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Conference Recap: MER Magic
By Sandra Nunn, MA, RHIA, CHP

Known in the records management industry as a get-together that attracts top-flight legal talent and information management leaders, the Managing Electronic Records (MER) Conference typically does not typically draw large crowds due to its sizeable registration fee.  This year’s event boasted better-than-average legal presentations but weaker technological sessions that were unlikely to support the attendees' needs for hard-wired solutions to pressing issues such as e-discovery.

During the opening session, attendees took part in a brief survey to determine their professional backgrounds and business sector origins.  As a member of the AHIMA and being an information management professional, I was surprised to note that the room was full of members of ARMA International, IT professionals, and attorneys. 

The majority was from for-profit companies (eg, oil, pharmaceuticals) with few nonprofits represented, with the exception of some governmental employees. (The National Archives and Records Administration was strongly represented.) Despite being one of the best conferences devoted to information management, MER does not attract many healthcare professionals and most of those are from the drug industry.

At a time when healthcare views credentialed and skilled records managers as unnecessary overhead, Jonathan Redgrave, JD, an attorney from Nixon-Peabody LLP, expressed his strong view that records management is absolutely critical for successful information management in any company.  The audience was clearly in agreement.  Less impressive was the subsequent keynote speaker, Dan Carmel, an IT vendor who spoke about cloud computing with a particular emphasis on the advantages of software as a service.  His presentation was heavy on the pros for IT departments and weak on the legitimate concerns records managers may have about putting their protected health information out on a "cloud" without proper controls.  He also failed to assess whether organizations would have the records management staff to manage these external, non–hard-copy environments.

Anne Kershaw, Esq, an attorney and the owner of an e-discovery company, discussed how to properly dispose of litigation-related records that were no longer required.  The information was rudimentary for any records manager worth his or her salt but satisfactory for beginners.

The conference provided binders with PowerPoint slides of all sessions, helping those unable to attend concurrent sessions that began after the keynote addresses.  Missing, however, were electronic versions that attendees could have loaded onto their computers prior to the individual presentations.  Concurrent sessions featured IT solution discussions, records management case studies, and case law analyses such as Kenneth Withers’ excellent “Electronic Management Case Law:  The Latest News, Trends and Issues.”

Day two of the conference offered a wealth of concurrent sessions for the diverse audience.  Of particular interest for records and information managers was a session that focused on evolving standards and how the changes will impact records management functions.  The Generally Accepted Record Keeping Principles team provided profound tips on Assured Records Management performance standards, emphasizing the development of good-faith practices likely to stand up in court. 

Lawyers and HIM people fortunate enough to be present at "Managing Your Discovery:  How ‘Active’ is Your ‘Active’ Management?" received plenty of outstanding tips for organizing a lawsuit and controlling litigation costs.  Strategy assessment advice was strong, although a good case study demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach would have added substance to the theory. 

As someone involved in developing search technology strategy to support information retrieval, I found “The Revolutionary Implications of Search Processes on Electronic Records Management Programs” disappointing and hardly revolutionary. It was a dry and elementary discussion of different approaches to creating queries against structured databases that failed to win over a room filled with antsy attorneys and IT staff.  Unstructured content and its challenges to search were not even mentioned. It would have been wiser to approach the topic by focusing on an actual litigation in which HIM, records and information managers, and legal staff succeeded in searching for files across multiple well-organized and tagged records repositories using knowledge workers comfortable with the development of the right search tools to gain consistent results.

Matters improved in the afternoon with a series of solid, informative legal sessions to support records management concerns regarding the proliferation of laws and regulations.  Of particular note was the last session, a lively interactive discussion of the challenges records managers and legal staff face in incorporating social media in the workplace.  In entertaining fashion, a pair of young gurus was brought down to earth by the sage advice of a judge well versed on the laws regarding electronic records.

The conference’s closing day was highlighted by Illinois judge Nan Nolan discussing the importance of cooperation and proportionality in meeting e-discovery challenges while emphasizing the team approach (ie, records management, IT, and legal services).  It also involved a panel of lawyers examining early case assessment, a methodology to prepare checklists of required witnesses and records, and the need to have an e-discovery liaison familiar with records management systems for every lawsuit.  This cuts the cost of reviewing potentially thousands of documents unnecessarily due to their irrelevance. 

The conference wrapped up with a session featuring Withers and Robert Thibadeau, PhD, of Wave Systems Corporation contemplating the future of electronic records management. Although the presenters were well established, the presentation was vague and produced an unimpressive close to an event that was otherwise filled with many bright moments. 

— Sandra Nunn, MA, RHIA, CHP, is a consultant with Melinunn Consulting in Albuquerque, N.M., and contributing editor at For The Record.