Electronic Document and Records Management Systems

Implementation Recommendations from the Front Line


Ineke Deserno

Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting

Washington, D.C., 31 August 2001


1.       Introduction


The purpose of this paper is to provide information on the implementation of an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The document discusses the principal features of the system, integrated management of electronic documents, integration of classification schemes and records scheduling concerns. The paper also provides EDMS implementation recommendations.


2.       Background


UNHCR is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees worldwide. UNHCR’s Headquarters are based in Geneva, Switzerland. Most of UNHCR’s refugee-related activities take place via its field offices, currently more than 250, in about 120 countries. UNHCR employs about 5000 staff members of which approximately 4000 are stationed in field offices. The professional staff members are subject to rotation, which is a UNHCR  policy that requires professional staff members to move between field offices. Rotation has the advantage that professional staff members have a wide range of experience in different locations, and in different positions. It requires, however, that the processes in the organization be standardized, that information be easily accessible, and that the technology be easy to learn.


Since the early 1980’s UNHCR has been using computers to support its mission. In 1992 the organization introduced a corporate electronic messaging system. The introduction of electronic mail facilitated to an enormous extent the daily work of the organization and in particular the communications between UNHCR’s offices. In 1996 senior management issued an email policy that included two important statements:

a)      email is the preferred medium of communication; and

b)      email is an official record medium.


To ensure proper management of email records, the Archives Department introduced in 1996 a filing system for email. This filing system specified that all email records be maintained electronically:

·        to capture the content, context and structure of the records for retrieval and evidential purposes

·        to provide users with the ability to access and manipulate the records using electronic tools and functions

·        to manage the records most cost efficiently

Because the system did not automatically enforce the filing of emails, not all staff members used the system. The filing system captured about 10% of UNHCR’s official email messages, 90% resided in staff members’ individual mailboxes.


Paper documents, incoming and outgoing were forwarded to the Archives Department for registration and filing. As users increasingly work electronically, this was no longer consistently done. Users filed more and more electronic documents on their personal drives. These documents were not stored according to the file classification scheme and only accessible by the individual who created them. Consequently, staff members who were replacing travelling colleagues could not access their documents, and thus carry out their work.


3.       EDMS project


As the number of records generated electronically kept increasing dramatically and as the email recordkeeping system was no longer adequate the organization sought a new way to manage electronic documents.  In late 1998 UNHCR started an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) Project. The overall objective of the project was to implement a system that would capture, store, manage and make available documents generated electronically. This included email, desktop documents, (e.g., WORD and EXCEL) FAX, and images of scanned incoming correspondence.


4.       EDMS principal features


EDMS is the repository for UNHCR’s electronic documents. It has both a document management function and a records management function. In the document management function, a staff member will be able to compose documents, either individually or in a shared environment, and use predetermined forms, task management and workflow tools. Eventually it will allow staff members around the world to form virtual project teams across functional, organizational and geographic lines. Also the document management system offers internal communications tools such as news channels and discussion groups. Moreover the document management function will allow automating certain business procedures through workflow and task management. These tools will facilitate the process flow from one user to another, ensuring that required work processes are being followed and allowing status tracking of work processes.


The records management function ensures that staff members of a work unit will be able to retrieve the documents filed electronically by that work unit. In addition, some categories will be available to anyone to read. The records management function enables the staff member to go into a wide range of electronic folders and pull out whatever he or she needs. Staff members will be able to retrieve documents by browsing through the folder set-up for their workgroup or by using a full text search tool. Because the system will allow access to email, FAX, and scanned incoming mail as well as documents created in UNHCR, it will provide a single access point to enormous information resources. The system will also manage the disposition of UNHCR’s records according to the organization’s retention schedules. It will facilitate transfer of permanent valuable documents to an archival storage and the destruction of temporary records when they are no longer needed for administrative, legal or operational purposes.


5.       Recordkeeping requirements


The objectives described above determined the following recordkeeping requirements for the system:




·        The system shall be an integrated document and records management system.


Integrated management of electronic documents

·        EDMS shall be the repository for documents created and/or received at UNHCR;

·        The procedures shall be as easy and intuitive as possible for users; and not impede the daily work;

·        Electronic copy shall be the record;

·        Ensure that captured documents are managed as records according to UNHCR’s recordkeeping policy;

·        EDMS shall capture and automatically store metadata as part of the record profile;

·        EDMS shall store profiles of UNHCR’s paper records;

·        EDMS shall store the attachments to an email record and link the attachment with the email record.


Integration of classification scheme

·        The documents within the repository shall be organized according to the organization’s classification scheme;

·        A file code shall be assigned to each document within the EDMS repository;

·        EDMS folder structure shall be managed by the Archives Department;

·        Classification shall be done on the folder level.


Integration of records schedules

·        Comprehensive records scheduling, i.e., UNHCR records schedules shall be applied to records in all formats;

·        The disposition of the records within the repository shall be done according to the rules specified in the records schedules;

·        A disposition rule shall be linked to all records in the EDMS repository;

·        Records schedules shall be applied on the folder level.


