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Organizational development's influence on the e-discovery process

Contributor John Weathington explains the importance of organizational culture and structure when developing an e-discovery process.

Most advice about implementing or improving an organization's e-discovery process revolves around either technical platforms or legal guidelines. As a result, zealous leaders try to implement the advice without any consideration for the way their organization is structured or the culture that drives its behavior. This is like trying to teach Japanese production techniques in an American factory using manuals written in Japanese. There's quality information, but the organization is not prepared to use it effectively.

John Weathington
John Weathington

If an organization doesn't give proper consideration to its structure and/or culture, its attempt at implementing an e-discovery process is usually strained and fraught with risk. Consequently, any operations that result from such projects inherit these strains and risks, and the organization ends up paying for it.

To avoid this, you must first recognize, acknowledge and respect the interdisciplinary nature of the compliance function. Proper compliance, including for e-discovery mandates, can only be achieved when there is collaboration between legal, IT, and in most cases, finance.

The biggest organizational challenge with building the e-discovery process is creating an effective collaboration between IT and legal. Bear in mind that these are two very different functions, so they will have very different cultures.

First and foremost, there should be at least some degree of centralization between the groups. This can range from a simple task force to a full-fledged department dedicated to integrating them. Although e-discovery is primarily considered an IT and legal concern, a more holistic approach to the compliance function will incorporate other functions, such as finance.

The culture of your team should reflect what's required in the intended e-discovery solution.

The degree of centralization will depend on the complexity and the relative importance of building the e-discovery process within the organization. For a simple, targeted integration of IT and legal for the e-discovery process, I recommend starting with a task force. That way, strong functional lines are maintained, but there is a formally recognized organizational structure with an accountable party, most likely from the legal team.

For situations a little more complex, try organizing a process team. This structure still contains delegates from the different functions, but there is a dedicated team leader whose full-time job is to ensure the team is meeting its goals. It may also be beneficial to appoint process and/or business analysts.

In extreme cases, an entire department can be devoted to ensuring a high level of collaboration between the IT and legal departments. This is known in organizational development terms as an integrating role and should only be used for the most complex e-discovery situations.

Building your e-discovery culture

Any e-discovery solution should be comprehensive and accessible. The e-discovery solution should cover the entire spectrum of electronic records -- including email, instant messaging and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) communication. When an e-discovery request is made, the requested information must be readily accessible -- that is, it should be searchable, and any requested information should be retrieved in a reasonable amount of time. Finally, there must be some assurances that once the electronic records are retrieved, they represent the original, unaltered records.

More on e-discovery process

A CIO's guide to e-discovery and litigation

Tying in e-discovery with your information security strategy

To this end, the culture of your team should reflect what's required in the intended e-discovery solution. Your e-discovery process team should value accuracy and completeness. It should also value quick responses, honesty and integrity. With these values at the core of your company's requirements and its e-discovery process implementation, your e-discovery solution will reflect the collective character of your team.

To make this happen, ensure that the leadership of the team -- including the executive sponsor and the team leader -- exhibits all of these qualities. By setting the right example and properly rewarding consequent behavior, the e-discovery team will naturally develop the desired behaviors.

Another important value to build into the culture of your team is flexibility. The e-discovery landscape has rapidly evolved since its inception, and requirements are constantly shifting as new developments in both law and technology lead us down alternate trajectories. Although leadership may instinctively migrate toward strong process management, it may also overcorrect. Ensure that the proper amount of chaos remains in your operations to keep it flexible.

Structure and culture are basic organizational development concerns that, when properly addressed, can save you a lot of time and money by helping you avoid failed projects and wasted technology. You can experiment with different structures until you hit the right balance of complexity and overhead. You can also hire experts as needed to assess and fine-tune your e-discovery culture for success. Finally, it's important to follow an audit-driven approach to building your e-discovery process to make sure your structure and culture are working properly in support of your objectives.

John Weathington is president and CEO at Excellent Management Systems Inc., a San Francisco-based management consultancy. Write to him at For IT compliance news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ITCompliance.

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