Antisocial Enterprise IV: The Voyage to Record Retention

data-record_retentionEnterprise social networking providers are trying ever so hard to turn a hairpin corner, and finally break the stigma of utter uselessness that has long-plagued the purported social technology revolution. In the aftermath of so many smoldering train wrecks and flawed hypotheses, many underlying truths have emerged. The details of these lessons have been previously chronicled in Antisocial Enterprise, Part II The Wrath of the Engineer, and Part III The Search for Users. Here’s the short, short version: social networks are about people, business is about products and decisions. Up to now, the flawed assumption was that if social networks are so super-awesome for groups of people, and business is naturally just chock full of people, then social networking must, logically, also be super-awesome in the enterprise, Q.E.D. Zathras try to warn, but no one ever listen to poor Zathras.

The realization that the original premise of enterprise social networking was flawed has led to renewed thinking about how to apply modern communication technologies to the enterprise. Software providers, whether they are established players or startups, can now see more clearly that the business world has little value in conversation for conversation sake – or just simply liking this or that. We know that’s something to be left in the world of LOL cats and Epic Rap Battles of History. However, some of these agile communications technologies can be re-designed and repurposed for focusing not on people, but work products, and not prioritized on ephemeral emotions but historically-relevant decisions.   Of course, that’s something that Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) technologies should have already been doing all along for a decade or two at least. PLM’s origins in classical, highly regimented decision making has limited the visibility of the entire decision making process. For the most part PLM only tracks the most formalized bits of that process, by capturing purposeful artifacts. This limitation is both a good and a bad thing. While capturing the decision process with increased breath and fidelity could certainly be enormously more useful, the capability to aggregate such information butts up right against a long-standing problem with even today’s enterprise architectures: what in the heck to do about record retention.

Record retention continues to be a tough problem in the enterprise, and now with the social technologies starting to at least casually aim towards business relevance, the problem will only get worse. It’s already bad enough navigating the maze of record retention regulation, especially in the light of a continually transforming software landscape. Some of these problems are especially magnified in the realm of Computer Aided Design (CAD) product data, where incompatible proprietary formats still rule. Joe Barkai, commented on some of these challenges in his article On PLM (In)Compatibility where he states:

“One critical aspect of maintaining access to historical product data and, therefore, software backward compatibility, is the need to comply with relevant guidelines and regulations. The survey I am conducting shows that while some companies are aware of these requirements and, in fact, expect more to come in the future, other companies are unsure if and how they are subject to data retention and access guidelines.”

There’s little reassurance on the horizon as the amount of data to retain is fast transitioning from what seemed to be just rather inconveniently huge a few years ago, to future challenges involving mind-bending gigatons of data enormity. At the same time, the ability to parse information that should be subject to retention versus the fluff becomes increasing complex as communication loses formality and obvious structure. One possible reaction might be to shut out the social communication paradigm from use in a business context altogether, but there’s no sense in trying to close the barn door now. The train o’ progress has been on this track for some time; you need only look to see what email did to formal memorandums as a poignant reminder.

Email is an important lesson for what is to come, because email is often a difficult conundrum with respect to record retention. It’s a balance between retention of design records required by regulation and the liability derived from immortalized yet informal, internal communications that are also individually portable. You know, the kind of stuff that gets out after a particularly bad corporate PR fiasco. Expect these kinds of problems times a thousand as social networking technologies find the right balance for documenting business activity and decisions.

Not that I’m claiming social media is a replacement for email. However, as enterprise social technologies evolve from copying irrelevant Facebook functionality into something focused on business context – (i.e. the original premise of PLM) these systems will begin to organically accumulate information relevant to business decisions. You want retention to happen before that line is inevitably crossed.