Google Docs Ready for (Legal) Primetime?

Today's predominant word processors are Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. MS Word is also offered as a web-based application or Saas (Software-as-a-Service).  However, there is a newer type of document collaboration, where numerous people have access to the same document so that they can all contribute and monitor changes made by others.  These types of applications are becoming more common.  For example, Google has begun to offer its own Google Word Processor called "Google Docs" -- which allows users to share and collaborate on documents. 

What does it matter which type you use in your business?  Here's one comparison between the Google and Microsoft web products.  But there's much more when it comes to the battle between WORD v. GOOGLE DOCS.

Sass and Microsoft Word.  SaaS, which Word uses, is really a form of cloud computing, or internet-based computing. Applications such as a word processor is accessed via the Internet, and the resulting data created by the user (documents) is stored on servers managed by particular service providers. This form of service delivery has a siginificant advantage over "localized" computing from a cost and management standpoint.  For example:

  • By paying a SaaS provider to run applications and store documents, businesses no longer have the need to purchase/upgrade their word processing software.
  • It reduces and/or allows the redeployment of hardware (servers) used to store documents.
  • Applications can be accessed anywhere, anytime as long as the user has Internet access.
  • For remote users, an iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, or other Android-powered phones can be used to access documents, and there is no need to login to an internal network using software such as Citrix or any flavors of VDI.
  • SaaS providers typically guarantee 24/7 access due to elaborate network redunduncies.
  • Fewer or no technical staff is needed to manage software and handle storage issues.  This frees them up for other tasks.

Google DocsDepending on your perspective, Google Docs could be a blessing or a curse. Documents created by Google Docs are devoid of metadata. This means that no document scrubbing (e.g., iScrub) is needed before they're being sent to a recipient. There is no chance of inadvertently disclosing confidential information.  Additionally, numerous people can be in the document at one time, make changes, and monitor the changes others are making.  This can work wonders for collaboration.  Unfortunately, there are some down sides for Google Docs:

  • Google Docs tracks all document edits in the form of a "revision history" trail that cannot be eliminated by the user. This same trail could potentially be subpoenaed by the courts for e-discovery purposes.  Google Docs, and Gmail, stores everything. 
  • Google Docs exists as an independent product from Document Management Systems (DMS). As a result, it cannot be integrated with an in-house DMS or part of a company's overall enterprise content management (ECM) strategy.  In other words, you can't develop a record retention policy that can be followed with these documents. 
  • The document versioning method is quite different. For example, a particular MS Word document in a DMS such as iManage will present itself as "document_number.1" and a new version is saved as "document_number.2". The same document created in Google Docs will present itself as two separate entries in the "revision history". Hence, a Google Docs document would be saved as "document_name" and a new version would be saved as a separate document but renamed as "document_name_revised".  As a result, there is no easy way to move all the separate entries into a DMS as a single document with different versions.

Google Docs may be more appealing to smaller businesses that do not want to worry about internal networks and in-house DMS issues.  But large or small, whether Google Docs is a feasible solution depends on your business infrastructure, records compliance requirements, and the resources available to manage it.  Before taking the plunge, consult with Google, your legal department, and perhaps your existing e-discovery vendor on how Google handles litigation holds and document search and retrieval in e-discovery situations.

Regardless of its short-comings, Google Docs could be a solution for certain businesses that don't require a DMS and the main focus is document collaboration without overburdening the IT staff.

ESI Storage Blues

If you're like me, when I run out of space in my house, I sort through things, toss them out, give them away or hold a rummage sale. Even then I end up with items that not even Goodwill will accept-- in the trash they go. Unfortunately, you can't do that with your client's or your own corporate data.

So what to do when you run out of storage for the all important bits and bytes? Two options: buy more storage or rent disk space. Sounds simple enough but both of which can have a significant impact on e-discovery data management and retrieval. I will briefly examine both options.

Purchasing more servers or storage peripherals spells ownership but it also has a hardware depreciation and upgrade element to consider. It also means more upkeep that might even require more staffing to maintain the systems. In cost accounting lingo, it is described as the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). The goal is to decrease TCO, not increase it.

However, this might be the only viable avenue to store data if your client insists on absolute security and confidentiality, despite the fact this might only provide a perception that the data is more safe and secure than being stored somewhere else. No one wants to admit the fact that neither security nor confidentiality can be guaranteed in today's hacker and virus-proned environments. There's simply no absolutes in the IT world.

On the other hand, renting disk space translates into paying someone to be the custodian of your data. This is an increasingly attractive proposition due to the growing terabytes or even petabytes of electronically stored information (ESI) that can overburden internal IT infrastructures. Data organization and ease of retrieval should be one of the key criteria to consider before engaging a vendor to take on this critical task.

