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Making Lemonade Out of Lemons – How to Leverage a Global Crisis to Evolve your IG Skillset

By Leigh Isaacs posted 02-18-2021 16:26


Please enjoy this co-authored blog post by Leigh Isaacs, CIGO, CIP, Director of Information Governance and Records Management, Proskauer Rose LLP and Andrew Corridore, CIP, Information Governance Compliance Specialist, Proskauer Rose LLP

It’s no secret that the world of information and data management has been evolving in an ever accelerating pace – companies are realizing that information is an asset that should be managed, secured and leveraged as such.  At the same time, client demands and our legal, regulatory and ethical obligations continue to expand and grow in complexity.  As greater emphasis is placed on this proper management, the old, traditional Records support models are no longer effective and must be transitioned to Information Governance. 

Perhaps you have already conducted staff assessments and performed some gap analysis – figured out where you wanted to be and how you wanted to get there.  Maybe you began retraining your staff through various educational opportunities (webinars, white papers, in-person classes, etc.).  Maybe you were especially eager and developed an entire strategic transition plan and are in the middle of an entire departmental restructuring.  Perhaps you’re still in the “thinking it over” stage in all of these areas and have yet to build.  No matter what stage you are at now, we all have one thing in common: the global pandemic known as COVID-19 or novel Coronavirus came in, kicked down the world’s door, and changed everything.  Everyone is working from quarantined isolation but businesses need to continue operation lest they cease to exist. 

We, now more than ever, need to find an increasingly agile and secure means of sharing information so that teams that no longer are meeting face-to-face can continue to collaborate.  Further, all of those traditional records staff whose sole responsibility was handling the paper records are potentially sitting idly by, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for offices to reopen and once again rely on paper and its management.  As a common saying goes, “you should never let a good crisis go to waste.”  What if there was a way to take the negatives of a global pandemic and find a positive – or, in other words, what if you could make lemonade out of these lemons and use the current crisis to evolve your departments IG skillset? 

First, a little background on us.  The team here has been together for, on average, 30+ years and had been primarily focused on traditional, paper-based records management until recently when they were transitioned to Information Governance.  The Firm as a whole was relying less and less on paper files and wanted a central department whose expertise could be leveraged to increase management of information – both physical and electronic – in all stages of its lifecycle.  Staff assessments were conducted and areas of strengths and areas of improvement had been identified.  For example, we had a Data Retention team that was already considering risk mitigation via defensible disposition, why not engage them in other risk related projects (e.g. proper legal holds management, data clean-up and organization initiatives, review of departed user data, sanctioned information silo usage, etc.)?  We already had a Matter Mobility team that was focused on data imports and exports, falling directly into the IG strategy.  We had a few team members who indicated they were strong writers which was perfect because we had a slew of policies that needed to be written or rewritten (and, oftentimes, both). 

Even with all of the great strides we had taken, we were still not fully transitioned when the pandemic hit.  Across the United States, we estimate we had more than ten employees whose day-to-day job responsibilities required them be in the office (mostly related to the management of paper files) and who, when required to work from home, were at risk of sitting idle every day.  We also noticed that, across the country, companies were taking preemptive action to ensure they would remain in business (for example, through the use of salary cuts, furloughs, lay-offs, etc.).  We knew that now, especially, is not the time for staff to sit idle and be under-utilized – with little to no way to demonstrate ongoing contributions and value.  This made the determination simple: we had to establish a large scale project that could be completed from anywhere in the world and that Firm leadership would recognize as critical, important work (as opposed to busy work).

Every organization, from the smallest to the largest, has opportunities for better data management and we were no different.  Prior information gathering efforts had gleaned some very useful, and actionable information.  For example, a few years ago, we discovered that individual offices each had different approaches to how they conducted business (including how they created records and documented them).  We identified that some offices had, in the past, captured and tracked data outside of our Records Management System, LegalKEY.  This began to present challenges as we tried to roll out nationwide Information Governance initiatives and we found that applying broad policies across all records was difficult without all offices using LegalKEY.  This presented a need for data normalization; however, given that the handling of paper was still very much an active task, we didn’t have the bandwidth to dedicate time or personnel to it.  Instead, we simply put the project on the back burner and would continue to revisit every few months.  Then the global shut down happened and when it became obvious that we needed to tackle a long term project to keep our staff engaged in performing meaningful work that added value to the Firm during quarantine, this was the obvious first choice. 

