The only two choices for organisations creating records

Are badly or well.

Whatever definition of records or records management you choose, there’s not an organisation on earth that isn’t creating them every single day.

So the only choice is whether to create, keep and manage them well, or to create keep and manage them badly.

Records has a serious brand problem at the moment. This means that organisations aren’t making this as a conscious decision. They don’t know what records are, and they don’t know what records management is – so they’re looking for what we can do, but don’t know how to ask for it.

Every day, they’re bombarded with ads about “increasing the trustworthiness of your company’s data,” or they experience problems that they don’t link back to poor systematic control of the creation and maintenance of records.

Doing records badly badly has predictable consequences – no one trusts the information and data that the organisation has created, this means that every activity they try and execute takes longer because of bad records.

These are real problems for organisations, and they’re actively looking for ways to fix it. Records Management has the answers, all we need to do is talk to them about the improvements they’ll see when they go from managing records badly, to managing the well.

DIKAR – The acronym that everyone in information and records management needs to know.

One of the problems for people working in Records Management, is that people aren’t really attuned to the problems that are caused by poor records management. In the absence of catastrophic failure, this leads to the perception that chronic under-investment in records has no consequences.

DIKAR is a model that highlights the problems that people have because of poor organisational record keeping.

DIKAR is an acronym for:

Data
Information
Knowledge
Action
Results

The essence of the model, is that results are determined by everything that came before them. People take data and apply a context to get useful information that they interpret using knowledge, based on their interpretation they take action – and the action leads to specific results.

When the results are bad, it has to be a consequence of something that came earlier.

It’s at this point we have to ask, how many processes rely on recorded information and data?

If you’re in a government or bureaucratic organisation, the answer is simple – all of them. If you’re not, the answer is almost all of them. While capturing new information may be a part of most processes, they almost all rely heavily on records that the organisation already holds.

This means that the quality of the recorded data, and recorded information is largely responsible for the quality of the outcomes from a process. No knowledge, no matter how good, can compensate for bad data or information – not without significant expenditure on fixing the bad data and information. With good records management practice in the organisation, this just wouldn’t be necessary.

Unfortunately for all of us, this systematic relationship isn’t always obvious. DIKAR is an excellent model that everyone should know and use because it puts the value of records in the only context that matters – the context of how it affects the quality of results.

The real problem with Robodebt was poor records management.

Robodebt had lots of problems – but one of the larger problems was that records management was obviously failing in the years leading up to the program.

As Records Management professionals, we should be asking why the agency did not have access to or did not use evidence that allowed it to run this program without issuing incorrect notices.

We had notices issued to:

  1. People for debts that they didn’t have.
  2. Deceased people.
  3. Disabled pensioners.
  4. People with mental illnesses who were known to be unable to manage their financial affairs.

An agency with a good records program would not have issued notices like this.

Any time an agency (or any organisation) will rely on prevously recorded information, records matters.

Records management standards came from quality management – so why don’t we spend any time on quality management?

One of the more interesting discoveries about Records I’ve made over the last couple of years, is that our ISO standards were initiated in the mid 1980’s by people looking for guidance on how to implement quality management standards.

The logical conclusion from that, is that records are integral to quality management – and we can see today that ISO9001 includes sections about records management.

So why is there so little talk in records management circles about raising the quality of the outcomes that the organisations we work for achieve?

Why the fixation on destruction schedules?

Legislative compliance?

Metadata standards that actively work against user adoption?

Why not just a relentless focus on lifting the quality of outcomes for the organisations we work for?

How many organisations have problems because they constantly reuse poor quality information that has been recorded as evidence of business activities?

How many are just waiting, begging, for someone to fix it?

The worst type of loyalty experience is one that can’t remember you – and it’s a records problem

I know that my mobile phone providers’ records management program isn’t effective.

I know because they constantly send me emails with offers if I sign up for their NBN service – which I’m already signed up for.

When they do occasionally send me something relevent, it generally directs me to a web page that asks me who my current mobile phone provider is (spoiler – it’s them).

These processes fail because organisations don’t have efficient and systematic control of the creation, maintenance and use of their records.

If they did, their marketing teams would know who their subscribers were, and probably wouldn’t make such basic mistakes.

I also wouldn’t have hit unsubscribe to all their marketing last week.

So they’d be wasting less marketing money on people who weren’t possible buyers, getting more sales, and keeping people subscribed to their marketing comms – resulting in more future sales opportunities and more revenue.

All this because they had efficient and systematic control of the creation, maintenance and use of their customer records.

How to help an organisation understand that it has problems that records management can solve.

One of the things that’s happened to records management in the last ten years, is that we’ve stopped talking about records.

What started as a sensible effort to define something core to what we do, turned into a religious argument and lost its connection to practice – and most people tired of the argument.

So now we don’t talk about records.

So no one knows what we do – or they know what they think we do (like the senior executive sponsor in one organisation who thought it was about managing all their paper).

And so they don’t connect the problems they have back to poor records management.

And they should – because records management is just how you get systematic control of recorded information.

