Step 5. Applying Technology to Records Management
People frequently turn to technology because they find they can't manage their paper records. Either they are swamped by too much paper on site, or they can't find the documents they need, or both. By itself, technology cannot fix a records management problem; technology applications need a lot of research and planning to be effective. The old saw is true: if you try to automate a records management mess, you will have an automated mess.
However, technology, even simple technology, can make a basically sound records management system operate better. Let's look briefly at a number of technological "fixes" and the types of problems they can help remedy.
Before You Cut the PR...
There are two steps to take before rushing out to buy any hardware or software. These steps are equally valid if you are looking to improve a cabinet of branch correspondence files or the management of millions of Superfund documents. The scale may be different, but the steps are the same.
First, take the time to:
- Study the current situation.
- Identify user needs and requirements.
- Diagnose the current problems.
- Analyze what could be done to meet the needs and correct the problems.
- Plan what a new system should accomplish.
Second, examine whether a simple change in how you currently do business can remedy the problem. In many cases, improving the manual system can either solve the problem or at least allow you to focus the technology application on improving specific aspects of the records system. Examples of "manual solutions" to records problems are provided below.
However, simple fixes don't always resolve the problem, and in many cases, such as the Superfund program, the sheer volume of records and the special problems they pose mandate the program go beyond a well run manual system to implement solutions.
Types of Technology Applications
There are several basic types of technology applications that can help you manage your records.
- Specialized filing equipment to improve the storage and retrieval of records
- Document conversion technology such as optical imaging and microform to reduce the volume of paper on site and allow more efficient workflow
- Document indexing software to allow for retrieval of documents in multiple ways
- Document tracking and control systems to enable you to track documents or folders from creation to final disposition
- Special purpose programs that allow you to automate specific aspects of records management such as records schedules or retiring records to a Federal records center (FRC)
- Software to allow for storage and retrieval of electronic documents
- Electronic forms programs to improve workflow and increase the usability of information contained on the forms
Matching Technology to Problems
Let's look at our two typical records management problems and see what types of solutions technology offers.
Too Much Paper!
- Retire older records to the FRC.
- Destroy older records based on the records schedules.
- Separate nonrecord material from records.
- Separate working files from final documents.
Better Filing Equipment
If reducing paper volume can't solve the problem, something as simple as better filing equipment may help you to manage the volume better. People normally jump to the conclusion that they need compact (movable) shelving, but other options such as open shelving, lateral files and specialized folders, powered filing cabinets, and filing cabinets specifically designed to handled specialized media or oversized documents may allow you to fit more documents into existing space.
Conversion of the existing paper to microform or optical images allows you to maintain the largest volume of documents in the least space. However, conversion is expensive, and you need to be sure you've studied the records so that:
- You are only converting the documents you need, and
- You have an approach to indexing those documents that allows you to retrieve them efficiently.
Microfilm is a good medium to choose if you need to convert records which have a permanent retention. Many offices are successfully imaging documents. For example, the Superfund program is using the Superfund Document Management System (SDMS) to image site file and administrative record documents. Since the documents have been captured electronically, it is easy to move the images to a CD-ROM to fulfill requests from the public.
Both microfilm and imaging take considerable planning. The final caveat is that, generally, it is not cost effective to convert documents to digital images just for the purposes of storage. To justify the cost, the conversion needs to improve the way you process and manage those documents.
I Can't Find What I Need
The second major problem most records managers face is the inability to find the information they need when they need it. This can result from two basic causes:
- Not having sufficient information about the documents to locate them efficiently, or
- Not having sufficient security to ensure they will be where they are supposed to be when needed.
Basic manual solutions include:
- Establishing a file plan and following it.
- Improving filing techniques.
- Cross referencing of documents.
- Improving physical security.
- Using charge out cards.
Document indexing is the easiest way to improve your ability to locate the records you need. For major records series such as premanufacturing notices or Superfund administrative records, indexes may run to 15 to 30 fields, or more. But, indexing need not be terribly complex to be useful. An index that includes addressee, date, file code, and subject would solve many records management problems and simplify filing.
Document Tracking and Control:
Everyone complains that documents or folders "disappear" from the files and can't be located. Control of documents throughout their lifecycle is first of all a matter of establishing procedures and enforcing them. Even the most sophisticated automated tracking system won't work if staff are free to remove documents from the file room at will. However, records management software and/or bar coding systems can provide an excellent means of tracking documents once procedures are in place.
Additional Technology Applications
In many cases, records managers need help in managing their own information.
- What records have been retired to the FRC?
- Where are those records scheduled?
- How can I make records management procedures available to everyone?
Technology can help solve these questions too.
Special Purpose Programs:
There are several areas where automation of one or more phases of the lifecycle can simplify records management tasks. For example several offices have developed an "automated SF 135" form to retire records to the Federal Records Centers.
Providing increased access to information is one place where technology offers a number of options. In looking at the dissemination of records schedules, for example, use of EPA's Internet site has dramatically cut the need for distribution by paper or diskette. Another useful technology for distribution is CD-ROM.
Workflow software is used to automate business processes where electronic information or documents can be passed from person to person for action. EPA is currently using the E-Forms system to process selected forms.
Paper documents are converted to digitized (computer readable) form. An imaging system allows for electronic capture, storage and retrieval of documents. The Superfund Document Management System (SDMS) used in all the EPA regions is one example of an imaging system.
Electronic document management:
An electronic document management system is software you can use to store and retrieve electronic documents. An "integrated" system may use one or more technologies such as imaging and workflow. The Immediate Office of the Office of Air and Radiation is in the process of doing a pilot project using an electronic document management system.
Records management application:
A records management application (RMA) is software which can manage records throughout their lifecycle. It can be used to categorize and locate records as well as dispose of the electronic records maintained in its repository when they are due to be destroyed according to an approved records schedule. EPA is in the process of determining requirements for an Agency-wide RMA.
Don't Reinvent the Wheel
Most of the technology applications discussed above are operational in one or more Agency offices. To find out more about where a specific applications is being used, contact the National Records Management Program.