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CIO Leadership Series: WARF's Patty Prime offers tutorial on e-discovery

Madison, Wis. - For some CIOs, it's been a struggle to comply with new e-discovery provisions in federal law. Thus far, there is very little established case law to use for guidance, and the need to manage and organize e-mail documents may not be the top information technology priority for most business organizations.

One Wisconsin technologist who can offer some direction is Patty Prime, chief information officer for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. WARF, the technology transfer arm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is not only immersed in a challenge to its stem cell patents, but on occasion it has to defend its main product - the university's intellectual property - in court.

To protect UW-Madison's intellectual property and patents, the organization has had to search through thousands of old e-mail communications, which Prime considers the hardest data to manage. With previous career stops, which included an eight-year stint with Covance Laboratories, federal regulations came into play. However, legal compliance consumes more of her attention at WARF, which has “more lawyers per capita” than any place Prime has worked.

WARF's intellectual property portfolio is extensive. Not only does it manage more than 850 pending and 930 issued United States patents (and 2,300 foreign equivalents), it offers more than 1,000 technologies for licensing and holds equity in 35 UW-Madison spin off companies.

Since e-discovery is on WARF's radar screen, its modest IT department occasionally has to provide information to support the organization's legal position. Fortunately for WARF, the organization doesn't have so much documentation, electronic and otherwise, that it's impossible to manage.
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“In our world, we have to be aware of the issues,” Prime said, “but we benefit from our size and have not had any major IT challenges.”

Prime, who has a bachelor's degree in anthropology from UW-Madison and an associate's degree in data processing from Madison Area Technical College, said finding paper documentation is relatively simple. Most of it is organized by patent and by agreement, so the search process is hardly onerous.

That could not be said of tracking e-mail communications. With the help of a software e-mail archiver, which is a search tool for e-mails, WARF has been able to stay on top of what Prime calls the “real gotchas,” those informal e-mail communications that can add texture to a defense or a prosecution. The e-mail archiving software is neither fancy nor expensive to implement, but it's a better solution than the previous search engine.

It certainly was useful during a patent infringement case with Xenon Pharmaceuticals, a Canadian biotechnology company that WARF sued for breach of contract. In May of 2006, a jury awarded $1 million to WARF, which had licensed to Xenon a compound to control cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.

Before such a judgment was possible, WARF's document manager had to sift through e-mails linked to the case, primarily communications exchanged between the two companies. WARF had licensed the technology to Xenon in 2001.

“Opposing lawyers are looking for anything, as are our lawyers,” Prime said.

Since the price of storage actually has gone down, it was easier to consolidate the records into a single, searchable storage device, but Prime acknowledged that WARF's size was another part of the manageability factor. All told, the organization's documents, e-mail and otherwise, probably number in the tens of thousands.

“If we were a big company with thousands of employees, our solution wouldn't be scalable,” she noted.

A good deal of the task was process and organization. To make the record manager's job easier, a technologist under Prime's supervision reorganized the e-mail documents from a records manager's point of view. To define policies and provide advice on technology purchases, Prime wasn't shy about using WARF's legal team.

“They must help define the policies that need to be applied,” she said. “We have a document policy that is completely defined by our general counsel.”

Those policies include document retention at different intervals for different types of documents, some of which is dictated by law. Courts may impose sanctions for lost or destroyed information, so organizations have to tred carefully on which documents they retain and which documents can be fed to the shredder. Given their importance, patents have a longer shelf life than most - typically they are held six years beyond their expiration - but others are destroyed after six years unless they have been requested as part of discovery in a legal dispute.

The good news for small and medium-sized businesses is that even though e-discovery sounds complex, it's a manageable task. "You can use pretty straightforward tools," Prime said, "and just taking a few basic [procedural] steps can really help your company."

Strategic initiative

WARF's biggest strategic initiative is the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the twin institutes (one public, one private) that will be built on the UW-Madison campus and serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research.

To spur new knowledge, inventions, and new treatments for disease, the facilities will be designed to foster collaboration among researchers across a range of academic disciplines. Although the first shovel has yet to pierce the ground, WARF already is helping to build a technology portal that will be a tool for collaborators that form cross-functional partnerships.

