Robbins Gioia and MERS Take Records Management to the Next Level

The Municipal Employees Retirement System of Michigan (MERS), a statewide retirement and tax-qualified trust program, is deeply committed to caring for its constituents by providing them with top-quality service and products. MERS employee benefit programs that municipalities may adopt for their employees include defined benefit, defined contribution and hybrid plans, and group insurance products. MERS serves cities, counties, hospitals, libraries, medical care facilities, road commissions, townships, villages, and similar units of local government. MERS has been determined by the Internal Revenue Service to be a tax-qualified governmental plan under section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, which is tax exempt under section 501(a) (most recent Letter of Favorable Determination issued June 15, 2005).

MERS operated under state government from 1945 until 1996, when the system became an independent nonprofit public corporation. Today, MERS provides benefit programs to more than 70,000 members in more than 680 units of local government.

In 2004, MERS initiated a records management policy to comply with legal and regulatory requirements and better manage company knowledge. The core, structured records on members were already secure and organized, but MERS wanted to take its records management even further. The result of thoughtful, deliberate planning, the policy's ultimate goal was to poise MERS to take advantage of emerging technology opportunities and mitigate possible risk.

MERS’ core motivation is serving its customers. "It is the nature of our business to have a long-term relationship with people—from the first day they start a job with a local government until they or their survivors die," said MERS Chief Research Officer William Saint Amour. "The need to maintain the appropriate knowledge to serve them accurately and well is critical."

MERS staff representing all departments worked together to identify further opportunities for its records management system. Then the staff identified possible risks associated with some knowledge management practices. The potential for mismanaged records and lack of record security could create problems for members and their employers in the future. Some records were saved in a format that allowed them to be altered, raising questions about their integrity. In fact, the unstructured nature of some records impaired MERS ability to comply with its own record retention policy.

Looking to the future, MERS leadership estimated that about 50 percent of the organization's staff would be new in four years, so they would need to have a reliable method of finding the records created today. Added to this employee growth and changeover, MERS was growing in size and complexity, with more than 100,000 electronic documents and 400,000 email documents. Many of these records were duplicated with copies that took up significant server space (emails, content with miscellaneous notes), increasing system complexity and cost. And because files were often spread among many people with different filing practices, it was very difficult to quickly access all information on a topic—especially if someone was out of the office or no longer with MERS. It was decided that a commercial tool aligned with standardized processes and practices would be helpful to the succession planning needed for the future.

In 2005, MERS staff began the search for an off-the-shelf product that would meet DOD and ISO requirements for records management, but was also flexible enough to provide additional functionality in the future. At first the group looked at FileNet ® to do the installation, but arrived at the conclusion that a third-party installer would provide more value. They ultimately chose FileNet software because of its presence in the retirement system community and its network of partners. FileNet offered a platform (FileNet P8 ®) designed to help customers to streamline and automate business processes, access and manage content, and automate records management to meet compliance needs.


The P8 package contained four elements:

· Content Manager—Content Manager is the backbone for the entire system. The content manager defines who created each document and when, as well as the information to enable search and retrieval of the document.

· Records Manager—Records Manager enables clients to identify and designate documents and secure them as needed. This Records Management component also enables the user to provide additional metadata or properties. The records retention schedule determines when the record will be deleted or transferred to permanent storage.

· Email Manager—The Email Manager is a background running application. It ingests emails, including attachments, as records into the Content Manager as well as declaring these as records in the Records Manager.

· Records Crawler—Records Crawler is a background application that ingests electronic records from monitored locations within the MERS system into the records management system, expediting data input and enabling the search and retrieval of records.

All electronic document content is ingested into the Content Manager; while electronic and physical record metadata resides in the Records Manager. MERS has several inventor y databases of physical records that are formatted as tables. The system converts the tables, creating records for each entry. These physical record entries are essentially placeholders as no content can be ingested unless the record is scanned or imaged and retained as an image object. Many records are held on microfilm or microfiche. The typical procedure is to ingest the film number or slide/image number as table or index metadata, enabling retrieval of the record.

Once MERS purchased P8, they looked for an integrator who had experience in managing similar programs, a background in records management, capability in integrating and configuring the application, and an in-house training capability in terms of developing a specific records retention training program for MERS. Robbins Gioia, a premier program management firm headquartered in Alexandria, Va., and FileNet partner, was one of the referrals. When MERS executives reviewed Robbins Gioia's proposal, they found that the company was strong in program and records management. "What specifically set RG above other contenders was their clear interest in the direction MERS was going, their flexibility to meet MERS requirements, and their commitment to working collaboratively on a project to ensure it is successful," said Saint Amour. "We are pleased that we chose them."

