Question time at the Records Management Society Conference

Last Monday I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at the RMS conference to answer a set of questions on the current state of electronic records management.  

Paul Duller chaired and the panel consisted of Jon Garde, Marc Fresco, Leanne Bridges and myself .

We were lucky enough to have had a very relevant and challenging set of six questions submitted to us in advance via the RMS conference website.

What follows are my recollections of some of the points that we made.   

1. Is Moreq2 a useful standard for supporting electronic information management systems or has it come too late to make a difference?

Jon:   MoReq 2 took a long time to come to fruition, and that was frustrating.  It is not a significant advance upon previous standards (TNA 2002) and is if anything longer and more complex for vendors.   But there is great potential in MoReq 2.   MoReq2 isn’t finished with the publication of the specification.  It is an ongoing project, and once the governance framework and testing regimes are in place we will start to see value

Leanne:  At the Audit Commission we used MoReq1 in our procurement of an EDRMS system,  these standards are useful in giving organisations confidence they are procuring a system that can do the job.  

Me:   No electronic records management standard published in 2008 could hope to have the same influence as the first standard published by the Public Record Office (now the National Archives) in 1999.  Back then vendors were unsure of how to do electronic records management, and the standard was able to create the market for EDRMS.  Now the market has matured.  There is much broader understanding of electronic records management among vendors and practictioners alike.    EDRM has morphed into ECM,  which adds into the mix functions that are out of the scope of records management standards, such as collaboration,  web content management and basic social networking functionality.  And a big gorilla has entered the market in Microsoft with its SharePoint product.  Microsoft has been able to sell SharePoint to organisations looking for an ECM without baseing its records management model on standards like MoReq2.

Marc:   Its a fact that many EDRMS implementations have failed.  But it is also a fact that many other projects has succeeded.  The success or failure is ascribable at least as much to the project management and change management efforts around the technology, not the technology itself.  MoReq 2’s relevance is shown by the number of languages it has been translated into.

2. There is a general belief out with the RM community that MS SharePoint implementation is relatively simple and easy and that EDRMS implementation is hard and burdensome on users and their organisation. What evidence can the panelists provide from their experience that supports or is at odds with this belief?

Me:   I am not sure that ‘easy’ is the right word for SharePoint:  the simple old shared drive is much easier than SharePoint!   For teams the advantage they get from SharePoint is that they it gives them more choice on how they set up their information environment.  But choice brings with it some elements of complexity.     Within their SharePoint team sites teams are having to decide how many document libraries they want,  what they want them for, whether they want version control enabled, whether they want to organise their libraries by folders or content types.  When they start a new piece of work they need to decide whether they want a whole new sub site, or a new document library, or a new folder within a document library. 

For an organisation SharePoint is certainly far from easy to govern:  it takes considerable ongoing thought and effort to control the creation of new sites to prevent SharePoint sprawl, and the SharePoint records centre is far from straightforward to implement if you wish to use that for records management.

Marc:  SharePoint is easy and cheap to implement so long as you don’t want to implement it well.  If you want to implement it well  then you will have to give just as much thought to issues of how you want SharePoint to be structured, how you set up metadata and search, and  about governance and access permissions, as you would with an EDRMS implementation.  And if you want to manage records well all commentators are agreed you are going to have to plug in an EDRMS capability at the back of it anyway.


3. Is there a future for independent EDRM vendors now that Microsoft is targeting this market?


Me:  the next version of SharePoint will be out in the first half of next year and will be called SharePoint 2010.  Although no one has seen it yet, industry analysts are predicting that there won’t be significant improvements in the records management capabilities.  [see Kathleen Reidy and CMS Wire].  I agree with the analysts:  adding MoReq 2 records management functionality to SharePoint would be a major rewrite of the software and I can’t see Microsoft  undertaking it in the near future.    

Microsoft are under no competitive pressure to improve records management,   they have been able to sell perfectly well without it, and none of their real competitors (Google, Apple, Amazon cloud computing) are offering records management capabilities.    The EDRMS vendors recognise that they are not big enough to compete with Microsoft and are falling over  backwards to develop offerings that plug into the back of SharePoint rather than trying to take it on.  