The advantage of using a third-party vendor is that there's minimal costs or overhead associated with hardware, software maintenance or potential staffing issues. Since these vendors specialize in storage, they also tend to be very efficient at it. Regardless, hiring a vendor to handle your data is not as easy as it may sound. Before signing the service agreement on the dotted line, consider the following factors:

  • Hardware - Does the vendor's system integrate well with your IT infrastructure? It is critical that the vendor system "talks" to your internal document management system (DMS), your email servers and Intranet portal storage elements such as Microsoft SharePoint. All of which involve SQL databases to a great extent.
  • Searching - How receptive is the vendor's system when it comes to "data-on-demand"? Is the storage system fully searchable and in what manner? How fast can data be retrieved and produced? How is the data being indexed, migrated or archived in the vendor's system. All of which affect your company's ability to comply with e-discovery requests pertaining to F.R.C.P. Rule 26(f) and/or court subpoenas.
  • Administration - Does the vendor's system impose a shift on how you manage your data internally? If so, how easily can your organization and/or vendor adapt to this new paradigm. Do you need adjustments to your IT framework in order to make full use of the vendor's system? Inadequate planning can easily turn "Plug-and-Play" into "Plug-and-Pray."
  • Leverage - Does outsourcing data storage provide a better solution than insourcing? In this down economy, IT budgets are closely scrutinized and a misstep can spell a million dollar disaster (think cost effectiveness and client buy-in). In addition, outsourcing data storage potentially provides a justification in passing some of the costs to clients. At the minimum, your expenditure can show up on the client's invoice as a line item even your company might decide to write it off for the client's benefit-- Seeing is believing.
  • Collaboration - How well can the vendor's system work with other multi-platform systems that your e-discovery team potentially encounter. The more compatible the vendor, the higher chance of success. Industry standard is king or queen.
  • Continuity - Do you have a plan B (or C) if the vendor goes out of business (especially without notice)? How functional is your business without vendor support? What about your vendor's business partners? Can they provide support when the parent has gone fishing?

All of these are not easy questions to answer. However, with adequate planning, some, if not all, of the risks mentioned above can be minimized. If you abide by productivity expert Denis Waitley's  motto of "Expect the best but plan for the worst," at least you can say you have done your best when things go wrong. And they will.

SharePoint has a Sibling: E-Discovery Blessing or Curse?

Back in January 2008 a Network World article indicated that Forrester Research analysts predicting Microsoft SharePoint grabbing a huge share of the Web 2.0 market-- and they were right!

According to a recent Byte and Switch article, Microsoft's SharePoint had an adoption rate of about 55 percent by the end of 2008. Most if not all companies deploy MS Sharepoint as an enterprise portal technology to replace their static Intranet and enhance work collaboration. Naturally it generates tons of content that all need to be organized, stored, and retrieved in some fashion.

Since SharePoint content management is atypical of organizing and retrieving emails and files stored in a document management system (DMS), that translates into another layer of complexity when it comes to e-discovery- at least from a technical perspective.

One thing for sure -- Sharepoint is highly scalable. That means it has the technical ability to handle a large number of documents or concurrent users. The downside is that SharePoint data files are stored in such a way that it is difficult to manage and backup down to the folder / document level)-- until now. In collaboration with Microsoft, Mimosa Systems recently announced that they've created a version of NearPoint (an email and file archiving solution) to work with SharePoint content archiving, data protection and e-discovery support.

The Nearpoint/Sharepoint integration claims to:

  • Manage data storage costs with complete capture of all SharePoint content including documents, lists, sites and site collections, site configuration and custom metadata.

  • Expedite e-discovery processes with integrated search and in-place legal holds across SharePoint server, email and file system content.

  • Improve recovery service levels with comprehensive data protection for SharePoint server to allow easy recovery of individual items or complete sites.

That sounds all well and good but getting it to play well with your company's other network gadgets and appliances could be a daunting task. Regardless, having a data map to catalog your company's records would be a great start.

In addition to data mapping, it is critical to set up proper corporate governance policies that reflect business process changes to take advantage of SharePoint's Content Types (think metadata), Site ColumnsWorkflow, and Security features. Simply put, the corporate governance policy is a set of roles, responsibilities, processes and rules defined within the enterprise to guide content producers in using the SharePoint Portal and all its functionalities. Without a policy that everyone can follow, SharePoint quickly becomes a hodgepodge of unwieldy data. A lack of consistency will result in poor enterprise search and retrieval for e-discovery purposes. Blessing or curse? It's what you make it.

For more information on data mapping, stay tuned to future free webinars similar to this one we offered.