6.       Implemented solutions


Considering the current technology available, UNHCR implemented the following solutions:



·        UNHCR selected a certified document (Livelink) and records management (iRIMS) system;

·        UNHCR implemented a system that provided an integrated document and records management function. When UNHCR bought the products the integration was in its initial phase and it took a lot of effort from UNHCR and the vendor to enhance the integration between the two products.


Integrated management of electronic documents

·        Records captured and managed are email, desktop documents, FAX and incoming paper correspondence;

·        Capture process is integrated with main desktop applications;

·        Metadata for desktop documents is captured automatically while metadata for FAX and paper is entered by Records staff;

·        Incoming paper correspondence is scanned;

·        FAX messages are captured automatically in electronic format.


Integration of classification scheme

·        One master classification scheme and unit classification plans based upon the master scheme;

·        All classification schemes are maintained by Archives staff in the records management system;

·        The classification schemes are mirrored in the folder structure of the unit workspace within the document management system;

·        Classification is assigned on folder level (each folder in the unit workspace has a file code);

·        Emails and desktop documents automatically inherit classification of folder;

·        Records staff are responsible for coding incoming paper correspondence and FAX.


Integrated records schedules

·        UNHCR records schedules address records in all formats;

·        The records schedules will be linked to the file classification plan;

·        The records schedules will be entered as disposition rules in the records management component of EDMS;

·        The disposition rules will be applied on the folder level in the document management component;

·        All items (folders and documents) linked to a given file code will automatically receive the same retention period as the file (this includes folders and documents).


7.       EDMS implementation recommendations


The following recommendations are based on UNHCR’s frontline experience implementing an EDMS system:


Þ    Seek management support

To initiate an EDMS project, senior management should issue an official statement indicating active support for the project and requiring staff to support the project.


Þ    Establish a clear mandate

Prior to starting an EDMS project senior management should issue an official statement indicating the roles and responsibilities for the departments and individuals involved in the project.


Þ    Archives’ role

The Archives Department has to play a vital role in the system implementation process. It  has to ensure that the recordkeeping requirements (including records scheduling and preservation) of the organization are integrated and met by the EDMS system. The Archives should establish a good working relationship with the other departments in the EDMS project during the entire project.


Þ    Avoid competition with other document repositories

When implementing an EDMS system one should try to avoid competition with other electronic document saving devices (such as individual mailboxes and local drives). It should be clearly indicated to users where they have to store their electronic documents. If staff can continue to save emails and desktop documents outside EDMS the project will not be as successful.


Þ    Review existing recordkeeping guidelines

The Archives should review the existing procedures and identify those areas for which the policy needs to be revised and/or created. The guidelines should be comprehensive and address all aspects of recordkeeping. This includes document creation, document storage, profiling, retrieval, records scheduling, access to information, long-term storage etc.


Þ    Ensure that current desktop technologies can be integrated with the EDMS software

To ensure that recordkeeping requirements are met and to make the system as user friendly as possible, it is crucial that the EDMS software is integrated with the organization’s main desktop applications such as wordprocessing software and electronic messaging systems. To avoid delays and frustrations the EDMS team should make sure, prior to deploying the system, that the desktop technologies are up-to-date  and that they can be integrated with the EDMS software.


Þ    Factor EDMS into the technology infrastructure development

The EDMS requirements must be co-ordinated with the long-term development of an organization’s technology infrastructure. EDMS systems require sophisticated and state-of-the-art technology. Purchasing, testing and installing the equipment requires considerable resources. To ensure that the Technology Department includes the required resources in its program, the EDMS team needs to inform the Department of its resource requirements.


Þ    Include recordkeeping procedures in software training

The EDMS system always means a change in the way people are doing their work. To provide users with a good understanding why it is necessary to save documents as records in the EDMS repository it is very important that the software training also includes a section on the recordkeeping procedures, and allows users to ask questions regarding the new procedures.


Þ    Training

Good training is an essential part of a successful implementation. The EDMS team should ensure that:

·        adequate resources are available for training and support (facilities, equipment, trainers);

·        all levels of management understand the importance of training to make the

·        transition easier for users;

·        additional training support is available to users who need extra help.


Þ    Define support guidelines for EDMS

The Archives should work with the Technology Department to define the roles and responsibilities for EDMS support. This should include user support, and system support. The guidelines should also include tools to monitor the use of the system.


Þ    Seek active user involvement during entire implementation process

Users provide invaluable information about the document creation process, retrieval of information, and the sharing of information. To ensure that the requirements of the users are met and to ensure support for the system it is crucial that users are involved during the entire project of EDMS. The EDMS team should work closely together with user representatives. Also the team should create publicity vehicles such as posters and system demos in public areas to make users enthusiastic and to inform them of the new system.


Þ    Maintain good contact with users once system is implemented

Not only during the implementation process but also once the system is implemented user support is vital for the success of the system. To ensure that users continue to support the system, and to ensure that the Archives is abreast of the user requirements, the Archives should establish a network of  users, for example one user per department.


Þ    Maintain good contact with Archivists/records managers deploying a similar system

Talking with colleagues about EDMS implementations and exchanging experiences has been extremely useful for the UNHCR team. Members of a project team should try to establish contacts with teams in other organizations.



Note: this article represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily represent the standpoint of UNHCR.