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.

Why you have to be focused on record quality if you want a seat at the digital table.

What is digital when we get right down to it?

It’s automation.

Automation holds two possibilities when it comes to information and technology – it can get things right at scale, or it can get things wrong at scale.

One of the things that people are naturally very good at, is sensing context errors.

We know that there’s a problem if we’re looking at John Smith’s file and we’ve got records in it for Jill Jones and Fred Bloggs.

Automation though, isn’t necessarily sensitive to this.

If you’re creating a client portal to expose all of a client’s records to them based on file content, the system is going to very happily automate the process of creating a privacy breach by showing Jill Jones and Fred Bloggs records to John Smith.

If you’re using object metadata to serve up information to people making decisions, and you get it wrong – automated decision support will also very happily give the wrong information to as many people as it can.

The two examples above are related to the accuracy of file content, but that’s a very small sliver of something much larger.

If we start to define quality as the accessibility of information from within a record, we have a whole new spectrum, and can serve a whole new set of use cases.

Forms area a meaningful example of the quality spectrum. If we’re accepting the information in any unstructured format at all (ie. email), reliable automation is next to impossible – you must have a human in the loop or make a heavy investment in technology that can understand and process natural language.

If you move to an electronic form, the quality of the information presented and the automation possibility rises dramatically. Digital forms are higher quality again because we remove OCR errors.

Before our records become fit for digital, we’re going to have to work out how to dramatically raise the level of quality so that the right information is reliably accessible for automation technologies. If you want a seat at the digital table, you have to have a view on quality, and how you can raise it in your organisation because automation can add scale really quickly – so a small privacy or confidentiality problem can get much larger, very quickly.

Where are the narratives in records management systems?

One of the quality problems that I think we have in records is around narratives.

Every system I’ve ever seen provides one of two things –

  1. The current state of a process.
  2. A collection of files that can be sorted.

The problem is that when people need to refer to a record, it’s very rarely to find a single detail.

What people are generally looking for is the process narrative – how it was initiated, how it was handled through each stage and decision point, what information was provided – you get the point.

When things go wrong and are subject to administrative or legal reviews, being able to understand the narrative is also what becomes of prime importance.

Even when information is of a more statistical nature, we can’t understand where to get that information unless we can understand where it would have been captured within a process – so we need to understand the narrative.

So why are records systems of all types still only good at current state, or being a sortable box?

Where is the narrative?

Why you’ve got problems with information outside records systems (all records systems, not just EDRMS)

There are clearly more than one reason why you’ll have this.

Central though to all of the discussions about it is the problem of shared value.

Records systems impose a cost on the people that use them that is over and above the cost of just leaving a record where it is.

So what are they getting in return for that cost?

Does your records system provide managers with statistical information that helps them manage capacity and quality in their team?

Does the records system include enhanced capabilities that extract information from content and help people with search and research?

Does the records system help people manage the status of their work?

Does the records system help people manage the flow of work between them?

Does the records system provide templates to help people create work product?

Does the records system help people make decisions by providing guidance and information?

Systems that do these things have high rates of usage and compliance.

The core question you have to ask yourself is “does the system help?”

If it only helps you, or doesn’t help enough to balance the investment it asks for – that’s why you’ve got problems.

Why doesn’t records charge back?

One of the problems for records, is that it is always a cost centre.

It is almost never percieved as a value centre.

Why should it be though?

The organisation that consumes its service can consume an unlimited amount of service and never has to pay a dollar for it – demand just has to be met within legislated timelines.

What would happen if business units had to pay for the services they consumed from records management?

I think the main thing that would happen, is that we would be able to have sensible conversations about:

  1. Whether specific working practices are valuable to the organisation.
  2. Staffing levels.
  3. Quality of service.
  4. Outsourcing and insourcing.

At the moment, none of the records teams I work with have enough staff for the workload that they have. The problem is that the workload is largely workload that we choose because we write policy based on sensible information and records management practices. The problem though, is that their value to our organisation is rarely validated before we commit time and money to them.

Take disposition for instance. Has a business unit ever come to us and said “we’d really like you to destroy our Old (deliberately capitalised) records” – I’d bet it’s never happened in the history of records.

