How many of us in records and information management are dealing with our problems in isolation?

I’m writing this from a bar at which I’ve organised the first (in what I hope will be a series of lunches) for people in Information and Records where I work.

I’m hoping that it will give us a forum to discuss the problems we are all dealing with so we can learn from the best and worst of the collective experience.

It’s not something that I think we do well, which is a shame, because when we’re dealing with complex problems, the experience of our peers provides the best barometer for what can be successful.

One of the hallmarks of complex problems is that you can often take courses of action that are completely opposed (ie. add resources vs. take them away), and get an improvement from both.

What this means, is that most complex problems are going to be solved by trying multiple things, and seeing what works.

When these experiments are cheap, and are entered into in the expectation that some will fail, we learn about our organisation without having to trade masses of political capital for a large project with no real guarantee that it will work.

The best source of experiments are our peers in other organisations (or in the same organisation if it’s large enough).

But how often do we get together to do it?

My experience is that it doesn’t happen very often. I’ve spoken to people at organisations in the same building, or neighbouring councils who are doing the same project but are totally unaware.

When we deal with problems in isolation, we have to do our own experiments, or our own projects, and only learn from our own experience.

We’re about to head into the quieter time of year where not much project work is likely to get done – so why not take the chance to call some of your peers and talk about your project plans for the new year and whether they think they’re likely to be a success. It’s not a natural thing to do – but it might just save you from wasting a project, and the most critical commodity of all – time.

The knowledge to solve all of the problems of records and information management exists in the community and we can all do better if we make time to go out and give what we’ve learned to each other – it’s likely to be the most valuable gift of the year.

What is the boundary between a records system and an information system?

When we design a system to record evidence – we’re designing a records system.

When we design a system to serve people’s information needs, we’re designing an information system.

My belief is that if we don’t make it a priority for records systems to serve information needs, people won’t use the records capability, because they’ll develop their own information repository, and then they won’t use the one we need them to use for us to be a success.

So who makes this happen?

We do.

The boundary is us.

The shortest supply commodity in organisations where records hasn’t delivered – and what to do about it.

The commodity in shortest supply is advocates.

People who will go out into the organisation and say “I trusted records, and they made my life better.”

Without advocates, you won’t get funding, managerial support or a mandate to do what you need to do.

The problem, is that there is almost always a huge oversupply of whiners who will actively undermine whatever you try and do.

When the ratio of whiners to records staff is hundreds to one, no matter how good you are, you’re not going to get enough budget to beat those odds.

So how do you beat those odds?

The only way I’ve seen work is to pick a winner.

A winner is the team with the biggest problem that you can easily solve, quickly and for a reasonable amount of money.

The way you make them a winner is to focus all your time and resources on them so that in six months, you’ve got 5 or 10 or 20 or 50 more advocates in your organisation.

People you’ve really delivered for.

People who will tell other people that you really delivered and made their lives better.

The catch with this idea is that we can’t run a technical project, and we can’t run a project that only delivers to unknown people far off in the future.

If what we deliver for them fulfils the technical aims of records managers, or only delivers to unknown people in the future we’ll have the opposite effect to the one we want.

So if we want to create advocates:

  1. We have to focus.
  2. We have to deliver.
  3. We have to improve people’s lives.


What happens when people go to a records system with poor quality records.

The single most powerful symptom of poor quality records, is that people can’t find what they need.

When that happens, they don’t blame themselves.

They say “records is crap” – and they come up with another system because they have work to do, and we’re in the way.

It’s a tough box for us to be stuck in.

On one hand, if we don’t keep whatever garbage they put in the system, we don’t have complete records.

On the other hand, if we do keep whatever garbage they give us, finding is much harder than it should be – and they’ll blame us for a problem they created.

The question that I have to ask is how much of the problem is our fault?

There is always blame on both side of the fence, and we are always working in resource constrained environments.

So I think the most appropriate question is “have we done everything we could to raise the quality of records so they could find what they need?”

Have we used all the capabilities of our system?

Have we designed a classification scheme that truly reflects the job people do, and how they find?

Do we have forms to structure the input so we can capture certain elements as metadata?

Have we implemented faceted search so we can say with confidence that every piece of metadata improves their ability to find?

Have we chosen one business unit and decided that we’re going to devote our very limited resources and time to making records really deliver for them so that they will tell stories that lead to more budget for more high quality records experiences?

Why you don’t have enough people in your records team.

Because in the eyes of your executive, increased investment in records doesn’t lead to increased business performance.

So what they’re looking for, is the point at which something breaks.

So they’ll keep reducing your funding until reducing your funding results in more losses than savings.

And then they’re going to hold you responsible for it.

So how do we turn it around?

We start from the idea that better information can improve the performance of almost anyone in our organisation.

Then we continually reinforce to ourselves and everyone else, that almost all of the valuable information a business uses comes from its records.

And then we make every project about giving it to them at higher levels of quality.

Obviously, the business units with great records are going to get higher quality information faster, and if we get it right, people will realise that keeping better records leads to better performance.

And when the executive come to realise that an investment in records is an investment in business performance…

They’ll give us more people.

They’ll give us more money.

And we’ll be able to start doing more with more.

Why records must be responsible for the quality of records, and what happens when we aren’t.

During a couple of very long arguments recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people in records don’t want to be responsible for the quality of the records they manage.

Where does this leave us?

Doing a really good job of managing garbage.

Raising the maturity of how well we manage garbage.

Running projects to improve how we manage garbage.

Managing the lifecycle of garbage.

While simultaneously convincing ourselves that managing garbage leads to high quality historical archives.

And that people will want to work in a profession that does that.

And that people will pay for it.

And that it will be valued.


The records project money that records doesn’t get because they “aren’t records job”

Mostly goes to “data” projects.

Because most data projects rely on records.

They take records and improve the quality of the records to the point where their information content is accessible enough to be valuable as an input to something else.

Or they take records and improve the quality of the information in them so they can run statistical analysis and use the information to make evidence based decisions

These are all records projects.

The reason that they’re not coming to records, is that most records managers have decided that raising the quality of their records isn’t their job.

So someone else is doing it.

And records “doesn’t have enough people” and “doesn’t get enough money”.

Because most records managers have decided that the valuable bit is someone else’s job.