Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 98 – Records and Information Management: The more things change

I was reading an article written in 1998 by Piers Cain, Director of Research, Development & Education – International Records Management Trust; entitled “Effects of the Failure to Manage Records and the Erosion of the Evidence Base.

It is a fascinating piece that talks about organisational chaotic records systems. 

“Chaotic” what a delicious term for what most people now know as normal, every day working life, especially if you can’t find what you are looking for.  To me it conjures up images of boxes piled in warehouses, out houses, shipping containers, attics and basements. Scribbled writing fading on the collapsing cardboard and crumbling paper fragments created by extremes in temperature. 

Some of you may think I have just made that up, but we have photographs of every single one of these examples. Organisations who, for whatever reason didn’t quite know what to do with those boxes and bits of paper, so they swept them under a metaphorical rug and hoped they never had to find anything or look at them ever again. The reason we have photographs of course is someone discovered the stash and did decide to do something about them – and they called us in to assist them.

“Cue ghostbusters theme”

OK, so not everyone reading this will have a chaotic records system, at least not in the physical sense, but what of our electronic worlds. Those born digital documents, emails, social media messages, phone calls and other random bits and bytes that make up our working environment today? Can you say, hand on heart you know exactly what you have and if pressed to find something – urgently – you can do so?

What most organisations seem to have is a reasonable handle on current records. In some cases the electronic files (including email directories) mirror their paper counterparts. But there are gaps. Legacy documents, skeletons in closets that should have been disposed of a long time before the discovery order hit the desk of the CEO, and a website and social media presence that isn’t managed at all. 

There are many reasons why this happens (and not all apply to every organisation of course). It is easy to point fingers.

It is easy to say “It wasn’t MY fault; I was just doing the same as everyone else…”

Well, we’ve all heard of the famous words stated by Albert Einstein, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” well this certainly applies to our “monster”

In reality there is usually more than one reason why our monster has gotten as big as it has, for example:

Corporate Culture

One of the biggest reasons why we have an information monster in the basement is our corporate culture. This catch all phrase covers everybody in every department in every office. We are therefore, by default ALL responsible. 

Remember what we said earlier. 

“It wasn’t MY fault; I was just doing the same as everyone else…”

It was OUR fault, because we didn’t ask if there was a better way.

So how do we determine if there is a better way?

Well just as some corporate cultures have a philosophy of stuffing things in the basement and hoping it doesn’t explode out … there are some organisations that have the corporate culture that says we are going to manage our information. However for those organisations who do have IM problems, they usually occur because of a number of reasons:

  • No dedicated Information Management (IM) person
  • There is too much to do for the person / team allocated to the IM role
  • Change of personnel. This applies to all levels of the organisation. Champions leave, CEO’s change. The person who knew where everything was moves on. This happened at one organisation I worked for. One member of staff had an office that looked like a bomb had exploded inside it. Stacked high with paper, reports, books and research – but he could put his hand on anything within seconds – because he had created the “system”. Unfortunately he passed away and the records staff spent several months recording each and every single item.  While this is an extreme example, there are a lot of organisations who have silos of information. This usually creates inefficiencies beyond re-creation of work.
  • Hiding the problem – onsite and offsite (storage vendors)
  • Boxes with no dates
  • Contents not grouped into series
  • Belief that you should keep everything just in case
  • Keep everything because it’s too hard to deal with
  • Management cannot see the benefit of having an IM system in place

Organisations may not be willing to pay to have and implement a compliant records management program, but they will pay for discovery orders and fines when they occur. And yes, there really are organisations that do just that. They may make the assumption that the ongoing costs of systems and personnel will cost more in the long run.


Organisations become too big too soon and the Information Management system can’t cope with the ramped up venture. Take for example an airline who moves into a new market. Their existing IM system suddenly has to cope with scores of new planes, new personnel and the service records of millions of parts. And yes this did happen to a large airline here in Australia who had to make and keep its promises to CASA in order to remain aloft. Then there are Startup companies for example junior miners whose systems were OK when they had few assets in place – but would not be able to cope with the increase in assets once they came online.

Change of Operations

Closure of business / operations / amalgamation of sites / mergers and acquisitions all impact on staff resources allocated to handle the influx of material.

And then there is Conflicting informationLegislation: If you have offices in more than one state, or more than one country your retention and disposal schedule must comply with each jurisdiction. We once had to research 52 countries for an organisation that had operations spanning the globe. Not all of which provided legislation.What struck me when I read the article is how little has changed over the last 5 years. We still have problems, and they are not getting any smaller. In fact it could be argued they are getting worse. 

They are getting more complex due to the increasing number of formats we are having to deal with. But more on that in another issue.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.