Think back to the 1960s. Computer salesman H. Ross Perot formed a computer company called Electronic Data Systems; Polaroid introduced color-film prints that developed in 60 seconds, manual typewriters were still in use, people listened to vinyl records ... Much has changed since then. Imagine trying to run your business today on yesterday's technology--no cell phone, fax or e-mail, just the phone and the U.S. Postal Service. What used to take days or even weeks now only takes seconds, via the Internet.
The Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Agency conceived the Internet. Its main goal was to provide a common bridge between all government computers permitting each to communicate with another, even if the connection between one or more computers failed. Information being sent would always find another route to reach its destination. Think of the Internet as the interstate-highway system--the main interstates that stretch from one end of the country to the other are the major routes and all of the exchanges are hops or turns. If there is an accident on one of the major highway routes, traffic is routed to surface streets or another major route.
The Internet is an integral part of our lives and businesses. From checking your child's homework assignments on his school's website, to balancing your checkbook, to booking a flight to your next business meeting, to communicating with friends and business associates, to buying a multitude of products--it seems anything and everything is accessible via the Internet, and records management is no exception. Corporations, individuals or any entity storing information offsite have come to expect the conveniences the Internet affords. They want access to their information from anywhere in the world.
The basic expectations for records storage via the Internet include:
- Data Entry: Enter information in a screen designed for specific needs, from simple A-to-Z carton-descriptive information to detailed file-by-file indexing.
- Retention Scheduling: Incorporate a corporate retention schedule for all items stored off site. Changes to the existing schedule, based on legal or company policies, should automatically update review dates for new and/or existing items currently in storage.
- Requests for Service: Provide a user-friendly search and query engine to easily find needed items, cartons or files, automatically placing a service request.
- Create Reports: Download data and/or create reports in any number of popular formats for immediate use.
- Security: Limit access and functionality based on the individual rights of authorized users, i.e., some users can only perform data entry; others can do anything and everything in between.
In short, customers want "ownership" control--the ability to add, edit, retrieve, create reports and request and order other services for all stored information. In many instances, they not only want control, but a customized database with field structures that match their corporate profile. Others insist the commercial records center not have detailed descriptions or a "roadmap" to the stored information. Security, confidentiality and rules imposed by authorities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission often restrict the records center's database to a box number only.
Multiply these unique needs times thousands of customers, automate the service requests, and then make it all Internet accessible. Add the need to provide a national or international database and the programming/software challenges are, at best, a challenge. A key ingredient to delivering such service is, of course, the Internet. And there are two very separate and distinct Internet approaches for records management-- web-enabled/web-access or web-based. The differences are significant.
This approach uses the Internet as a phone line to connect two locations together for the purpose of exchanging information. Some liken the phone-line connection as "portal access," where the records center is allowing the client to portal into the database at the records center through a third-party application like Citrix, Winframe, pcAnywhere or dozens of other applications. All data is stored on the records-center database with functionality and access generally controlled by the records center.
Field structures, field titles, screen layouts and other customer-specific needs are generally limited to those provided to all customers. Some might provide functionality allowing a customer to alter the titles or structures of a couple of fields, with 80 percent to 90 percent of the structure being precast for all users. In addition, customers with multiple locations are limited to using one records-center database at a time. Searching for information potentially located in 10 different cities would require dialing into 10 different websites, setting up and running 10 separate queries. This approach also requires the records center to own, operate and maintain a web server with appropriate bandwidth, Internet connection, firewall and security.
This approach creates a separate centralized website housing customer data from all locations. Customer-specific field structures, field titles, screen layouts, reports, retention tables, individual employee access and functionality are all controlled by a customer-designated administrator. Orders for service are transmitted to the respective record centers via an automated interface, similar to syncing your PDA with your computer or, when appropriate, via a web interface or e-mail. Customers can designate which fields are transmitted to the records center, providing a full duplicate database at the center when all fields are transmitted. Or, for customers requiring a higher level of security, only the box/file number fields are transmitted. This approach does not require the records center to maintain a web server with appropriate bandwidth and limits security concerns. In short, no outsiders have access to your internal network.
Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. The customer benefits in either case by having immediate access to the index of information stored off site. The customer and the records center enjoy the advantages of automated service requests, search and query capabilities, automated retention scheduling, full on-line reporting capabilities and much more--all without receiving a phone call, fax or e-mail.
Records centers and end-user customers who have embraced this technology are experiencing new efficiencies, improved accuracy, fewer paper reports and better customer service. Some records centers are receiving as much as 80 percent of their daily service requests electronically, reducing phone calls, faxes and the errors associated with manual order entry. Some are offering discounts for electronic service requests. Check it out--it's definitely a win-win approach.
Scott Bidwell is the general manager for Andrews Software Inc., which has provided quality software solutions to the commercial records- center industry for more than 18 years. For more information, call 800.807.2093.
Andrews Software Inc.
Contact: Scott Bidwell
Product(s): Visual Corporate Keeper
Software Type: Records-management
Price Range: $4,500+
Designed specifically for storage? No
Current version on market since: 28 months
New version to be released: Enhancements released quarterly
Demo: Contact company
Tech support: Accessed via phone, online or e-mail. Hours: 7:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. EST. Voicemail and cell phones available after hours.
Andrews Software Inc. has provided quality software solutions to the commercial records-center industry for more than 18 years. The company uses its own tools in its Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, facilities, which contain 1.4 million cubic square feet and 500,000 cubic square feet of records respectively. The Andrews family of software products has a proven track record of accommodating most, if not all, of the management and operating challenges in the records-management industry.