Though NARA requires that federal agencies manage all permanent electronic records in electronic format by the end of this year, they have not mandated that the records management system used be automated.
As NARA’s Use Cases guidance states, “The steps through the [records management] life cycle can be done automatically, semi-automatically or manually. While NARA would like to see agencies move toward full automation, agencies may not be in the position to do this due to limited resources or other constraints.”
It’s worth diving a little deeper into this idea. Automation makes the machine do the work – capturing and identifying records, applying metadata, setting up retention schedules, etc. – so that the human user doesn’t have to. This can create tremendous value by saving workers’ time, reducing costs, and streamlining records management overall. In fact, some degree of automation is vital to realizing those benefits, because any records management approach that relies on manual labor will continue to consume workers’ time, effort, and energy.
Indeed, NARA also says that “automating records management will not only reduce the burden of records management responsibilities on individuals, but will make federal government records and information easier to access because they are more consistently managed.”
That’s true. Gartner has found that organizations lose an average of 4 weeks each year waiting on documents that have been misfiled, mislabeled, or otherwise lost – human errors that can be sidestepped if automated technologies can handle records management without direct human intervention required.
Further, automation is key to future-proofing electronic records management. The electronic records that agencies amass aren’t shrinking; they’re proliferating. Automated technologies can scale to handle skyrocketing numbers of records in a way that human workers can’t. Even if a manual or semi-manual approach to records management is enough to handle today’s volume of records, will it still be enough in 2022, when NARA requires that federal agencies be able to submit all records in electronic format? Will it still be enough in the years that follow if the generation of permanent records continues to grow at present rates?
Absent an automated solution, agencies will struggle to adequately manage records; and the time and labor required will continue to undermine the agency’s ability to operate efficiently and produce records as needed for daily use, to meet FOIA requests, or to adhere to legal discovery mandates.
That said, automating records management functions requires that the agency have a clear and adequate records management workflow and framework in place that meets NARA’s requirements. In other words, you have to know what steps you’re using to handle the electronic records before you can begin to automate those steps. And many agencies have not yet reached that stage.
Nevertheless, all agencies should recognize the criticality of automation – in the future if not today – toward meeting NARA’s broader goals and ensuring that they can fully capitalize on the benefits that come from electronic records management.
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