The nature of electronic records – podcast with Ben Plouviez

Between 2004 and 2006 Ben Plouviez (@benplouviez) oversaw the roll out of an EDRM (electronic documents and records management) system across what was then the Scottish Executive (but is now the Scottish Government).

Six years later and the system contains 14 million documents and is used by around 4,000 staff.

In this podcast Ben reflects even-handedly on both the benefits that having an organisation wide records repository has brought to the Scottish Government, and on the promises that the system has not fulfilled.

The roll out of the EDRM was driven partly by the Scottish Executive’s desire to breakdown silos between the various different parts of the administration. They  made the decision that wherever possible files would be open and accessible to the whole of the Scottish Government. There have been times when colleagues have found documentation that they would never have known existed were it not for the EDRMS.

The EDRM’s Scottish Government wide business classification scheme has not been an unqualified success, but nor could it be called a failure.  It is not terribly popular with users, who rarely use it to navigate to material that they wish to find.  However on the plus side the scheme has provided a stable and enduring  structure for the system.

Ben has found that the electronic files on the EDRM system do not tell a narrative in anything like as clear or as useable way as a typical paper file used to do.  Ben questioned whether it was feasible  for records managers to expect their organisations to keep a full electronic file of every piece of work they carry out.  Ben said that the concept of the file is predicated on the concept of the document and we are now seeing alternatives to the document in the form of blogs, wikis, discussion forums, etc.  None of these new formats fit naturally into the file.  I found it significant that MoReq2010 specification used the word ‘aggregation’ instead of the word ‘file’.  This implies that in the electronic world there are many different ways in which business communications can be collected (e-mails in in-boxes, tweets in tweet streams, etc..).

There have been some unexpected benefits to having an organisation-wide records repository.  For example Scottish Government have taken information from the system’s audit logs about who has read what on the EDRM and translated it into rdf triples (the non-proprietary format that underpins linked data and the semantic web).  They have then provided an interface to enable colleagues to query this data to find out what their colleagues have read on the system. This enables the serendipitous finding of documents of curerent interest, and provides a more human way of browsing and interrogating the system than that provided by either the business classification or by the search facility.  The Scottish Government have also used the same technique in relation to e-mail logs.  They have taken the records of who sent an e-mail to who and when, converted it to rdf, and provided a query and visualisation interface.  This means colleagues can find out who has been corresponding with particular colleagues or stakeholders.    Note that the content of the e-mail is not accessible, and that only e-mails with at least one person in cc have been included to ensure that private correspendence between two people is excluded.

Ben talked about the plans for the future of electronic records management in Scottish Government, including their intention to replace their existing EDRM within the next three or four years.  He speculated on whether it would be possible for one product/system to fulfill both their collabortion and records management needs, or whether Scottish Government would have to implement several different tools to deliver that vision.

This podcast is published as ECM Talk episode 014 – you can download it from here