As a pioneer and leadership in the program management industry for more than 25 years, Robbins Gioia had used its Records Information Optimization (RIO) solution on many successful engagements, including a Fortune 100 multinational corporation, the U.S. International Trade Commission Electronic Document Information System II, and various military depots using the Programmed Depot Maintenance Scheduling System. Robbins Gioia applied its known strengths in PM and records management in helping MERS better adapt to and prepare for the implementation and integration of the technological solution.

It was decided that the MERS executive department, consisting of human resources, operations, and the executive team, and the investment department would be the first two pilot departments. "The investment department is the most complex of all within MERS, which is why it was selected," explained Bob Lorenz, Robbins Gioia senior consulting manager. Saint Amour added, "We also picked the executive group for a strategic reason—the CEO was very much behind the project, and we wanted to get everyone else on board."

But first, the team had to install and configure the entire base system, and then tailor it to the specific departments. The project was divided into three phases: pre-implementation, implementation, and production. The preimplementation phase set the stage. First, Robbins Gioia and MERS developed the project plan, which provided guidance for all stages of the project, from planning through post-implementation support. Development of the plan involved the program management disciplines of scheduling and providing resources and governance for the project. MERS, Robbins Gioia, and FileNet team members were identified and their responsibilities defined in fulfilling MERS requirements.

The plan also included quality and communications components. The quality part of the plan addressed the different types of testing for the software. The communications plan had two components: one for the MERS, Robbins Gioia, and FileNet team involved in building, configuring, and implementing the records management system; and one for the end users—the MERS employees who would use and interact with the system. Team members met a minimum of at least once (and frequently three or four times) a week to update one another on the system's status and address any issues. Robbins Gioia developed a communications package for MERS employees, designed to build awareness and make people aware of training opportunities. The ultimate objective was to gain employee buy-in by with a focus on good, clear communication and change management.

The next step was to research and create a System Design Document (SDD) identifying all general configuration elements for MERS and specific configuration elements for the first two pilot departments. The SDD provides detailed information on all hardware, software, network configurations, and patches necessary to install the system and identifies the record classification structure for the Records Manager and profiles, rules, and index templates for the Email Manager and Records Crawler.

Then the team was ready to move to phase 2, implementation. This phase built on the thought, cooperation, and hard work that went into phase 1 to accurately configure each of the system's myriad components. Otherwise, the system would fail. According to MERS CEO Anne Wagner, this phase was the toughest. "The challenge is going from the broad, conceptual decision to the thousands of small design decisions that affect how staff members do their day-to-day job," she said. "Their daily practice has to change, but we were very intentional to minimize the change and the burden to drive usage." Saint Amour agreed, noting, "The software is complex. The key thing was to make it easy for the user."

"The folder structure for documents and the category structure for records have to be built on business process rather than preference," said Lorenz. "You need to know what a record is and where to put it—and everyone has to be on board for that." He pointed out that the email manager—through the Exchange public folders—and records crawler—through the MERS common shared drive folders—have to emulate an identical structure. "Choice lists within the system, properties, retention schedules and actions, the structure of the file plan, the disposition schedule, entry and search templates—they all have to be defined and configured, and it takes a while to get it user-friendly and acceptable," Lorenz explained. “Because of the intense forethought and effort in configuring the software, now, after saving a document, users can simply drag it to a special set of folders on the network drive or public folders in Outlook. Once the document is in the correct folder for classification, the software automatically indexes it and adds appropriate metadata."

As work progressed, training was developed specific to the various roles— administrators, coordinators, and users. After making a few tweaks to the executive and investment rollouts, the project was declared a success. "We all learned a great deal from working on this project," said Saint Amour. "It required much more than we had originally anticipated." He and Wagner offered some lessons learned for other organizations embarking on a records information management project:

· Simplicity is key.

· Involve the users from the beginning. Not only does this build better buy-in, but they become more educated about records, indexing, and searching. This approach pays off in their work outside the system too.

· Design the system with flexibility in mind. As the organization changes through reorganizations, mergers, etc., the record system will be able to adapt.

· Work with a software platform that is flexible in the file formats it can manage.

Seven more departments are scheduled to be on line and functional by the end of the fourth quarter, 2007. Robbins Gioia will continue to provide training and troubleshooting until all nine departments are up and running. "FileNet is a very strong product," said Lorenz. "Once the project team has achieved full configuration and obtained acceptance on the part of MERS, we'll have an acceptable and viable solution that will provide them with the tools they will need going forward."

Looking to the future, Wagner said, "It is hard to predict where the technology is going, so a flexible approach to knowledge management is best. We started with records, but knowledge is growing exponentially, and our next step is to develop the tool to capture broader knowledge that is not necessarily a record. Developing a useful tool to easily catalog and access broader knowledge throughout the organization is one piece of being innovative. And in our dynamic climate, innovation is the piece that will help us provide value to our stakeholders."

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