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Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI
Date: Apr 17, 2016

How would you describe your electronic document retention policy?  Are you prepared to defend it in court?

Bits and Scales of Justice

A recent Wall Street Journal CIO Report article highlighted the fact that executives charged with overseeing the systems which store electronic documents and correspondence may now find themselves more deeply involved with litigation involving document retention. If you have responsibility for information technology in your organization this is critically important to you personally and professionally.

First, in the event of litigation, executives may be called to testify about how data flows through their systems and how and when it is retained.  In an environment featuring ongoing technological changes, this is no small feat.  

Second, CIOs and others may be personally liable for issues relating to e-discovery and document retention.  That should be very disconcerting if you’re not prepared to handle a litigation hold or deal with e-discovery requirements.

Electronic document retention is a serious problem. If you don’t have a comprehensive solution in place you may find yourself in a very uncomfortable and expensive situation.

What’s the Worst Case Scenario?

When companies are notified of pending lawsuits, they are obligated to save any relevant correspondence and other material that could be deemed related to the issue.  IT, Compliance, and Legal departments all play a role in making this happen.

Taking a step back, where would you find yourself if the phone rings and counsel gives you notice of a legal hold on your corporate electronic document system:

1.We have a policy that is aligned with our regulatory obligations.  Our policies and procedures accurately reflect the technology in place today.  Users have all been trained and the system is fully automated.

2.We don’t have a policy.  We don’t know what our obligations are and there’s no solution in place to support document retention or e-discovery.

3.We have a policy. The policy may not reflect our current IT infrastructure. User training is limited and our solution lacks automation so there may be gaps that allow important documents to fall through the cracks.

Which one of these is the worst case scenario?  You may be inclined to choose option two, but that’s a mistake. Option three is much, much worse. Having a policy and not following it exposes you to a number of risks around spoliation of evidence.  This can be extremely painful as your non-compliance with your own policy can be interpreted as intent to hide or destroy critical documents.

Electronic Document Retention is Complicated

Understanding the ins and outs of electronic document retention is tough.  You’ve got a mix of ambiguous legal standards and regulatory controls that are being applied to complex technological solutions touching everyone in the organization.  You likely have different requirements for different types of documents.  The number of solutions available both for normal use and for retention / e-discovery is staggering.  There is no off the shelf solution that will work for every organization.

Some organizations may be tempted to sidestep the issue either by letting end users decide what to keep or by simply keeping copies of everything.  Neither of these is a good approach.

Letting end users decide can be hugely problematic.  You’ll have some users who delete documents before retention periods are up.  You’ll have other long term employees who keep every piece of correspondence, which incurs unnecessary costs for your organization.   This isn’t a good plan because it introduces too many opportunities for mistakes to be made.

Simply saving everything forever isn’t a good option either.  This is counterintuitive to many organizations because the cost of storage is always getting cheaper.  The technical solutions for comprehensive retention are reasonable to implement in many cases.  Storage is not where the costs lie though.  Saving everything exposes your organization to unnecessary litigation risk by retaining documents beyond the required retention periods. Meanwhile although storage might be cheap, the discovery process is definitely not.  Searching, sorting, and reviewing large volumes of unnecessary and irrelevant electronic documents can be hugely expensive when you’re being charged by the hour.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This isn’t a problem that will be solved exclusively by the IT department.  While they have a role to play, they’re not subject matter experts on your obligations.  In addition very few IT departments have experience with the solutions available today to automate retention.

At the same time, it’s rare to find legal and compliance experts who have deep knowledge of technology.  They may understand the legal and regulatory frameworks around your retention obligations but when it comes to executing it on a daily basis that’s a different story entirely.

What you need is someone to facilitate a discussion around the issue that includes IT, legal, compliance, and other subject matter experts throughout your organization.  Getting these groups to come together, produce an actionable policy, and implement a technical solution is critically important to reducing your exposure to litigation risk.


Want to start a conversation about electronic document retention and IT compliance concerns? Don’t wait. Send me an email at mstirling@systemsalliance.com

Branding Collage

In the second post in our Anatomy of a Brand series, we begin to tackle a subject that’s close to my heart as a former consumer products marketer -- differentiation. While it's a critical component of brand strategy, differentiation isn’t always top-of-mind among B2B, higher ed and nonprofit marketers.  It so happens that these categories make up the bulk of our client roster at SAI, so we’re tackling the topic here.

 

Because of the nature of our clients' businesses, we sometimes encounter a bit of skepticism when we talk about the importance of differentiating brands, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the term "Unique Selling Proposition" comes from the world of packaged goods advertising.  To understand why we universally recommend strategic brand differentiation, let’s consider why some may push back:

 

  • ​“We’re in a crowded categor​y, an​d there’s nothing material that separates what we do.”  We hear this more frequently than you might imagine; it’s a common sentiment in competitive segments like professional services and certain manufacturing sectors.  In a timely turn of events, The Good Wife’s main character Alicia Florrick delivered the following line in the most recent episode, summing up the problem succinctly:  “The firm needs to be defined. It needs an identity. All service firms tend to do too much. No one knows what they’re about.” Alicia may be a fictional lawyer, but she cited a real issue. ​

 

Why is it, then, that so many brands do little to try to cr​eate separation between themselves and their competitors? Simply put, it’s their way of casting a wide net. Out of fear of limiting potential sources of revenue, their value proposition remains vague in hopes that they don’t turn business away. However, that rationale is faulty. Trying to be all things to all people, as the CBS TV writers pointed out, is the surest way not to stand for anything at all, relegating your brand to commodity status. With no distinguishing attributes, “me-too” brands inherently compete on price, defeating the purpose of having a brand in the first place, which is to create value.

 

  • Complex or intangible p​roducts/services cannot be distilled down into tangible benefits like most consumer goods can.”  This is another popular obstacle in the path of strong brand differentiation, but it’s built on a misconception that intangible or complex value propositions are somehow above being considered brands at all. Realize that every “sell” doesn’t always result in a simple business transaction. Whether you’re providing financial services, admitting students to a college, building a new housing development or encouraging people to become organ donors, you still have “consumers” and differentiation would benefit your brand. 

 

  • “We’re not a product or​ service; we have no competition.” This bit of feedback is related to the one above. Every brand has competition, it’s just a matter of how direct the competition is. Sure, Coke has Pepsi and a long list of other carbonated soft drinks, but there are also bottled waters, iced teas, energy drinks and juices to consider – all on nearby grocery shelves – but what about tap water? And beer? The point is that thinking about your competition in more general terms can only help your marketing efforts. It’s less about knowing what brands are being chosen in place of yours (although that’s important too, as you will learn in an upcoming blog post); instead, consider what factors are keeping consumers from choosing your brand in general.  If you are a marketing director for a trade association, for example, what’s keeping you from increasing membership? Perhaps there’s no other association in your industry (direct competitors), but there are still plenty of alternatives to your brand. They can learn about best practices by following industry blogs, or they can network and search for jobs via LinkedIn or other social networks. There may be ad hoc industry groups on a local level that depress your membership. In any case, awareness of these circumstances is an important initial step toward differentiating your brand and adding real value to your organization.


Now that we’ve convinced you (hopefully) that differentiation is necessary, stay tuned for our next blog that explores various ways to do so.  

Until then, if you have feedback or questions, drop us an email at SAIDigitalInfo@systemsalliance.com. 

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