What it means to be a user in records management, and what it means for professionals to have users.

It means to use something built by a professional.

We have to rememebr this, because the vast majority of records best practice is developed by professionals for professionals.

We are a profession with 5000 years of being done by professionals, for professionals.

The problem though, is that the vast majority of records management is now done by users – and this has only been the case for about 20 years.

So we have a problem.

5000 years of professional records management.

20 years of users.

Our training and resources teach us how to think like professionals.

This means that if we build systems based on our training and resources, we’re going to build things that only professionals can easily use.

And I think that probably explains quite a lot of our problems.

The question we all need to ask every day is “have I built this system* to be easily understood by the users I have, at the maturity level they are at.”

*System in the general sense, including but not limited to the IT system sense.

Why we need to define records again (yes really, hear me out – it’s a coherent argument, I promise)

I’m going to say up front that it doesn’t matter what definition you use.

Just that you use one.


  1. “Records is just the paper.”
  2. “Email aren’t records.”
  3. “Post it notes aren’t records.”
  4. “That’s not a record, it’s a database.”

These are all idiotic blanket statements made by records illiterate people who can influence your executives.

They are also idiotic blanket statements made by records illiterate people who use them as rules to decide whether they will keep a record.

When we let other people decide what records is, we end up with whatever illiterate thing people decide to give us.

A definition of records in our organisation is something that we should all be fighting for.

It’s foundational.

It’s easy.

It lets us decide what records is.

It tells the organisation what records are.

It’s a standard that we can hold them to.

There’s also a heavy responsibility.

A simplistic definition creates ambiguity, an overly complicated one creates a barrier.

The underlying point remains though – as long as we let non-records people decide what records is about, we’ll keep getting stuffed into the basement to deal with whatever garbage they want us to deal with.

If we fight for the definition we need in our organisation, define its value and prove that it has an impact on performance, we might just get the records we want.

How to set records strategy.

I think it starts with three questions –

  1. Where is the organisation under performing because it does not have efficient access to reliable business evidence?
  2. Where is the organisation accumulating an excess of business risk that we can mitigate through better business evidence?
  3. Which strategic priorities of the executive team are going to fail without a strategy for business evidence?

I think that once you’ve answered those questions, you have everything you need to work on.

The first thing a records team should invest in

Is a service management platform.

The next thing the team should do is refuse to accept any work that isn’t directed via the service management platform.

The reason is simple – most records teams struggle to justify their value.

The simplest relationship in value management is “cost” to “how much stuff you do.””

If you can’t measure it, you have no basis for telling the organisation how much work you’re doing for them – and how much value they’re getting from you.

As the old saying goes, “if you can’t measure it” you can’t tell people what they’re paying you for.

If you can’t tell people what they’re paying you and your team for, they’re never going to give you more money to get more done.

Quantifying the value that records management adds to the organisation

The two big questions on my mind are:

  1. How do we do this?
  2. What happens if we don’t?

The majority of people that I talk to aren’t doing it.

They’re also struggling for funding because executives making capital allocation decisions are allocating their capital to everything else.

Why though would an executive allocate scarce capital resources to something with no quantified value? If no-one is quantifying the value, all the executive is going to see is the cost. Left column – -$1,000,000, right column +0.

So I think what happens is what we’ve got now – records chronically under-funded and poorly understood.

I think though that the problem is even larger than that.

When we don’t quantify the value of what we do, we adopt practices based on ideas about value that may not exist.

Disposition for instance hasn’t changed in 25 years yet the cost of storing information now is about .1% of what it was 25 years ago.

We also justify disposition by talking about things like FOI and how long people spend searching for information – but the numbers either don’t exist or are virtual. No one believes them because they’re “IDC says” or “Gartner says”. They’re not – I sat with John in accounting for a day and he spent 3 hours trying to find accounting records, or I sat with Julie in our development team and she spent 3 hours trying to find old development records.

We also end up with users trying to decipher disposition focused classification schemes – because without a rigorous, value focused practice, it’s acceptable to put an incomprehensible classification scheme in front of a user and consider our job done.

So how do we value records practice?

I want to hear from people who have achieved this, who have real world, in their own business, rigorous valuations of practice. We all need that evidence.

My view on how it should be done is simple.

  1. We need to evaluate each practice in terms of its options and their relative costs and values.
  2. We need a bit of information taylorism – time and motion studies.

Option evaluation is simple – as an example, disposition has no inherent value. It is a solution to a problem. The problem used to be that in order to store more records, we had to buy more buildings, but in an electronic world, that’s not the case.

So what are the other solutions? We could not destroy a record at all. This actually makes sense – the cost of storing a 300KB word document for 237,000 years is 28c, so if we run a disposition process that costs us $1 we’ve spent 700,000 years of storage costs – so we should probably not talk about that practice being good value if we expect serious people making capital allocation decisions to take us seriously.

But what about the cost of finding information? (It’s the logical question for anyone in records right!)

This brings me neatly to point 2 – if we’re going to be taken seriously when we talk about productivity based improvements, we need to measure them rigorously – which means time and motion studies of our own organisations (because no one believes numbers from a research vendor doing studies commissioned by search vendors are in any way relevant to their own organisations).

Time and motion is a simple idea. You sit with a stop watch and record what people are doing and how long it takes them so that you can find better ways of doing it.

For search, someone needs to sit with a stop watch and see how long it takes people to find things, they also need to pay attention to the person’s behavior while searching – how often do they open a document only to find that it’s the wrong one etc. This might seem a little detail oriented, but when I worked for Dell, I had a research analyst from one of the big four accounting firms sit behind me for four hours timing how long I had to wait for an application to deliver me the information I needed – it was lagging and they wanted to make sure the upgrade didn’t cost more than the problem. This is how businesses and disciplines that are serious about organisational performance do things.

