How to Choose the Right Electronic Records Management System
Your organization generates a lot of information and needs to retain a lot of records. Storing, organizing, and sorting through all those documents can be a massive headache if they’re still in paper or physical formats. Frequently accessed records will need constant organizational maintenance to avoid becoming a messy pile, and even archival documents need to be organized and maintained properly so that you can provide them to a court or the CRA quickly if they’re ever requested.
You know that you and your organization can rise to this challenge and keep everything in good working order. But should you have to? Maintaining organized records and documents is a necessary part of any efficient business model. But keeping paper documents organized takes time and energy away from your members which could be going toward more productive tasks.
Fortunately, there are digital solutions that can save you and your members time, money, and stress. These systems can vary widely, but collectively they are generally referred to as Electronic Record Management Systems (ERM/ERMS), Electronic Document and Record Management Systems (EDRMS), Document Management Systems (DMS), or Enterprise Content Management systems (ECM).
Though there are some differences between these terms, the diversity of options available within each makes them broadly interchangeable. Of these terms, however, “ECM” is probably the least interchangeable, as this is typically reserved for large, high-budget, comprehensive systems. If your organization has enough money and enough digital content to warrant looking at the higher end of the spectrum, then this is probably the term to watch out for.
Technically, your home computer’s file managing program (e.g. File Explorer for Windows, Finder for Macs) counts as a Document Management System, as it stores digital files in an organized manner. However, the range of complexity and scale can extend well beyond this. At the upper end, some large organizations and corporations have their content management systems custom-built, with tailored automation and processing to suit the specific needs of their operation within their jurisdiction(s).
So then, where do you even start? What makes one electronic records management system better than another? How much should they cost? What specific options are available? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this blog post, but first, we have to understand a record’s lifecycle.
The “lifecycle” of a record simply refers to its start and end within your organization and everything in between. In general, this process has three steps: creation/collection, storage and use, and disposition. An invoice from a service provider, for example, is created outside of your organization by the provider, and collected by you. After you pay it, you need to hold onto it as documentary evidence for a legally mandated retention period. Once that retention period is up, you’ll need to dispose of it, which could mean destroying it, putting it in some form of long-term storage, or handing it off to someone else for safekeeping.
The more of your records’ lifecycle your ERM can handle, the more valuable it is to you. The standard suite of file-organizing programs built into your computer can handle the collection and storage of digital files, but you’ll need to bring the file into an editing program like Microsoft Word or Photoshop if you want to edit them after the fact. Once the retention period is up, you’ll probably need specialized software to fully delete them from your hard drive or transfer them to another location, unless you plan to keep them indefinitely.
Mainstream cloud-storage services like Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive cover essentially the same set of functions, with the addition of various built-in programs that offer more functions when it comes to creation, editing, and use. These generic ERMs will suffice for most organizations, but some with specialized business models or unique needs will require more specialized systems to match.
Laying out a complete list of every ERM on the market, pointing out specializations, and weighing their pros and cons would be well beyond the scope of this blog post. Other websites have already compiled such lists (here’s our favourite), so it would be a waste of time to tread that ground again. Instead, we’ll go through some important questions we think would be helpful for guiding your decision-making.
Questions to Guide your Search
How complex is my organization’s record lifecycle?
Organizations with smaller, conventional business models, or whose business models don’t center around information will have fairly simple content lifecycles. Mainstream business suites like Google Business Suite and Microsoft’s OneDrive or Sharepoint should offer more than enough functionality to effectively digitalize your operation. Other organizations with more operational complexity than simply intake, storage, and disposal, should consider more specialized ERMs with other functions like secure file transfer or business process automation. In general, it may be a good idea to write down every step that a record will go through in your organization, from creation to eventual disposal, and check off every step that the ERM you’re considering is able to handle.
What kind of security options does it offer?
Information security is obviously very important for any organization, but it’s more important for some than for others. Additionally, certain organizations are more likely to be targeted by cybercriminals or corporate espionage and thus have justifiable reasons to be more careful. When considering possible ERMs, look at their history with cybersecurity, and seek out some positive and negative reviews.
Another aspect to consider is whether your organization requires tiered layers of security. Unless every member of your organization can be trusted with access to any file in your collection, you’ll need to have options for restricted access and multiple layers of security clearance. The inclusion and quality of encryption options, password protections, and version control are also features to consider.
How easy would it be to show an audit trail with this system?
As discussed in our other blog posts about document management, every organization needs to be able to present reliable, transparent, and comprehensive audit trails to prove the legitimacy and authenticity of their records. One of the primary benefits of electronic records management systems over paper is that digital audit trails are both easier to generate, and far more reliable. Automated metadata means that records about who imported, created, edited, or deleted a file, and when it happened are generated instantly as these actions take place, and are stored by both the records system and the file itself.
Every ERM will generate metadata, but only some systems automatically compile complete audit trails for individual records and/or users. Producing a defensible audit trail without this automation will require you or your members to go through the metadata yourself. Depending on the number of files you have to defend, this could cost you a significant amount of time and energy. This makes automated audit trails an important option for organizations that are more likely to have to defend the legitimacy of their records on a regular basis, or who generate a significant amount of content.
Whatever ERM you end up choosing for your organization, the benefits of digital information management systems can only be achieved with digital files. If you’ve still got paper files on your hands, then the information they contain won’t be included in the benefits an ERM can offer you. Digitization services like document scanning and data entry allow you to get the most utility out of every file. Quantitative information goes from stale numbers on a page to dynamic datasets that can be visualized and analyzed instantly. Pages and pages of dense text documents become instantly searchable and shareable and can be safeguarded with password protections, metadata systems, and protected file formats.
Consentia has been providing digitization services to organizations in Alberta for decades, including document scanning, film conversions, and data entry. We’ve worked with organizations of every shape and size, on every type of project. Our transformation solutions are fully scalable and can be customized to suit your specific needs and circumstances.
Get in touch with one of our experts today to learn more about how we can help you revolutionize your information management.
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