And what is the only sensible way of measuring the effectiveness of records management? The outcomes that the organisation produces that can be linked back to it. They’re everywhere – but they don’t know it.

The customer service people who keep stuffing up – because they don’t have access to recorded information about the things customers are doing with their organisation.

The marketing people who keep running campaigns that annoy high value customers because they treat them like they don’t already have a relationship with the organisation.

The service people who treat high value customers like the organisation doesn’t have an obligation to service them because they didn’t have access to a contract.

The legal counsel who stuffs up because they didn’t have access to all of the correspondence about a contract before they had to write it.

The operations managers who keep making mistakes because they are forecasting on past production and demand data that’s not quite right.

All of these people have problems that records is exactly the right skillset to solve.

Organisations have masses of problems caused by poorly recorded information. Every time a process relies on information that the organisation already has, or should already have – records has a horse in that race, and if it’s going badly, they want our help.

The key is to talk to them about how we solve problems caused by poorly recorded information.

The most important executive perception problem for Records.

Is that Records is a cost.

The question every executive wants to have with Records is how they can give us $1, and get $1.50 back. 

At the moment, the conversation is “give us $1 and you’ll get some compliance”.

For another $1 – you can get some more compliance.

….but if you were compliant before, how can you be more compliant?

And if you weren’t compliant before, and nothing exploded, why shouldn’t they continue spending with areas of the organisation that are giving them $1.50 back every time they ask for $1 – areas that are carrying records.

If records is about compliance, then it’s an investment that only pays off if there’s a compliance failure, and a compliance failure is only likely to be picked up if there’s an audit, or if there’s an incident, or if we get sued.

If, if, if, if, if – it’s all pretty uncertain. Which is hard, when IT are proposing a project with a hard cost saving of 20%.

If records becomes investment grade though, the conversation changes.

When an organisation can get $1.50 back for every $1 they spend in records, all they want to know is “how much do you want?”

And when this is the executive conversation in records, everything else becomes possible. We can ask ourselves questions like “how much more do we want to retain permanently because it might be of historical value”.

So how to start?

Our conversations do need to change.

If we go to team leaders and keep talking about “put it in the system” – we will fail because that’s an investment of time without a return – they’re going to give us an hour, and get nothing back.

This bit is simple – don’t boil the ocean. We don’t need to immediately justify every dollar of records spend. All we need to make sure of is that the next couple of records projects have a business case behind them that generates a return. 

It has to be said too, that “return” is always a tricky conversation in government agencies. There is the expectation that heads will be nominated to roll when an investment is made. I think though, that this makes it easier for us – we don’t have to propose disruption, we don’t have to propose transformation – we just have to propose slightly better. It actually means that continuous improvement is where we should work – the only trick then is tracking it so the total impact of what we’ve done doesn’t get lost.

We’ve got a problem in records. It’s that we’re not considered investment grade. Until we are, we’re going to keep getting underfunded, keep getting passed over for “data” projects and keep being ignored in favour of the latest shiny toy. When executives know they can come to us with $1 and get $1.50 back though – there won’t be anything in the world that stops them from giving it to us.

Those people complaining about the clunky records system – do they want it to be easier or better?

In every system, we get to make a design choice – do we make it easier or better?

It’s the iphone question. When the first iphone was released, it was not easier to use than a nokia and it’s still not. Nokia – unlock, dial, call – simple. So who wants to go back to that easier model? Who even really thinks about a phone as a device for calling now? What people wanted was better.

When we always assume people want easier, we leave a massive opportunity on the table – the opportunity to make the system better.

Most people I talk to think it’s easier that users want. They talk about user complaints about clunky interfaces and how hard it is to get people to use it – because of the clunky interface. The simple truth is that if the interface doesn’t do anything they care about, it isn’t going to matter how easy we make it, and people don’t care about records.

The other problem is that the largest barriers to making a system “easy” are imposed by us. We don’t really want to make a system easy – if we did, the first thing we would do is abandon FAT classifications and let users organise their information for their own convenience. Records systems get much easier with no structure, no governance and no controls applied (even if it’s eventually a total mess), but I find few people who are willing to compromise like this.

I think this unwillingness to compromise has lead to where we are now – a place where we take really seriously the idea that users would just use a records system if it was easy enough. The truth is that it doesn’t matter how easy we make make records systems because records is our job, not theirs, and they only care about their job, if we don’t give them a way to do their job better in the records system, they’ll continue to not want to use it.

So there’s only one definition of a better records system that makes sense.

“A better records system helps a user do a better job at their job.”

Better is what makes people go to the gym, it’s what makes them go to university, it’s what makes them apply for more difficult jobs – and it’s what can get them to use records systems, no matter how many additional milliseconds each click takes.

6 Questions to ask if your records system isn’t valued in your organisation.

There could easily be hundreds of questions in this post, here are 6 that I think are important.

1. Whose job does the system automate?

Most records systems only automate one job – ours. If it’s only making our life easier we’re losing a valuable opportunity to give business users another reason to use a system that will inherently be less friendly than the average file server.