Once this is done, you can actually start to find out how performance can be improved, and I’m going to bet that 98 times out of 100 it’s not going to be disposition because titling can have a bigger impact, metadata enrichment can have a bigger impact, designating files of a certain age as old and having them not show up initially can have a bigger impact – there are 90 other tools that can have a bigger impact and cost less money.

The point of all of this is to say that we need to quantify the value of what we do rigorously before we can expect serious people to give us real money.

The really good news is that nothing I mentioned here is outside of records management’s control or skill base. It’s all stuff that we can do and I think that if we can bring the money element back into records management we become much more likely to get executives making capital allocation decisions to take us seriously, and get funded.

The best records systems are built by…

People who aren’t thinking about records.

This is something I’ve noticed consistently.

The best records systems are built by people who are thinking about the information that people need to get their job done, and how they deliver it to them when they need it.

No other focus gets people thinking as hard about classifications that match the way people think about their work.

No other focus does as well at making sure people understand what’s in it for them when it comes time to put a record in the system.

No other focus ties the records system so clearly to organisational performance – and that gets managers and executives focused meaningfully on records without actually knowing that’s what they’re doing.

One question to ask if you need to understand why record quality matters.

How fast does your organisation want to go?

While we have to ensure representational accuracy of our records, quality to me has only one useful, influencable measure – how fast can we access and act on the informational content of the records we hold?

The simplest example of changes in quality are those that come from changes in medium – paper documents to electronic documents, electronic documents to digital data.

Each one of them raises the quality of the information.

Each one of them raises the speed with which our organisations can move. Each one reduces the resources our organisation has to expend to do so.

If we want records management to be the way our organisation goes faster, this is the conversation that we have to lead.

Or it will be someone else.

How to solve the money problem in records management.

Find a problem.

Define what it looks like when it’s fixed with records management practice.

Define what the gap is costing the organisation in very specific dollar amounts – additional hours worked by people vs. their salaries, direct costs in unrealised but specifically quantifiable gains.

Implement the change.

Do a benefits realisation exercise to prove that your theory produced the return you thought it was going to.

Present the benefits realisation output to your management or executive team.

Repeat until your records management team has run out of ways to improve the performance of your organisation.

What stories do we need to tell about records?

Stories are one of the most powerful tools in existence for getting people to buy into an idea.

If we tell the right ones.

I have a working theory though, that most of the stories we tell about records,

are the wrong stories,

for the wrong people.

I’ve found our stories almost always fall into three categories –

  1. “What if we need this for…” (FOI, Legal Discovery).
  2. Diligent and unceasing practice will prevent all manner of harms (corruption, poor outcomes etc.).
  3. Historians will need these.

Of course, those stories are all true.

But who do they motivate?

The FOI officer will deal with the FOI – but doesn’t do the rest of the work.

The sad reality of harms is that they will only get funded after the next royal commission, or corruption investigation (so focusing on this story doesn’t stop it happening).

And we don’t know who the historians are, or what their priorities will be – we just know that they’re not ours, right now.

What stories do we tell people at the coal face about how the lives of people at the coal face are made easier by records?

What stories do we tell managers about how the lives of managers are made easier by records?

What stories do we tell executives about how records helped executives achieve strategic outcomes?

What our stories lack, is immediacy.

Clinical documenters get it right.

The stories they tell are compelling, and they go right up the chain.

Get this record wrong, or lose it, and there’s a good chance that the person in it will die.

Front liners don’t want to kill people.

Managers don’t want to be the manager whose team killed anyone.

Executives know that running the division that kills people will wreck any chance they have of getting anything strategic done.

Records stories in most other places aren’t quite as dire.

But they can be just as immediate, and even more certain.

Almost every front-line worker will rely on records, and their performance will be improved by having them.

Almost any manager will fall all over themselves for anyone who can make their team 10% more productive – and records can.

And in the past, we gave people surnames so that we could create great records, tax them reliably, and govern them effectively. So records can also be a strategic weapon worthy of the title.

If we tell the right stories.

So what are your favourites?

Service management of records to avoid questions about “why records is so expensive.”

Number 1, top of the list of ridiculous and infuriating comments made by incoming executives looking at records teams is “you’ve got too many staff.”

The obvious question is “too many for what?”

Here’s what a good answer looks like:

“Here are the services we provide. Here are our service benchmarks against external organisations who could provide us with these services, we are better value than all of them (so outsourcing would be stupid). Which services would you like us to stop providing?”

Records in most organisations isn’t too expensive, on the contrary, it is horribly under-funded. What many records teams fail to do is to group records tasks into services in a way that is understandable to the organisation and to service providers.

If you’ve studied ITIL or service management, you’ll have recognised that I’m saying records needs a service catalogue. A service catalogue describes all of the services that you provide to the organisation, and the critical information about them.

A well developed service catalogue enables you to very quickly tell your organisation what you do for them, and what you don’t, and what level of quality they can expect across the services. If you do it well, it also provides a tool that you can take to external service providers to benchmark yourself so that you can prove that you’re good value (or that you’re not, and give you a tool to work out why).

Once you’ve got a service catalogue, and you’ve used it to benchmark yourself, you’ll be able to quickly end 3 types of inane conversation:

  1. You’ve got too many staff.
  2. Why haven’t you done x.
  3. Why does this cost so much.

Records isn’t expensive, it’s generally horribly under-funded. It is however difficult to understand for many people who haven’t invested time in it. A service catalogue is a simple way you can make it more understandable – and avoid silly conversations with people who should know better.