Cloud computing is a threat to Microsoft because Amazon and Google (with their massive data centres) have got into that space first.  Microsoft are moving into the cloud computing market now, and have developed Azure:  an operating system similar to Windows that Microsoft would host from their datacentres rather than organisations having to install it on their servers.  But this means that much of the development effort in upgrading SharePoint in future will go into making sure it can run in the cloud on Azure as well as on Windows.

Jon:  Microsoft have realised that the recent  ISO standards for document formats (Open Document Format and Office XML) threatens the monopoly they had through Microsoft Office.  The move to standards based formats means that documents produced in MS Office are now in an XML format and hence competitors  can offer word processing packages (such as Google docs and Open Office) that can produce documents to the same format.

SharePoint enables Microsoft to keep Office going, because they have tightly integrated SharePoint with Office, and provided functionality to Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint users that aren’t available to users of  the equivalent products of their competitors.  In fact I woudn’t be surprised to see in future years Microsoft binding SharePoint in with Windows, so that any organisation that bought Windows got SharePoint embedded in with it.

There will always be a role for the independent providers,  that is where innovation comes from.


4. In light of the Government White Paper on Open Source and Open Standards, how can organisations justify not using an Open Source solution for RM challenges?

Marc:  It is going to be very interesting to see the progress of open source systems over the next few years.   In EDRMS sphere the open source offerings are relatively new to the market compared to the proprietary systems,  but  Alfresco are an open source company that has advanced plans to go for MoReq2 compliance.

Jon:  As a programmer I love the idea of open source.  But if I was an organisation going open source I wouldn’t start with EDRMS.  I would start by looking at the whole stack that the organisation was using:  for example an organisation with a standard Microsoft stack (Microsoft Office running on Windows servers, with SQL as the main database) could think about whether it wanted to run  open source alternatives (such as Open Office, Linux servers,  MySQL database).   And then think about whether it wanted to go for an open source EDRMS to manage the information on that stack.  Doing it this way round also gives time for the  open source EDRMS offerings to develop and mature.

One motivation for the Government’s paper on open source could be a gambit to put price pressure on Microsoft:  it is the UK government saying to Microsoft ‘don’t raise your prices to much because we are willing to move to open source alternatives’.

Leanne:  Open source is great but it should be done on a pragmatic basis:  I know someone whose organisation is trying to go open source for all their information systems:  and is finding it difficult in some areas to find good open source solutions, particularly where the solution needed is very specialised.

Me:  It found it interesting listening to Jeremy Tuck speak at a conference about Islington Council’s implementation of the open source ECM system  Alfresco.   In order to consider the Open Source solution the Council to adapt their procurement  procedures.  The proprietary systems had salespeople who prepared costed bids.  Islington had to prepare a statement of what the costs and benefits would be of taking the Open Source code for Alfresco and implementing it as an ECM, and then compare this with the bids from the proprietary vendors.  


 5. What do the panelists see as the future role for the Records Manager in the world of electronic information management?

Leanne:  a consultant and advisor to the rest of the organisation

Jon:  a mentor to people in the organisation

Me:  If  services like Facebook and Twitter continue to grow at their current rate  then in a year or two’s time almost everyone of working age will be on one of those services.   Blocking access to these services is easy for organisations when staff are using devices their employer has bought for them, on the organisation’s premises.   But it is not so easy  when people bring their own computing devices to work (netbooks cost less than £200. iPhones and other smartphonest are spreading like wildfire) nor when staff work from home.  And when customers start to want to contact people in the organisation by Twitter or Facebook it is a brave organisation that will cut themselves off from their customers.  Will working conversations start to migrate away from e-mail on to systems like Twitter and Facebook? If so what do organisations do?  Do they rely on staff copying important communications into organisational systems?  Do they deploy systems to interoperate with these Web 2.0 services?

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