The commercial records-management industry has been entrepreneurial from its very beginning. The trade association, PRISM International, has become the only independent unifying source for the industry at large. Vendors, software companies and consultants have done their part but, because of their nature, have their own slant on financial, operational or sales practices. The industry has few best practices, standards or benchmarks to guide new entrants to the industry. This article discusses what to do and how to find your way.
Anyone interested in a new business venture should always look for best practices, benchmarks and standards of performance to assist them. So, what are these things, and why are they important? Let’s look briefly at each:
- Standards of performance are established by authority, custom or general consent as a model or example. They are written statements describing how well an activity should be performed. Performance standards are generally developed collaboratively within an industry.
- Benchmarks are points of reference from which measurements may be made, or customs by which others may be measured or judged.
- Best practices are the identification and validation of thoroughly tested methods that allow industries to learn from others’ attempts, avoiding costly and time-consuming mistakes and duplications of effort.
Most industries share information through networks, user groups and trade associations. Although the commercial records-management industry has often attempted, in several ways, to share practices, there has been reluctance. PRISM International has been successful with one major standard, and that is the industry contract, which is the de facto standard of the industry. It passes all of the appropriate tests and is in use by most of the industry. It is perhaps the lone standard.
Beware False Claims
If you see claims by a vendor that its product or service is an “industry standard,” you should always be cautious. Claims like this are generally marketing ploys, since they are very difficult to prove. I have seen more and more of this, and have yet to see one that actually meets the test of the definitions stated above. So where can I find these important ingredients in an industry generally devoid of them?
Standards are generally applicable, i.e., you can import them from one industry to another. A company can embrace principals that have been adapted from similar industries. For example, in records management, software vendors have used methods from comparable industries.
Finding the Right Way
Everybody wants to find the “right way”—it is human nature. We learn from each other. Knowledge and experience is cumulative and built on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Finding your way in a sea of claims and half truths is difficult, so these are my recommendations:
- Always get second opinions. There is always someone else to ask who has a different perspective or point of view. If you can find more than two advisors, ask them to list for you the features, advantages and benefits of the practice, product or service you are attempting to learn about.
- Ask the trade associations for references. The professionals in any industry are well-educated in their craft, earn certifications, and belong to associations in which they participate. The ones most often consulted in the commercial records industry are PRISM (Professional Records & Information Services Management) International (www.prismintl.org), the Association for Information Management Professionals (ARMA International) (www.arma.org), the Institute of Certified Records Managers (www.icrm.org) and AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management) International (www.aiim.org).
- Hire a qualified consultant. Consultants are a dime a dozen. Finding one that brings you value is difficult. If a consultant implies his way is the “right” way, you probably have the wrong one. Consultants should always provide more than one option and the benefits of each.
Issues Regarding Standards
Let’s look at some issues that do exist in commercial records management:
- The standard client contract promulgated by PRISM and available to members—This contract includes appropriate wording for limitation of liability, “evergreen” terms, and service and price-list attachments.
- Business rules—Software and operating practices that follow rules that are common for control and integrity of the system. Exception reporting and clearing methods are important to alert operators to problems before they happen. Beware of software where flexibility is more important than business rules.
- Principles—These comprise comprehensive and fundamental laws, doctrines or assumptions. There are several that can be applied to commercial records management, for example:
Effective use of technology—This principle assumes you only apply technology where it is cost reductive to you and valuable to your client.
Strategic outsourcing—Outsourcing is common in many industries. It works only when you outsource an activity that is best done by another. Outsourcing should include cost reduction and work process improvement.
Batch processing—This principle goes back to some of the original factories more than a hundred years ago. It assumes any work effort is reduced when volume is increased. It is always cheaper and better to do 10 activities one time than to do 10 activities 10 times. Understanding the business they are about to enter is paramount for new operators. Acquiring solid, trustworthy information is difficult. Discerning the difference is important. Look to the professionals and experts for advice. Consider everything before you act, and always ask more than one resource.
Regular columnist Cary McGovern, CRM, is the principal of FileMan Records Management, which offers full-service records-management assistance for commercial records storage startups, marketing assistance, and sales training in commercial records-management operations. For assistance in feasibility determination, operational implementation or marketing support, call 877.FILEMAN; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.fileman.com.