Foreign Affairs rolls out InfoBank to deal with e-mail glut

TORONTO — The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) is in the middle of rolling out a system that aims to combine the best of both the electronic and the paper-based worlds. 


which comprises information policies, practices and tools as well as support, is designed to help employees cope with the ever-increasing amount of information they’re flooded with, including some 60 million e-mails a year passing over the department’s network. It’s also designed to help employees share information more easily and securely. 

“Back in the paper world there existed manuals that explained to our correspondence officers and to our foreign affairs and trade officers whom to carbon copy, whom to include in correspondence and how to write memos,” said DFAIT senior policy strategist Joel Denis. “When you placed a computer on everybody’s desktop and we gave them the new world of the Internet and e-mail and told them how easy it was to send the policy to someone in Abu Dabi, for example, we forgot to address some of those key practices.”

As a result, he said, employees who were carbon copied on an e-mail for information purposes only suddenly began taking action on everything they found in their inbox.

“That would seem simple and basic, but in our department it was a nightmare.”

As well, before InfoBank, employees were printing e-mails and storing them in filing rooms, a practice that required too much manual labour and real estate.

Built on a customized version of Hummingbird Ltd.’s records management technology, the system deals with what DFAIT calls unstructured information – documents and e-mail – and provides a central repository for storing and retrieving data.

It has been running for two and a half years but is only now being rolled out to the department’s posts. Thirteen posts will be implemented this fiscal year, with the balance of about 80 classic missions – those with more than 20 DFAIT employees — planned for the next fiscal year. The remaining 40 or so smaller missions will get a lite, or Web-only version.

“We need to recognize the various steps in the life cycle and management of a document and we need to differentiate how and with whom works of progress, collaborative drafts and final documents are shared,” said Denis.

One of the biggest issues the department had to deal with was that of version control, he added.

“We have shared drives and personal drives and tons of documents where the versions are replicated and duplicated all over the place, and nobody knows if they’re working from the most recent document so version control is a big issue,” he said. 

Access control is also important, he said. “We have Canadian staff and locally engaged staff and there is some information that our locally engaged staff might have limited need to access.”

With InfoBank, only one document is stored. It allows users to mimic through a workspace component a tree of information where they can create folders and subfolders to share with others by providing access control rights through a process of name or group selection. “In our current system if you place a document into a folder and it places it into another one, it’s duplicated,” said Denis, adding that InfoBank creates hotlinks instead. “Our issues of disk space on the server and of duplication go away with this type of system.”

A searching facility provides a number of ways to find documents in the system. Documents can be saved outside the InfoBank database through an override mechanism, but that’s not promoted, said Denis. As well the InfoBank RDIMS technology has been integrated with users’ Outlook program.

To monitor the success of the project, the department is watching to see if the use of shared and personal drives decreases. But it’s a bit of a Catch-22: the system will only be successful if everyone uses it and unless it’s successful people won’t be inclined to use it.

Users are seeing the value because there is no longer a quota system on storing information as there once was, he said. “But it’s not done overnight; it is a shock to their system.”

To help users through the transition, DFAIT has established a 24×7 help desk project line during the implementation phase. After that the hotline for the project will be blended into its existing IM/IT support line.

But as usual, the biggest challenges are not necessarily technical, he said.

“The biggest challenge is DFAIT was a clerk organization; it was used to receiving paper and filing, and used to receiving request for files and finding them,” said Denis. “With the InfoBank system that is being done on its own so what we’ve asked our information management staff to do is take on an analysis role to support our program officers in their daily work. That’s our biggest challenge as we transition our support organization from paper pushing to business analyst.”

To make that transition a little smoother, he added, all staff must take a six-hour course. “They don’t receive the product until they take the training.”

Cheryl McKinnon, industry manager for Hummingbird’s government sector, said in an e-mail the federal government has standardized on Hummingbird’s document management, records management, workflow and imaging products as part of creating an information management infrastructure consistent among federal departments. 

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