2. How many people use the system to organise and drive their work?

People love systems that make their work form an orderly queue. If you can make your records system perform this function, people will pretty quickly feel like they can’t live without it. If you don’t provide this, people will invent it for themselves, somewhere else.

3. How much of a barrier to easy system usage have we put up?

In records, we LOVE metadata. How we capture it though, can create a significant barrier for users. A user who gets a project plan delivered to them with 37 documents in it, who then has to select from one of 25 record types and populate 11 pieces of mandatory metadata for each is unlikely to use the system for very long. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, it does mean that we should weigh the value of each piece of metadata against the drop off in usage that capturing it will cause.

4. Does your business classification scheme match the way people organise their work and think about their jobs?

This is related to point 1. If people can’t see their job in the classification system, you’re fighting with how they want to organise their work, and you’ll lose. People will struggle with how to add information to the system, then they’ll struggle with how to find it. Eventually they’ll keep working data somewhere that makes sense to them, and eventually they’ll stop using the records system.

This does present a bit of a quandary for records managers. Function-Activity-Classification is an important part of standards compliance and an accepted part of records doctrine. I also think it’s partly responsible for many failed records programs.

5. Have you automated as many capture points as possible?

The best way to have people use a records system is as a place to go and get things out of, rather than a place to put things in. When we automate the capture of records, this becomes possible and completely obvious good things happen.

What’s less obvious is what automation does for our ability to report. If we can automate capture at a process initiation point, we know how many times a process was initiated. When we know how many process instances we have, we can work out how many records we SHOULD have overall and can report against that number. With good reports, we can give managers data to manage their teams – making records performance management a much simpler task. Which leads us to point 6.

6. Are you providing leading indicators to your executive that at some point in the future your organisation will fail critical compliance audits and enable corrupt?

Poor Recordkeeping has been found to be an enabler of corruption and abuse an uncountable number of times. An organisation that is investigated by a corruption commission, a royal commission or a regulator risks being wound up or heavily fined. This is C-level risk and we have to treat it that way. If we are not reporting organisation ending levels of risk to people senior enough to deal with it, we are missing the largest piece of leverage that we have. This level of risk cannot be ignored – and if it is, we should ensure that it has to be wilfully ignored.

Evidence that poor records performance represents this level of risk can be found in the recent AUSTRAC actions against the banks (resulting in over a Billion dollars in fines) and Corruption and Royal Commission reports – in particular the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in which section 8 is entirely dedicated to Records failures.

Records – are we storing for storage, or storing for usage?

I think this is a critical but not obvious question for Records Management.

I think that a lot of the time, we get focused on the technicalities of our profession – so we end up storing for destruction, storage (permanent retention) or so we can give the record to someone else (archive).

So what about usage? And users?

Most problems I encounter are problems related to getting people to use the system.

Despite that, we aren’t having problems getting people to store records. 

They store them on file servers, in their inbox, on their laptop, in dropbox and in 20 other places.

The one thing these systems all having common, is that the users get to organise their content for usage.

It’s not function-activity-transation, it’s “emails from CLIENT”.

What if we started with the question “what are your future information needs likely to be, and how can we facilitate that?”

Would that get us better results with users than “how do we comply with all relevant legislation, ISO15489, ISO16175 and the local metadata standards?”

It’s the difference between a system that stores five records a long way apart – when they are often used in conjunction, and another that says “here are the five records you regularly use, conveniently stored together”.

The problem with this idea, is that to function it requires a different input and exit path, and that’s not something around which our heads are easily wrapped, and not something that’s easy to design for.

The functionality to enable this is available in most records systems – in TRIM it’s user labels, in Objective it’s the handy, in explorer it’s shortcuts and the quick access bar.

The problem with these functions is that to work well, they require a user to think like a taxonomist and design a taxonomy for their job ahead of time, and then implement a structure that will help them do their job – which they likely don’t yet fully understand.

As well as not understanding the job yet, ordinary people also aren’t used to designing classification schemes or taxonomies. They don’t immediately think about their job in ways that expose their well structured information needs. What they typically do is keep things on their desktop, organise it a few times and eventually settle on something they like – order is emergent.

To me, this is another opportunity to move the needle just a little for records. It’s an opportunity to get people to see us as being there for them and not just people who built a system that they like, and enforce behavior that gives them little benefit. 

It does require us to go 1:1 – or at least 1:activity, and it does require us to invest time in understanding the information needs of the people we support every day. Ultimately though, if we can understand how their job is structured, and bring them structures that provide easy access to the information they use most, the records system will get used, because it will be useful, and the shortest path to what they want.

All it requires us to do is think about how we store information for usage. What that really means though, is how we store information based on the needs of other people, and my belief is that when they know we are thinking about how to help them, they will think about how to help us.

I know that a lot of people already do this – some of my earliest good recordkeeping moments came from people helping me with exactly this. For everyone else, it will make a difference to how the organisation sees you, and it takes records from being a time sink to being a source of value.