Computer-based electronic records systems are at once the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity records managers have faced since the arrival of micrographics in the field almost forty years ago. Electronic mail and electronic data interchange are explored here in three ways: basic functions and features, important technical standards associated with them, and significant management demands they will make on records professionals.
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince (1532)
It must have been quite a shock to the first student of human history who realized that so little about humanity has changed for thousands of years--except technology. Proliferating technologies are producing new challenges as well as opportunities for today's records managers. Electronic mail (E-mail) and electronic data interchange (EDI), for example, are not merely computer applications to be simply acquired and used with little thought to their impact on organizational information flow and control. In fact, these technologies raise a myriad of complex records management issues as well. Examples of persistent questions are:
* When is a message (which may include images, or graphics, or large text files) that is sent electronically part of an official "record," and when is it not (i.e., evidentiary data vs convenience data)?
* How easy is it to deny receipt of something received electronically and possibly never printed?
* Can persons or organizations sending or receiving electronic communications be held as accountable for taking appropriate actions as they would were paper documents used?
* Must an authenticating ink-signed copy of a document follow one sent or received via E-mail or fax?
* How can we be sure, in a cost-effective and ethical way, that confidential messages or proprietary information sent electronically are secure?
* Can the records manager convince the data processing (DP) manager and others that deleting all E-mail files and other communications merely on the basis of age may be counterproductive from a records systems and retention-schedules perspective?
Generally, these matters are of little concern to computer specialists, DP managers, and equipment vendors. When records concerns arise, it may be too late to prevent the misuse of a system or the loss of important information. The scope of responsibility of the records manager covers the complete life cycle of a records system, not merely hardware, and so the records manager's domain is larger than that of the DP manager, who may see his/her role as limited to "getting the system up and running."
Records managers actually have much greater responsibility than DP managers or MIS specialists for information systems. First, they must have an understanding of the role of information and information flow--regardless of technology used--throughout the organization. Second, they must understand the nature and applications potential of all information technologies. Finally, they must be ready to adapt, or re-engineer, the business processes and records systems of an organization to make effective use of the technologies. It is essential, then, that records and information managers familiarize themselves with these systems. Only when they do can they begin to address intelligently a host of technical and managerial issues, such as represented by the questions above. Here, then, we will introduce the nature of E-mail and EDI as increasingly
significant information technologies, the technical standards which facilitate their use, and their implications for records managers as types of electronic records.
UNDERSTANDING ELECTRONIC MAIL
Electronic mail has, in a sense, been in existence since the 1830s, beginning with Samuel Morse's telegraph and since the 1840s with Alexander Bain's first facsimile machine (the "recording telegraph"). …