Managing information in cloud systems November 7, 2014

cloudsThis week we had our regular EDRMS (Electronic Document and Records Management System) implementers’ group meeting. The meeting’s topic was managing information in cloud systems. A great thing about this group is the wide range of expertise in the room: today there were records and information managers, information specialists, operations directors and business analysts among the group attending. This reflects the diverse expertise required to deal with today’s records and information management issues.

The constant factor was, as always, significant change. People were going through organisational mergers, dealing with the continuing legacy of demergers, and adapting new business models. There was wide agreement in the room that this environment requires a broad information management leadership role; that EDRMS is an important part of a digital organisation, but only part of the solution. A number of excellent examples were related which discussed the expanding, complex role they are increasingly called upon to play.

We had two presentations from attendees regarding the management of information in cloud systems.

Presentation one: challenges of a cloud-only digital operating environment

The first presentation covered an organisation’s transition to a digital environment almost entirely supported by software as a service and cloud applications. This organisation is relatively new, and so took the opportunity to make the most of as-a-service arrangements and not establish ICT infrastructure which would require ongoing maintenance and management.

While there had been some successes from this approach, there were situations when it left them exposed: the deployment of one as-a-service solution, which required them to be the broker of multiple providers, exposed them to having responsibility for the overall system but without the technical capability or full system access rights to resolve issues when they occasionally arose.  They also experienced first-hand that a cloud solution is very quick to commission and get up and running, but is very hard to back out of if it is no longer meeting business expectations. They also found that their usage estimates for some cloud platforms were significantly under their actual use, which meant that system costs were much higher than expected.

The presenter talked about one cloud application that was used to manage a business function which was subsequently outsourced. While the application contained important information that was clearly required for ongoing business purposes, the subscription almost expired without the retrieval of data. In the event, the provider was able to provide the data back to the agency, although it was not clear contractually that they had an obligation to do so and it required urgent work from both the provider and the organisation’s records manager.

The importance of having a clear understanding of your right to withdraw data from a service, and the format in which it is provided, is a bare minimum requirement. This organisation’s experience demonstrates that this is often not considered when a business manager approves the often deceptively-low monthly costs of signing up to a cloud service.

Presentation two: adopting a cloud service to streamline a business function

The second presentation was a demonstration of how a well defined process can be transitioned successfully to a cloud service. This organisation wanted a more efficient process to receive, assess and approve grant applications. While the total value of grants provided is significant, they are made up of relatively few large value grants in a number of regular rounds throughout the year.

The business unit had clear requirements around the records they needed to ensure they ran a transparent and accountable process. At the outset, the project got a clear understanding of how to withdraw their data from the service, and the format in which it was provided. It was also established that data would be stored in a secure facility within Australia. The cloud service provided the ability to bulk export grants information once the process was concluded.

When the project balanced business and accountability needs, they determined that the primary driver for implementing the system was making the process more efficient by having all the key information, interactions and decisions take place within the system. Real-time synchronisation with centralised information management systems did not add value to the process, so the decision was made to adopt the existing bulk export functionality for long-term recordkeeping requirements.

This project shows that well-defined functions can be effectively transitioned to cloud services, provided that data export requirements are clear established and other risks are understood. It also demonstrated that a fragmented process managed in-house can pose higher information risks than a well-managed process using a specialised cloud solution.

Group discussion

The presentations stimulated a lot of discussion among the group. Many of the attendees explained that they were constantly tasked with integrating new and innovative systems into their enterprise-wide information management strategies.

One organisation is planning for the implementation of a mobile workforce, with the requirement of providing access to multiple enterprise systems into a tablet interface for the field. They explained that while real-time system integration was critical for certain systems, it was not required for others. This project had really shown that they could not manage their enterprise content in a centralised repository. The characteristics required for application performance and process scalability across mobile platforms were not built into their existing EDRMS platform, and they were considering other approaches to ensuring robust management of their records long term.

Another organisation recognised the challenges faced by the newly established organisation and described a recent merger process and the unresolved information management issues. Processes and obligations were very challenging to align, and this was before even considering the impact of having to rationalise technologies. This was all while dealing with some information management issues unresolved from a previous demerger. Several other members mentioned the constant possibility of major organisational changes as a factor that had become business-as-usual, and noted this did have an impact on people’s confidence in their ability to implement complex projects.

The group discussed that emphasizing the value of managing information, and not just this risks, was raising the profile of their work. A number of organisations said that they were struggling to get traction to address risks with sections of business management, with an all-too-common approach being “we have lived with this risk so far, what’s changed?” Other members were positive about their growing role, saying they routinely advise their organisations’ strategic, high-budget projects and get acknowledged frequently for adding tangible value.

This was our last meeting of the group for the year, but there was great enthusiasm for next year’s meeting agenda. Topics proposed include managing information with a mobile workforce, managing the retention and disposal of digital information, incorporating the power of enterprise search technologies, and implementation of open data procedures. There was an emphatic consensus that the group members’ roles were much more than EDRMS implementers. As the meetings happen, blog posts will follow on some or all of these topics!

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