The complexity of digital transitions – happy #IAM_2014 May 26, 2014

Digital NativeTo celebrate Information Awareness Month, this week at State Records we are going to explore some of the key challenges facing information professionals today, starting with digital transitions.

So what are digital transitions?

Digital transitions

Digital transitions are when business operations (and the information about these operations) move to different and often multiple forms of digital systems.

In traditional models, business has generally been transacted using controlled, linear, centralised and often paper-based processes.

In digital transitions, business is moving to environments where it is now transacted using mobile devices, apps, transaction specific systems, large scale enterprise resource planning systems, project-based collaborative tools, social media systems, as well as a very wide range of other possible tools.

Digital transitions are fantastic and organisations are embracing the opportunities and efficiencies they can bring with gusto.

However, a key challenge that is gradually becoming clearer is that managing information through digital transition is actually very difficult. How do you actually know what you need to make and keep when the nature of the information is shifting so profoundly, and when information is moving to so many diverse and complex environments?

Understanding and responding to these challenges requires a lot of detailed and fundamental reassessments of information and corporate information needs in the short and long term.


Digital transition involves reinvention

While certain fundamentals, such as the need to support clients and business and the need to meet core accountability requirements will remain the same no matter where or how business is transacted,  we can no longer assume that traditional means of meeting these requirements will continue to be adequate in digital business environments.

Transitioning to digital business frameworks cannot simply be a driver for digitising existing paper processes and replicating current work patterns in digital systems. Digital transition involves being aware that digital operating environments are fundamentally different to their paper equivalents and different management approaches may be necessary.

For example, in some digital business contexts, attaching a digital report to a file in an EDRMS (electronic document and records management system) may not be a viable solution for long term information management.

Many digital business environments already in use across government cannot generate data in a form that would be easily incorporated into an EDRMS. Often too in digital transitions, business processes and operations are split between so many complex operating environments, including social media accounts, websites, specific business applications, corporate email systems and personal mobile devices, that trying to apply traditional information management approaches or solutions will simply become too complex to control and administer. Therefore significant reappraisals and reassessments are required that focus on identifying approaches to make and keep the information that is genuinely needed by the organisation and its clients to support its business operations.


Transition therefore involves a reappraisal and reassessment of business information needs

A strategic reappraisal of business process is fundamental to digital transitions. Good information management and governance comes down to having the right information you need to support your business needs and accountabilities, and having it in the form that best meets these business needs and accountabilities.

Therefore moving to digital operating environments should involve a strategic reappraisal and reassessment of your business information needs and determining how, with your new digital operating channels, you are going to be able to make and keep this information.

In digital transition, it can be important to reassess your business needs for information. To do this, you can ask questions like:

  • what information does the business specifically need to perform and account for its operations?
  • what information is specifically needed by clients and to support service delivery?
  • are certain types of information referred to for longer periods than others?
  • in some instances is it sufficient to retain a summary of certain documents, instead of the document itself?

Gathering this type of intelligence will help you to focus your information management strategies on identifying and maintaining the high risk/high value information that your organisation really does need to keep.

Another really important issue to consider in digital transitions relates to information volumes. The volume of information created in digital operating environments is huge. If you have legal and business requirements to keep information about certain business information for long periods of time, the management costs and complexities associated with doing this can be huge.

To ensure your organisation is focussed on keeping the information it genuinely needs to keep and to ensure that this information is not lost in the noise of  information generated by a range of competing data sources, digital transitions are a critical point where you can assess retention requirements and develop ‘by design’ approaches that enable you to keep what you need to keep and gradually destroy time expired information when it is legally appropriate to do so.

Reassessing and reappraising your business information needs will involve looking at specific technical environments, as digital transitions can mean that one business activity, such as project management, becomes split between multiple business environments. Consequently, information and documentation about different aspects of project management can now be located in multiple internal and external systems. Where is the information that your organisation genuinely needs about project management and how are you going develop strategies to ensure it is made and kept?

In addition, certain technological environments can incorporate commercial controls and interoperability constraints that make it impossible to export information from these environments. Identifying these situations and developing possible management approaches is a key aspect of supporting digital transitions.


