19 August 2009

The Unobserved Need

Last week I traveled to rural Indiana to research a case study of a mid-size manufacturing firm. While the subject is interesting in its own right, it is symbolic of a huge, unobserved need.

In the U.S. alone, there are close to 100,000 small to mid-size businesses. Different numbers define this SMB group, but I see it as organizations with between 100 and 1,000 staffers. Outside the business world, there are thousands of non-profits and governmental units with similarly sized staffs.

The vast majority of these organizations suffer from a vacuum or near vacuum of records management. Worse, most don’t recognize the resulting risk. In the SMB world the discipline of Records & Information Management is a little known concept. Record keeping systems (or lack thereof) grow in reaction to operational needs, not RIM concerns.

But these small and mid-size organizations expose themselves to serious risks:
  • Those without disaster recovery plans gamble with their very existence
  • Without intentional records retention and destruction, they risk crippling legal judgments
  • Poor records management puts them at an operational/competitive disadvantage
  • Demonstrating regulatory compliance poses a risk for many modest organizations, even though they are generally less regulated than large corporations. (Smaller businesses that supply or serve large organizations usually have to comply with their customers’ regulations, a requirement generally beyond their rudimentary or absent RIM program)
  • The list goes on….

A Fortune 500 company, becoming aware of its lack of RIM, simply hires a records manager to launch a program (and, yes, there are Fortune 500 firms that do not have a single, dedicated records manager.)

SMBs typically diffuse their records management responsibilities among existing staff and departments, but those efforts are uncoordinated and may be uninformed. Within a single organization, one section may discard important records while another retains meaningless documents in perpetuity. It’s the Wild West out there, where stationmasters set their own time..

Ironically, some of these SMBs currently have tools they need to, at least, make improvements. Their corporate attorneys may have valuable advice on regulatory compliance, if only they would ask. One or more departments (or the whole enterprise) may own document or content management software that contains unused tools for RIM. Their IT departments may have credible disaster recover/business continuity programs that could include records, if only they were aware of the need.

Sadly, few small and mid-size organizations know their needs, so their risks continue unmitigated. The need for education is great, but few address it. ARMA’s priorities focus on large organizations with sophisticated RIM programs or the challenges of subtle, new technologies: for firms still seeking their first records inventory, considering big-versus-small record buckets or the possible advantages of RIM in cloud computing are meaningless.

SMBs personify the work-a-day, blue collar, grind-it-out side of RIM. It may be as unglamorous as a midsize manufacturing business in rural Indiana. But the need, and the potential rewards, are as great as any at the largest, highly-staffed, multinational, corporation.

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