What feds need to know to manage e-records

Federal agencies are scrambling to figure out what they should do about electronic records management. Information technology managers are aware of the ongoing litigation in federal court over ERM, and they generally believe the court cases foreshadow a governmentwide mandate to begin managing their records electronically.

By and large, IT managers are also pretty well convinced that the business case for ERM is compelling. If you're going to manage all other aspects of your agency's information within an information systems environment, it only makes business sense to include records as well.

At the same time, agencies are still in the early stages of adoption and experience with ERM applications. The software industry is hustling to fill a void with commercial off-the-shelf packages that meet the Defense Department 5015.2 standard now accepted throughout the federal government [FCW, July 20, 1998, "Vendors follow DOD records standard"]. For the IT manager intent on bringing an agency into line with current ERM best practices, finding a body of proven experience to draw on is not an easy task. Some pioneering efforts are under way, and until a wider array of agencies gain hands-on knowledge, these few cases will be what everyone is consulting.

The first thing most people look at is the World Wide Web site of DOD's Joint Interoperability Testing Command (jitc-emh.army.mil/recmgt) to find copies of the DOD standard and a list of COTS products certified under the standard.

Next, the savvy manager obtains a copy of the Doculabs Inc. benchmark study on records management systems (www.doculabs.com). Doculabs is a Chicago-based independent industry analyst firm that concentrates on emerging technologies. It has been tracking the rapid evolution of ERM software, offering an up-to-date comparative analysis of the latest versions of all the major products on the market. Its study is a unique and indispensable tool for ERM acquisition.

We should pause to note that Americans owe a substantial debt to Canada and Australia in the ERM field, because those two countries are well ahead of us and we profit from their knowledge. Not surprisingly, three of the leading software packages on the market are products of Canadian and Australian companies, which are relatively small companies, because the field is so new.

While many agencies are studying what to do about ERM, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, has three years of experience implementing one of the leading vendors' ERM products. Its implementation applies ERM in conjunction with a well-known electronic documents management system, and it now has more than 6,000 records under electronic control.

The Office of Thrift Supervision in the Treasury Department is installing and testing a different leading product. OTS has been at this for a much shorter time, but it does have some practical experience that IT managers throughout the government are eager to learn about.

Already, lessons are emerging from the few cases of ERM implementation and experimentation. First, ERM does not occur in an IT vacuum; it has to integrate with existing systems, platforms and packages. That integration is most likely to be labor-intensive at the outset. The question is not "What's the best product?" but "What's the best product for my agency's IT environment?"

Second, you've got to get your conventional records management house in order before you can move to ERM. Records schedules and filing plans are input to any ERM package. If you don't have these schedules and plans up to date, no "gee-whiz" software product can do the job for you.

Third, adopting ERM, which I believe is now a virtual imperative for all but the smallest agencies, will lead you to a business process re-engineering of how you handle information throughout the agency. You may need to run a prototype first to understand just how badly you need BPR. But sooner or later you'll need one, so you're better off factoring one into your planning from the outset.

Top management's eyes may glaze over when you tell them you want to acquire an ERM system. Sell them the concept that your agency really needs an electronic documents management or knowledge management system, a key part of which will be ERM.

That happens to be a valid generalization for most agencies. People tell me the tactic puts light in management's eyes and fire in their bellies. Having top management lead the effort will be crucial to successful ERM implementation.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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