Metadata is critical in digital transitions

Metadata is a fundamental a part of records and information management, but it is seldom well defined in digital transitions.

In the paper world, documents would often be linked sequentially on a file, there would be signatures, dates, authorisations and annotations and generally the complete history of a case would be contained within the one file or folder. In the digital world, metadata now serves these authentication, integrity and contextual roles, but in digital transitions, awareness of the integral role of metadata in attesting to the context and trustworthiness of documentation is not always considered and metadata can be hard to obtain from and maintain within diverse business systems.

For example, through time, case or project management is going to need strong metadata attached to information about projects or cases to provide the same trace and surety that signatures, dates, authorisations and annotations did in the paper file-based environment.

Other forms of metadata that are increasingly becoming common, such as workflow or approvals processing metadata which have a direct outcome on information integrity, accountability and ongoing useability, may also be important to identify and proactively manage to ensure digital information is as accountable and as usable as it needs to be in digital business transitions.


Transitions to the cloud

Digital transitions frequently involve the movement of business processes and their supporting information to the cloud.

Key information related risks to mitigate in cloud services relate to information longevity, exportability and digital change or transition itself. For example:

  • can cloud services support information for as long as you need it supported?
  • is your information portable either to a new cloud service or back into corporate control?
  • is the metadata that supports and accounts for your information and its management portable?

Cloud offerings are also are generally fixed, meaning there is limited scope for change or configuration of the services offered. It may therefore be important to determine:

  • is anything lost with this transition to more generic operating frameworks?
  • is data that used to be captured now no longer captured because of how a service is configured?
  • is this OK or has something important been lost in this transition?
  • are there workaround for this and what are the implications?
  • are standard purge rules applied at all and if so, how do these operate?

With the cloud too, you generally pay based on data volumes stored. Therefore, for high volume processes, if cloud is used, you may need to determine:

  • can you selectively transition some documents and their metadata out of cloud frameworks while maintaining other active information in these frameworks?
  • can scheduled and authorised deletion or purge processes be enabled?
  • what kind of flexibility in information management approaches can be supported?


Digitisation needs to be a very considered support for digital transition

It can be exceptionally costly and time consuming to scan, store and manage all existing paper legacy records as part of a transition strategy. A strategic approach should be adopted to selectively manage digitisation or scanning projects. For example, some forms of documents may be subject to greater rates of ongoing use than others, and so these types of records should be priorities for scanning. Ongoing paper management could be appropriate for other forms of records, which could later be scanned on demand if required.

While there may be substantive benefits to having digital versions of all paper documentation available following a mass scanning project, the significant costs of managing digital content must be understood. For example, a European research report by Nick Poole at The Collections Trust, The Costs of Digitising Europe’s Cultural Heritage found that:

 the acquisition of digital material creates a long-term obligation on the host institution, which must be accounted for. Most estimates put the cost of preserving and providing access to a digital asset for a period of 10 years at 50-100% of the initial costs of creating it. Hence, mass-Digitisation creates a large-scale economic obligation which must be addressed from the outset in programme budgets.

This report also contains many statistics about the costs of scanning the content of libraries and archives in Europe and observes that:

The cost of delivering one Joint Strike Fighter is €147.41m, equivalent to the cost of digitising 1.93 million books, or 2-3% of all individual titles held in libraries.

Depending on the volumes of legacy paper held, therefore, scanning legacy collections is a very expensive exercise, both initially and as a long term management cost, and should generally only be performed where there is genuine business value to be gained.


With transition, don’t build for legacy, build for the future

Concentrating on designing approaches that will work best with legacy data, systems and processes will constrain good practice moving forward. It is important to design information management for maximum business accountability and effectiveness in emerging digital environments and then develop strategic work arounds or processes for managing and where necessary integrating legacy information.


In conclusion…

In summary then, digital transitions are going on in every business environment today but they pose significant challenges for information management. To best support these transitions, we as information managers must be prepared to innovate, engage and truly support core business and client outcomes. We would love to hear your stories about digital transitions, so please do feel free to share.

photo by: Gideon Burton
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