We began by identifying all team members that would be considered for the project.  Once we had a team identified, we began with a simple kick-off call where we defined the project, its scope, and the reasoning behind the project.  We picked an office, highlighted how that office was managing their data and how it differed from how the Firm wanted it managed and began to migrate the information from one silo to the other (in our case, from a series of word documents to LegalKEY).  We broke the Word documents down into digestible segments so as not to make the data entry overly burdensome and to hopefully decrease burn out.  We also began to track metrics via LegalKEY’s activity tracker so we could see who was entering what and how quickly they were completing their tasks.  We used this data not only to report our progress to firm management, but also for quality checking the data entered so we wouldn’t need to go back and perform significant corrections.

Data normalization wasn’t the only project we tackled during quarantine – we also looked at policy and workflow drafts and redrafts, working with the IT department and our business services employees to reduce the data they save to their local drive (which increases storage costs, reduces collaborative capabilities, and prevents data from being properly associated with client/matter numbers), and some document management system file audits and clean ups.  We also invested time in reviewing our current processes and procedures.  We updated those we needed to keep and created new ones that were necessary in our new world and would then allow us to implement them consistently across offices.  We also used this time to work with our business services teams to review information currently stored in the warehouse to determine what was eligible for destruction.  Finally, we partnered with paralegals and secretaries to establish a framework for developing an IG awareness strategy.

The one thing all of these projects had in common was the solidification of the newly minted Information Governance department as the one-stop-shop for all IG related questions.  Further, all of these projects allowed our teammates, most of whom were used to dealing with only physical documents, to dip their toes into the world of universal data management.  They began to familiarize themselves with the proper data repositories and, in being tasked with data entry and data correction, began to tacitly understand the do’s and do not’s of information management.  A great example comes in the way of our team not grasping the importance of this project at its onset – why does it matter how each office is indexing their records?  Who cares if one office uses Microsoft Word, another office uses Microsoft Excel, and we use LegalKEY? 

As we started to answer these questions and run through scenarios in which we tried to roll out firmwide IG initiatives, the team began to understand the importance of effective data management.  For example, if we wanted to roll out an updated retention schedule, they began to see that it would be very difficult to properly assign a retention period to records if they were indexed in different ways from office to office.  They also began to understand why we cared so much about data accuracy as we were normalizing the data.  It is pretty hard to find something if it’s riddled with spelling errors, format inconsistencies, or other similar typos! 

Increasing detail orientation directly correlated to an increase in record findability.  Finally, we had an open door policy when it came to the project and its associated tasks.  We wanted to hear about how people perceived their involvement in the project and how they were handling it.  Just because we were working from quarantine didn’t mean that the firm stopped working and we had to be upfront about empowering our teammates to manage their time effectively so they could continue to meet firm expectations and avoid burnout.

Of course, this is only the beginning and the sky’s the limit on what we can accomplish.  We have begun framing future projects involving data retention, digitization, legal holds, vital records, policy/workflows, and many others.  Where at one point we were concerned about a lack of institutional knowledge, we can now breathe a little easier knowing we are surrounded with bright, hardworking individuals who, when presented with the opportunity to learn and grow as professionals, will do their best. 

Results may vary from person to person or company to company, but we found that if you educate folks on why a project is important and the IG fundamentals that are involved, they begin to understand and see projects within the scope of the larger picture; this isn’t just data entry or policy writing, it’s about moving the firm forward in its management of information and solidifying us as the go-to people when they have any questions.  The moral of our story?  We were able to take a “little” inconvenience like COVID, leverage our newly perceived limitation as an opportunity, and begin the process of turning this transition from records to information governance in the right direction!

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