Is It Ever Okay to Copy "Final" Documents to a Separate System?

By Greg Clark posted 06-03-2011 11:27


I had two very similar and very surprising discussions with different clients this week. Both organizations have mature ECM implementations and in both cases have had their ECM programs in place for more than a decade. The original mandate of their programs was to manage all information through its entire lifecycle, following AIIM's advice to capture, store, manage, deliver and preserve all unstructured content.

But a funny thing happened on the way to ECM nirvana.  Both organizations decided to pursue a "parallel" strategy; one system for collaboration and work-in-progress documents and one for "official records" or final versions (often copies) of documents that have completed the collaboration cycle (and yes, the rise of SharePoint plays a part in this decision, but that's a discussion for another day).

I will freely admit my first reaction was "are you nuts?" After all, as a red-blooded ECM professional my mission in life is to reduce duplication and promote information lifecycle management. But I'm always willing to listen to both sides of any story (and they're my clients so they're always right, right?).

On the positive side, establishing a process to manage only final copies of records mirrors the paper world; if an organization has a well-established physical file management system why not try to replicate that in the electronic world?  The other benefits are that final versions of documents are more likely to have a natural structure which leads to more intuitive metadata and greater discoverability (at least in theory), and content disposition is simplified because the retention schedule for "official" copies is often easier to determine.

On the other hand, isn't the point of ECM to manage information through it's lifecycle?  If we are never going to achieve true ECM why do it at all? You also have the problem of costs; the cost to train people to know when to move a document to its final state and to know where to put it can be high; this is especially true if those people don’t attend training or if they do, still choose not to move final copies to the approved location.  The alternative is to assume that any documents that need to be moved to an official repository will be managed by administrative personnel. Again, this increases costs and impacts efficiency, both areas ECM is intended to improve.  And there are always the potential risks (and risks always translate into costs one way or the other) from duplicate content in multiple systems. This is gravy for lawyers in an eDiscovery process because it creates the possibility of confusion about which version was used to make a decision.

At the end of the day it is difficult to say definitively which is the best approach. Every organization is unique and has its own history, business drivers, processes and rationale for certain courses of action.  General ECM best practice would dictate that information is managed through its lifecycle using a single system or at least seamlessly integrated systems, but this isn't always possible. What I will say is that minimizing duplication and streamlining business processes through good information management usually means managing the information lifecycle. This should be the approach wherever possible and I suspect in most cases this will be the most cost effective approach in the long term.

Ensuring you have a good understanding of the capabilities of your current platform will also help; in many cases the traditional ECM tool may be perceived to have "failed" but in fact meets all of your functional requirements. The other alternative is to look into the possibility of integrating a collaboration platform with a system of record. Even if the truth is both of these platforms are technically capable of managing the information lifecycle, if users perceive that one is better than the other for a particular task you will have more success managing more content, and that's really what we are trying to achieve.

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