The Wisconsin Technology Portal, a searchable database with an ease-of-use promise, should be ready this fall, long before the Institutes open. Prime has experience building external websites, but this is the first time she's built a non-transactional site for internal and external use.

The portal project, a combination of build and buy, will incorporate three main components: a search engine, the Microsoft collaboration tool SharePoint, and Microsoft's SQL server for data management and analysis. The database piece will be tested between now and October, while the external design, the front page, has yet to be completed.

“It's essentially a body of knowledge that people can tap into,” Prime said. “It will be a forerunner to what the Institutes will eventually use, and we're going to test it and tweak it.”

Tech transfer liberation

With previous career stops at Viasys Neurocare, Covance Laboratories, and American Family Insurance, Prime's stint at WARF has been liberating in one sense. The tech transfer business offers advantages that she did not enjoy in the private sector because WARF doesn't compete with its peer organizations, so connecting and sharing with peers isn't frowned upon.

In some ways, WARF is similar to most of the privately held small businesses that are the heart of the Wisconsin economy. Of the approximately 100 people employed at WARF and its affiliate, the WiCell Research Institute, three (including Prime) work in information technology.

Her small department supports two organizations with two distinct missions.

One key IT role is supporting the first National Stem Cell Bank, which is situated at the WiCell Research Institute in University Research Park. WiCell's mission is more specific to tapping the research potential of embryonic stem cells, and since WiCell has the contract for the stem cell bank, there is an IT component to managing the inventory and request process, and maintaining the website that is the bank's public face.

As the university's tech transfer arm, WARF's mission involves disseminating information about patents, marketing the intellectual property to the rest of the world, and promoting innovation. The system that manages all this is an in-house enterprise resource planning software system that is being replaced with a purchased system.

The new ERP vendor is not yet official, but the goal is to move to a more flexible foundation. However, since the new ERP system will reach deep into the operation of WARF, Prime worries a great deal about change management. She believes that IT essentially is business change using technology, and the impact of that change can be magnified with strong change management.

As a result, she has taken the following steps to promote change management on the ERP project:

• The selection and implementation teams have been staffed with representatives from each of the impacted departments. In Prime's view, these subject-area experts contribute to the credibility of the selection decision by bringing in the different perspectives of all users.

• Created a transparent selection process. IT has provided regular updates to the staff, and held question-and-answer sessions so that everyone had a chance to learn more about the new software.

• The introduction of general change management concepts and techniques to the entire staff. Everyone has different reactions to change, Prime said, and understanding individual profiles “can really give you a more active approach to whatever the change may be.”

• As WARF moves through system testing, it will widen the number of participants to give everyone a safe environment to experiment with the new software. There will be a feedback loop to incorporate appropriate changes to the data migration and the software.

Project management

Prime, who reports directly to WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen, chairs the organization's IT Council, which meets monthly to review the progress of ongoing projects and act as a review board for new proposals. This is the mechanism she uses to ensure the business makes IT investment decisions against the backdrop of the organization's entire project portfolio.

On large IT implementations, Prime typically forms a small team of stakeholders - including the senior manager(s) that champion the project and, if necessary, a senior representative of a big vendor - who meet at least once a month “to hold the project accountable.” Through that forum, she handles the scope of decisions, resolves resource and other issues, and generally keeps the project momentum moving forward.

In her view, the essence of CIO leadership is fostering those relationships with upper management and other key decision makers. Making senior leaders part of project governance and getting them to articulate project outcomes in business terms is part of establishing a thorough IT governance process.

The best lesson she's learned from an IT implementation sounds obvious until you realize it doesn't always happen. “Know what business problem you are solving,” she advised. “The corollary is that the business must know what problem you're solving and want you to solve it.”

Related articles

Electronic discovery about more than unplugging the shredders

John Flanagan: Document retention policy can get your arms around eDiscovery

Juan Ramirez: Finding “Safe Harbor” in a sea of electronic discovery

Tim Hansen: Quick peeks, Clawback Agreements, and the rules of electronic discovery

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