What would happen though, if we started to charge them for:

  • The volume of records they’re storing (paper and electronic).
  • The searches they needed done by us because they couldn’t find their own records (because the quality of what their staff are storing is so poor).
  • The service time to complete an FOI – because if their recordkeeping practices are up to snuff, they’d be able to find it themselves.

At some point, we would be able to have a conversation with them about ways to reduce their storage and search costs through disposition – and at that point we are having a conversation about how to provide an outcome for a project cost to reduce an ongoing cost – rather than just trying to fund something we’re not sure they value out of the limitless well of time and having the records pay the bill.

So why don’t we charge back?

Why do we talk about managing information as an asset when most of our information isn’t?

Managing information as an asset isn’t a new idea, but I have a significant problem with its practice.

In accounting parlance, for something to be an asset, we have to have the expectation of future cash flows into the organistion as a result of it.

So how much of the information we keep is actually an asset?

Has anyone ever done a revenue projection for their information?

If information isn’t going to generate a cash flow (or a cost saving), doesn’t that make it a liability?

What is actually important in records?

I think it’s two things –

  1. That we capture reliable business evidence.
  2. That it gets used.

I don’t think that there’s much point doing the first if the second doesn’t happen.

Number 2 is also where almost everyone has a huge opportunity to raise their game.

If we define quality as the accessability of information in our records, we can say that usage of the records we keep will be highly reliant on their quality.

High Quality = information easily accessible.

Low Quality = information hard to access.

An example using an approval as a use case:

  • Low Quality – a conversation that spans 17 emails with multiple participants dealing with tangents to the approval in the same email chain who have all then filed their emails against the transaction – so we have 17 emails x 5 participants or 85 emails that we have to trawl through to find the approval and then get confident we understand it.
  • High Quality – a form listing what is being approved, any conditions or information necessary to make the decision and a great big digital stamp on it saying APPROVED.

No one would say that the high quality example above doesn’t represent both a better record, and higher quality business information.

The problem I’ve found, is that very few records managers want to be responsible for transitioning the way people keep their records from the low quality example, to the high quality example.

The perception is that business units are the custodians – so they should manage quality. The problem with this idea, is that business units are not records experts. They’re doers with a specific field of expertise.

Organising information isn’t anywhere in their skillset.

They likely wouldn’t know a taxonomy if they tripped over it.

They have a bar to jump – “I get this information from someone, and then I get to go to the next step in my process.”

How good that information is doesn’t matter to them – as long as they jump the bar.

They’re not thinking about next time they or someone else need that information.

They’re not thinking about how their managers will use the information.

Their managers aren’t thinking about how other parts of the organisation will use the information.

So records becomes both a collective action problem, and a tragedy of the commons problem.

So SOMEONE else has to think holistically.

So who should it be?

At a time when records is struggling to get budget.

Struggling for staff.

Struggling to get people to take records seriously.

Struggling to get people to do what legislation, regulation and company policy say they should.

It should be us.

Because if we aren’t responsible for records quality, if we don’t focus on making sure that the records we spend our lives keeping are actually used.

No one else will.

Value producing elements of Records Management vs the costs.

Things in records that produce no value:

  • Storing a record.
  • Sentencing a record.
  • Archiving a record.
  • Destroying a record well.
  • Destroying a record badly.

Things that produce value in records:

  • Retrieving and using the record as an input to a process that produces revenue or reduces cost.

Keeping a record produces no value and incurs a lot of cost.

All the value is in the retrieval and use of the record.

We can be as altruistic as we like in records but we will not be taken seriously by executives, and funded like a serious business unit until we connect ourselves to revenue and cost reduction.

How useful is the evidence that we are keeping?

I think this is a useful framing question that every records manager should keep in their mind when working out how to prioritise projects and activities.

The problem with asking this question, is that it’s always subjective, so I’m proposing categories:

  1. Possibly useful to an unknown person, for an unknown need at an unknown time in the future.
  2. Likely useful for a specific need at an unknown time in the future.
  3. Useful for an ongoing and specific need.

It quickly becomes obvious where we should work first.