I recently had the pleasure of attending ARMA INFOCON in Detroit, Michigan. I always enjoy visiting new destinations and Detroit was a first for me, so on the side I was also keen to see this famous city, one that seems to have played such an important role in the making of modern America and yet has been through major challenges in recent decades. We’ve attended many ARMA Conferences over the years and I am now of an age that counting those I’ve personally attended can be unhelpful to my health and sanity!

That said, many of the trade events I’ve attended since the end of pandemic, including IAAP, ILTA and Legalweek, have felt lacking in energy. Maybe it’s the delegate’s ongoing reluctance to network and socialize or just some other residual effect of changed working patterns; regardless, I was keen to be able to get a measure of this conference and understand how things are developing when compared to a pre-pandemic world.

Overall, I am pleased to report that ARMA is back and rocking! However, it feels like it is in a transitional phase in terms of its focus, audience, sponsors and vendors and it’s this transition that I wanted to comment on here, albeit unashamedly biased with my ActiveNav lens!


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Old Elephant, New Room

First, and most significantly, it’s hard to miss that the new elephant in the room is Microsoft, dominating much of the conversation. There is much to celebrate in that they have at last woken to the real issues and challenges the broader market is grappling with when it comes to unstructured information. However, let’s not miss the irony here and forget who helped get us in this mess in the first place with the explosion of electronic collaboration through its many office automation technologies. As a community we must be careful to remember what we have learned over decades of information management – that is, we cannot expect this one vendor to effectively balance its growth and massive breadth of offerings with the most sophisticated information governance needs.

Regarding its breadth of offerings, Microsoft clearly presents an existential threat to many of the vendors at the event, not least ECM vendors. That said, like every market, the tsunami of change that RM is experiencing will enable innovation and provide new opportunities for smart, agile businesses that can feed off the vast ecosystem. This is already the case with most of the information governance consulting firms at the event, appearing to be receiving a good chunk of their recent and immediate business from Microsoft deployments. Maybe 50% of the expo hall had their messaging attuned to Microsoft.

We at ActiveNav are no exception to the threat and opportunity Microsoft presents. It is incumbent on us to continue showing our points of difference and more so, fill their gaps – often meaning doing the simple stuff really well. It certainly keeps us on our toes and, frankly, is preferable to the multitude of bit players and pretenders we’ve seen in and out of the data discovery space during recent years. In the world of data discovery, there are obvious significant gaps in Microsoft’s capabilities and, if you listen you can learn that not everyone wants or necessarily trusts Microsoft to be the answer. In my discussions it seems that some delegates are feeling the burn of waiting for the capability to catch up with marketing or are caught trying to translate feature/function checklists into deployable capabilities for a sophisticated records or governance program.

Right Tools for the Job

If there’s one lesson I took from the event, from the many experts in attendance, it is that dark unstructured data remains one of the biggest thorns in any organization’s governance program. What’s more, it’s that ‘hopeful’ solutions – those that are adding information governance features as an afterthought – simply don’t cut it.

Hearing this, real time, at the event led to a certain amount of frustration for me and some delegates alike. This frustration was that, despite many conversations about these same challenges over the years, many have been unable to act or have deployed and failed with products or services where information governance played second fiddle to their core capabilities. My shout out here is for both customers and, where applicable, their chosen consulting partners to do a much better job of creating the business case, including bringing executives to the table from IT, cyber and privacy and developing the right program with specialist technology tools and a supporting budget to do sort the dark data challenge once and for all.

This is what we were messaging on our booth, through our North Star Vision “Zero Dark Data”. It resonates really well and can provide a rallying vision for many to adopt as their own when they got back to the office. We know that organizations are seeking an easy button to solve their unstructured data problem and I was concerned to hear a reputable consulting firm advising that they could simply use different tools already in place to achieve most of these objectives. If that were truly the case, it begs the question why so many organizations continue to fail to deal with their dark data. Right tools for the job people!

Great to be Out and Meeting People

One the benefits of attending events these post-pandemic days is that it’s now one of the only opportunities in the calendar you get to meet your customers all in one place. ARMA, this year, was no exception and the team I met with more than a dozen customers in attendance, talking about their data discovery programs without the inherent restrictions of Zoom meetings. The added bonus, of course, is that we got to do that in a social environment at our cocktail party at the Townhouse Detroit. Add in the ARMA event social schedule and it’s simply great to feel that the energy is back.

Of course, business usually gets in the way of social which is why I didn’t get to see as much of Detroit as I would have liked. So, with insight from a mix of quality discussions and education sessions powered up by the energetic social scene, I’m concluding that events are back, ARMA is jumping and we all have work to do to ensure we understand, according to our particular business needs, the implications of drinking the Microsoft information governance coolaid!


Peter Baumann