Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Information Overload – Sept 2014 – Collaborate and be relevant

Shirley Cowcher

Records management is just not valued

I don’t often take time to contemplate my own, or my profession’s, relevance, but I have to admit that recently I have found myself doing just that in relation to my more than 25 years as a records management professional. Sadly, it hasn’t been a positive experience. Why? Well, it appears that business just doesn’t value its information and therefore it doesn’t value those that are employed to ensure that information is captured, controlled, accessible and eventually disposed of.  “Yes”, you say.  “I know exactly what you mean.  We know how valuable the records are.  We know how important our role is to ensure that the organisation is compliant, and yet because information and records are tacit to the organisation they just won’t invest in what we know is required.  The ICT people seem to be able to get the resources they need, they don’t want to support us in our efforts and it is just an uphill battle to get any acknowledgement from middle to senior management”

Where does the fault lay?

Well, all of what you say may be true but I believe that it is the profession that must take responsibility for us being seen by the organisation as a blocker of progress, a problem creator, rather than a solution provider and at best are referred to at the end of an IM/ICT project rather than at the beginning.  I know I may appear rather harsh in this belief but I am convinced of this, and every story I hear just reinforces my perception.  Let me explain my position with two examples.
Recently, I was discussing the issue of a new ICT project that had been developed to manage some detailed building plans that had been digitised so that they could be accessed on mobile devices by workers in the field.  The project had gone through the phases of user requirements, conceptual modelling, and was in the final phases of physical design when someone in ICT asked a question about how long the digitised records would have to be kept and how would they manage variations to the building plans over time.  It was at that stage that the expertise of the records manager was sought.  The records manager’s response was not very supportive.  They were frustrated at being consulted so late in the project and made reference to any number of standards and policies that indicated that the records couldn’t possibly be captured, stored and managed in anything other than the organisation’s existing EDRMS.  The ICT project group hastily retreated and went ahead to complete the project knowing that they were missing a piece of the project but were sure they were meeting the user requirements.
A similar story is that of an organisation that had, over time, implemented business ICT systems to support certain business activities that imbedded the records into the system.  Over the years the records managers had vaguely acknowledged that these systems existed but had never entered into any discussions with the ICT group or the users of the systems as to how the records were being captured, managed and controlled.  The moment came when the CIO identified that there were potential issues in terms of governance and compliance and wanted to have discussions about in-place records management.  The result was a discussion that was one-sided and aggressive.  The records manager’s position was that compliance could only be achieved if the records were placed in the organisation’s EDRMS and that the business systems did not meet recordkeeping requirements.  This resulted in the CIO and the IT group asking why and what needed to be done to make them meet the requirements.  The records manager responded by handing them a whole load of policies and standards and saying “This is what is required”.  The IT group took the information provided and commenced a discussion with various IT vendors to see if they could meet their compliance and governance requirements by throwing some additional technology at the problem and the records manager continued to manage their domain of records, complaining that “IT just don’t understand!”

The compliance big stick won’t work

I don’t say I have the answers but I have some thoughts that I am willing to share and have debated or challenged. I believe that the only way records management can become relevant to business is for records managers to adopt an attitude of collaboration with the associated professions and, to be honest, the whole of business.  Records managers need to be inclusive in their approach to business and not sit in ivory towers wielding the great stick of compliance.  This stick has been used for far too long, with people believing it will produce the result we want.  It doesn’t!
Records management has to be seen as relevant to the whole of the organisation.  It cannot be relevant only to those that work in the areas of legal counsel, compliance and quality.  They all rely on records that are created and used by others within the organisation and those “others” won’t cooperate unless it makes their job easy and they see the need and benefit to themselves and the organisation.  We’ve all heard it before, but we have to appeal to the “what’s in it for me?” mentality of every person within the organisation. In appealing to that mentality we have to know them and know what they do and what they need.  We have to step away from our recordkeeping systems and get to know the users as well as the business of the organisation that employs us.
I recently spent a week attending and supporting sessions on metadata and system design for information governance.  Most attendees came from a records management background but there were a few business analysts and ICT people.  The one thing that struck me from each of the sessions was that the majority of the participants admitted that they needed to go out and talk to the users of the business systems (and not just the EDRMS systems) to determine the source of authority for much of the metadata that was required.  Many also realised that the user requirements and conceptual models that they develop and deliver to systems developers or ICT vendors were poorly developed and contained insufficient information for a satisfactory outcome to be achieved.  This has resulted in the vendors and developers delivering what they understood to be best for the user, based on the incomplete information they are given, not what is really needed.

A multi-disciplinary skill set is required

The world has changed.  Records management is no longer about paper records and we cannot hope to apply the paper recordkeeping model to the digitised, social media, mobile app world that we live in today.  If we do not realise this and multi-skill so we can initiate and participate in inclusive and collaborative conversations, then we have no hope of ever being seen as relevant.
For some of us, we could not possibly have envisaged where we would be in terms of business dependency on technology and the digitisation of records (and I’m not just talking about scanning paper records) when we commenced our careers.  Well, welcome to the new world. Get up to speed or leave now.  For those that have only recently started on their career path you may feel disappointed that the course you completed to gain formal qualifications didn’t adequately prepare you for this new world.  Well, get up to speed and, in addition, make it known to the institutions providing the qualifications where they are lacking.
From my view point, it is essential that those working in the area of records management must have some practical exposure to strategic planning, financial management, business analysis, database/systems design and metadata modelling, governance and compliance, business writing and project management.  Exceptional communication skills (that’s not talking and telling but LISTENING) are also mandatory.  I’m not sure how this is to be achieved but without these skills we are fighting a losing battle.
Having had a quick glance at the various educational offerings many seem to offer multi-disciplinary courses. Yet I often hear from new graduates that they felt they had not had the opportunity to develop the skills they later realised that they needed to address the issues most organisations are facing.  So what’s happening here? Is it that there is too much to cover in the curriculum so let’s stick to what we know? Is it that the units offered outside of the core units are presented by people in the records management profession?  Database design presented by a records manager or archivist doesn’t provide adequate exposure to the terminology, thinking or processes that are second nature to those working in the IT discipline.  Cross discipline units within the course will encourage participants to have conversations with people in other disciplines and develop an understanding of the issues faced by those working in other disciplines.  Education in isolation results in an insular view of the world. Perhaps it has more to do with the limitations of the courses in terms of teaching what is here and now instead of what is on the immediate horizon?  For example, it is essential that new graduates understand the issues surrounding in-place records management in relation to business systems.  I haven’t met many that know that there is an international standard relating to this issue (it is dated but it exists) and even fewer that see this as acceptable option.

Border Protection

Perhaps it has nothing to do with the educational offerings but fear.  A scared animal when backed into a corner comes out fighting.  Is this what is happening to our profession?  When faced with issues we don’t fully understand, and that don’t meet our paper view of the world, we protect ourselves by taking the stance that we know best, this our domain and no one else can enter it unless they can speak our language and follow our rules to the letter.  We push people away with our aggression and unwillingness to consider another’s viewpoint.  When we communicate we do it purely to win the argument and get our position accepted without listening or being willing to compromise.  I don’t know the answer but my feeling is that it is the attitudes and behaviours, individually and collectively, that has resulted in records management being seen as irrelevant to the organisation.  As I said at the beginning I don’t often contemplate such issues.  I wonder if the reason for that is that I don’t like the result.