The dynamics of records on the Internet

The dynamics of records on the Internet

The twin topic of database lookup on the Web and e-commerce have to be considered in a records management context, argues Peter Webb.

Many foresee the Internet as a means of solving old problems and introducing new services. This is particularly true of imaging and document management, where the Internet can provide solutions that offer highly distributed operation, sophisticated searching and low deployment costs.

But in the short term, the Internet is more of a problem than a solution - it is producing significant challenges for traditional records and document management. Some of these are significant enough to elevate record keeping to being definitely on the "radar" of chief executives - and how these challenges are met is critical to the enterprise. In this and subsequent columns we will be exploring the many ways in which the Internet is changing the role of records management. The first of these is the ability of the Internet to blur the relationship between records and computer transactions.

The Net is about as far from the normal records function in an organisation as you can get.

Let's examine this with a very practical problem, the case of Acme Superannuation Ltd, a fictitious funds manager. A customer - let's call him Mr Wile E Coyote - telephones Acme asking for his balance on his expected pay out on retirement. Being thoroughly modern, Mr Coyote has Internet access. So rather than just sending him a letter, Acme has a much better idea. They immediately e-mail Mr Coyote a link to a customised Web page - something like ";password=*****". Mr Coyote "clicks" on the link and is immediately taken to a customised Web page which only he can access and which provides a beautiful graphical representation of Mr Coyote's balance and how quickly it would increase if he "topped up" his contributions.


There are a couple of very good reasons why Acme replies in this manner. Firstly, providing a link to a page on the Web allows them to produce much more interesting looking documents than a text e-mail. Almost everybody who uses e-mail has access to the Web, so this is probably the most universal means of sending complex documents.

The second reason that Acme likes doing this is because it opens up a completely new marketing opportunity. When Mr Coyote "clicks" on the Web page to read his letter, then Acme marketing or customer service staff can be informed in real time. Fifteen minutes later they "just happen" to call and ask if they can be of assistance. Mr Coyote says he was just looking at the documents, and "yes as a matter of fact ...". This is extremely well targeted marketing. Never before has this facility existed - to know in real time that a customer is reading a letter they were sent.

Mr Coyote reads his letter (which happens to be a Web page), saves it to disk, and is so delighted with his super pay out he retires. A dispute occurs with Acme about the value of his retirement pay out. He contacts Acme to discuss the "letter" they sent him.

And this is where the problem is generated for RMS staff. From Mr Coyote's perspective, the e-mail and Web combination was just a means of sending him a statement balance, and few would argue that the Web page comprises a "record" in some sense. But from Acme's perspective, the access to the Web page was a database look-up on a Web server which then constructed a dynamic HTML page in real time - about as far from the normal records function in an organisation as you can get.


Organisations typically go through several phases in the adoption of Web technology. The first of these is a simple publishing use, where information about a company is published on the Web. This typically has a similar status to brochures - typically quite static, and with minimal records implications. The next phase is still largely as a stand-alone system, where the system is enhanced to support inbound e-mail and wider publishing services (e.g. manuals) accessible through sophisticated searches. The third phase is using the Web to allow dynamic look-up by customers of information held on computer systems - for example, the personalised letter that was sent to Mr Wile E Coyote. Most larger organisations are already in, or will soon be in, this third phase of Web operation.

Examples of Web content published to users but being dynamically created are found every day in standard e-commerce applications. An account balance accessed through the Web is a customer record, and must be treated as such. When a customer clicks on an "I Agree" button in a Web page, an agreement is assumed to be formed and should be kept as a record. In many cases, the "e-commerce only" vendors are better placed to handle these new record keeping demands, as Internet transactions are their only form of records. Many traditional bricks-and-mortar enterprises that provide Web services as an adjunct are failing to treat the information as formal records.

Which brings us full circle to the role of the records manager. Why should their role change when looked at in an Internet context instead of a paper context?

Peter Webb is principal consultant at Opticon, an independent information consultancy specialising in document management, imaging, process redesign and workflow. He can be contacted on or on 0413 737 509.

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