Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Information Overload – February 2016 – The Horse Has Bolted

Shirley Cowcher

It’s the end of the project…

Recently we were faced with a request from a client to assist them in managing the records associated with a large construction project that was now coming to an end. They needed to determine what records should be retained and for how long.
So why hadn’t this been addressed when the project commenced?  They indicated that they had Document Management and Project Management Systems and they thought that these systems would manage all the information compliance requirements of the project.  After all, they had a list of the essential records to be handed over to the client at Commissioning.  They hadn’t considered the volume of other records that would be created during the project and certainly hadn’t thought about the end of the project; after all construction projects can take years.
That is just one example, but there are lots of smaller projects (much smaller) that occur in organisations and the first time the Records or Information Manager hears about them is after the project has finished and people are looking to close off files, systems, SharePoint libraries.

…and there’s no time and no money

So what happens when the project has finished and they just want to move on to the next project?
At best the records are reviewed by someone with some information management compliance skills and sentenced following an established, or newly developed, process.  At worst, the records are left  in:
• Server directories.
• Personal directories.
• Mobile devices.
• Email systems.
• Software systems.
• SharePoint libraries.
• Archive boxes.
• Filing cabinets and folders.
They will not be adequately identified, have no retention period assigned to them and may even be banished to external drives and commercial, or in-house, storage facilities.  Never to be accessed again, unless there is a litigation case.
And then there is somewhere in between.  This usually results in a guideline being drawn up that provides a list of types of records that project workers may have created, or hold, and the actions that must be taken to sentence and dispose of the records.  This guideline is then given to the project workers finalising the project and they are given the responsibility of sentencing and disposition of the project records.
This phase of the project is an after-thought and usually is also met with the panic of there being a very tight timeframe for closing out the project and nothing left  in the budget.
Does this sound familiar?  It happens all the time.

Why are the records an afterthought?

There could be many reasons why records management seems to be an afterthought but I feel that the main one is that the project team just get so involved in setting up the project that they don’t plan for the end.  They plan to achieve the goal of the project but not the close-out.
Any project manager would tell you that’s not true. They will tell you that a project management methodology follows a life cycle which includes everything from initial planning to closing activities required to finalise the project; and that the close-out period includes finalising the documentation associated with the project.  Yet, it seems to me that the only documentation that is addressed during the close-out phase is that required for handover to the project owner.  Any other records and documentation associated with the management of the project just don’t seem to matter.  You only have to do a search on SharePoint and Information Governance to see how much has been written about the problems associated with the proliferation of SharePoint libraries; all set up to allow collaboration during a project and then deserted when the project has finished.  The project is finished move on to the next one!
Document control is one aspect of information management which is usually seen as an essential part of the project but it often fails to address the long term retention and disposition management of the documents created.  Even if retention and disposition of records is considered by the document controllers they generally focus their attention only on the segment of the information that is labelled “controlled documents” or “quality documents”, which includes the records required to meet contract requirements and deliverables.

How can it be different?

I would suggest that there should be an information specialist (and I’m not talking about a Document Controller) assigned to, at the very least, the start and the end of the project.  The information specialist should ensure that there are tasks included in each phase of the project to address the creation, storage, management and disposition of all the records associated with the project and not just those that are registered and held in the Document Control System.
Smaller projects may not require too much consideration as the records produced may be of limited value upon completion of the project.  Whereas large projects, e.g. building construction, whole of business software implementation or development, may require the development of a classification scheme and retention and disposal schedule as well as processes and procedures to ensure the capture and control of the records.
I suppose the underlying thread of this newsletter is that records and information managers should be out and about in their organisations talking to people about what projects are about to commence and how they can help in making the management of the project records easier for those involved. Even more important is for the records and information managers to establish a strong relationship with the organisation’s project managers and be seen as a part of the project management team so records are not an afterthought but part of the project management process from start to close-out.