenance performed as well as it could with technology that had not yet fully matured. "But if you just threw that product into an agency, end users would culturally reject it, and it won't work,'' he said.

Nevertheless, Holcomb said the pilot taught NASA about its true requirements, including the need to revamp business processes to incorporate records management. He said he hopes the next generation of ERM products will accommodate those needs and that vendors of front-end applications, such as word processing, enhance their products to make ERM part of their basic capability.

Emma McNamara, acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Enterprise Information Management Division, also recognized that much work remains before her agency can expect to successfully install an ERM solution. Because the EPA disseminates so much information through the Internet, one of her top concerns is that the software be able to capture Web-based documents—a feature not yet offered by most DOD-certified products. She said the EPA recently covened a committee to define the agency's requirements and select an ERM application.

NARA wants to help agencies define their requirements with a "lessons learned'' guide. Michael Miller, director of modern records programs with NARA, said the document would provide advice on systems development, answer common policy questions and describe best practices and pitfalls experienced by agencies that are using ERM applications.

NARA is forming a panel to write the guide, and the panel will begin work within the next two months.

***

Advice from an early adopter

Three years ago, the 88th Communications Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, was one of the first federal agencies to deploy ERM software. The system, which now covers all of the group's records, consists of Provenance Systems Inc.'s Foremost package, document management software from PC DOCS Inc. and, when the current upgrade is completed, workflow capability from Universal Systems Inc.

Guy Sawyer, the electronic-records manager for the group, offered these tips for agencies that want to build an electronic recordkeeping system:

* Do a thorough cost analysis. "The cost is not going to be cheap," Sawyer said. "You have to evaluate what kind of hardware you've got, what kind of software, your server and [storage] space. You may have to upgrade your server.'' He added that a business process re-engineering study will help you assess what you are getting for your money.

* Do not do the integration work yourself. "You're going to run across problems with databases," he said. "If you buy the integration, [the vendor has] to provide the solution.''

* Do not skimp on training. According to Sawyer, training can be one of the most difficult parts of an ERM deployment due to users' fear of the new system. "You almost have to do one-on-one training,'' he said.

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