Keeping our eye on the prize to make sure the Records profession survives

The largest opportunity of “born-digital” records, is to make the business value of records “very soon, to me”.

Records are more valuable when they’re more useful.

When they’re critical on a day to day basis, they get executive support, investment and care.

Process workers treat them with reverence, and invest time in them.

They are valued.

Business value of records has always been difficult. 

The value of keeping records has often been “just in case” it “might be valuable” to “someone”

The prize though, is now, and has always been “very soon, to me.”

When we take our eye off this, organisations invent whole other professions to do it. 

Not making the value of our records “very soon, to me” is an existential threat to the Records Management profession.

What will be sad about this, is that there’s an up-swing in the recognition of the value of good records going on right now.

For the last three years, I’ve had a Google alert on a couple of topics around Record Keeping and Management.

What has been really surprising is that the academic papers coming through aren’t papers about records.

This excerpt is from a paper titled “Strategies for Quality Milk Production”

v) Proper record management and goals for udder health status 

Proper record keeping is the essence of proper monitoring. Periodic review of the udder health management programme helps in timely corrective interventions. Establishment of realistic periodic targets for various udder health parameters is the final step of a complete udder health management program. The goals should be realistic.

This is about records that have value “very soon, to me”.

That’s the prize.

Either we will capture it, or another profession will.

The only way to win at digital records.

Is to control record creation.

If we’re not controlling record creation, we can’t control quality.

In practical terms, not having control of creation means records:

  1. Are likely to be in places we don’t know about or can’t control.
  2. Might not have sufficient metadata for us to judge their evidentiality.

To me, these are core problems that we’re all dealing with in records, I think it’s because we don’t have enough control over creation.

How to get a records system into your agency that gets used.

Simple – remove yourself and anyone else from Records from the buying process.

For decades, Records systems have been purchased based on their ability to meet the needs of Records.

And for decades, records has struggled with getting ordinary business users to adopt the systems and policies.

Of course we have. We’ve been buying systems for us.

So what happens after purchase of the system we’ve bought for us?

Our life with the system is easy.

Business users lives with the systems are hard.

So we adopt the system.

And they don’t.

The three places records can be, and the change we should be exploiting.

The three places are:

  1. Compliant places.
  2. Controlled places.
  3. Uncontrolled places.

Obviously, if we can, we want everything in bucket one.

The problem is that there’s a drop off in capture as we move up the list. 

Compliant systems are more difficult to use. We can rely on integration and culture to overcome this – but we have to acknowledge that the problem is there.

Unfortunately, compliant systems haven’t got much easier to user in the last ten years. 

What has improved dramatically, are controlled systems. Vendors like Microsoft, Dropbox, Box and others have actually made it easier to use their products than to use uncontrolled spaces.

We should be exploiting that, because it’s an improvement in the direction that we want to go in.

Should we be abandoning records standards and systems to get better results in records?

What is the highest impact factor in our ability to manage records?

It has to be actually having the record – however poorly organised, and in however poor a state. 

From there, we can work on record quality – but the capture has to come first. Otherwise we’ve nothing to manage.

So why are we so focused on records standards and systems?

We use records systems because they implement the standards, and other systems just can’t. We do this despite the fact that we know records systems are a major barrier to actually getting adoption of records. While there are other factors, we know records systems are a barrier because we have network fileshares with amazing adoption rates.

I regularly talk to records teams who will tell me that they have a catch rate of 10 to 20% in their compliant records system.

These aren’t a rarity.

This is normal.

I also have to note that these people are well qualified, knowledgeable, experienced, expert practitioners.

And they’re failing to get people to use the records systems.

Yet every one of them spends inordinate amounts of time focused on ensuring that they have a compliant system, because a non-compliant system is unacceptable, even if 80% of the organisation don’t use it.

This could all actually still work.

We all know that records is cultural, and culture comes from the top.

If records was taken seriously by the executives who sign the compliance statement every year, and they managed it as the records acts and standards expect, this could all actually work. 

But in general, that’s just not the case.

So why do we continue with standards and systems that only serve the organisational purpose of ticking a compliance box? A compliance box that isn’t even taken very seriously? 

Why aren’t we just helping our colleagues organise their information for convenience (AKA productivity), and making sure they do it somewhere we can stop them deleting things?

One of the things I wonder, is if this is where records has gone wrong – if it’s where I’ve gone wrong.

I’ve always typically started from the point of view that we should be figuring out ways to get users to put things in the compliant system.

I wonder though, if what we should be striving for, is something like “eventual compliance.”

A process of starting from the point of view that we should help groups of users organise their information for convenience – with just a little structure.

I don’t think that this would actually be much of a process change.

We just make sure information isn’t deleted, and we sell the benefits of small scale centralisation and organisation for convenience of small groups of users aligned around a function or activity.

Then we can work on quality – and eventually capture in a compliant system. Because we all know that effective records is about 95% cultural.

And when a compliance regime appears that senior executives take seriously, we will have large groups of users who appreciate the work that we’ve done, and will probably bend to it.

What I’m really interested to understand, is who has taken this approach, how did you get it across the line with your executive, and what results have you had?

Final note – Yes, I know about manage in place approaches and the vendors with tools in the space. What I’m talking about is far more lightweight but I am interested to understand who has had good results with these tools. I know of 5 who have bought the technology, and none who have had good results with it (yet).

If the technology is in the way of records adoption, we need to change the technology.

We have a problem in Records Management.

Technology that we’ve been comfortable using for many years is inadequate. 

It’s been inadequate for 20 years.

That’s obvious to all of us in one way or another.

How many agencies have catch rates at 20% or lower?

It isn’t just a matter of staff adoption – although that’s still an issue.

How can staff keep records about processes that are managed in a structured data system?

When we’re handling it badly, we’re making decisions about what “rises to the level of a record” and deciding that it’s not stuff in that system because that’s not a record keeping system, so it’s very difficult to work with, and generally belongs to IT who don’t understand records.

When we’re doing it well, we’re understanding the underlying technology and what it’s capable of, and writing policy and executing process to ensure that at some point, that data is maintained as useful information and evidence of business activities.

And that’s really the crux of it. 

The old technology isn’t working for everything, so either it has to change, or we have to.

Personally, I don’t think the old tech can change enough to cope with the new world – it’s still a paper paradigm, and we’re already moving beyond electronic paper representations. I also don’t think the new world will deliver the kind of records experience that is “good enough for government work” – because the new world doesn’t understand records, and the underlying principles of records are still the right ones.

We need the new world, and the new world needs us.

We can’t be effective if we have a narrow definition of records.

So we need to change the technology that we’re comfortable with.

We need to understand databases, web servers, middleware and apps – for a start, because people are relying on the information they provide every day of the week, and we can’t abandon them to the idea that someone else MIGHT be able to reconstruct what they saw.

We need to change the technology we’re comfortable with, if we don’t, I’m pretty sure there won’t be a records profession – and then we’ll have to get comfortable with the new technology anyway.

I’d like to think that these are all original ideas, but Barbara Reed, Gillian Oliver, Frank Upward and Joanne Evans were writing about it in RIMPA newsletters at least as early as 2008. Have we learned?

Would a move to mandatory destruction fix a lot of the problems with Records Management (and everything else)?

When you’re working with paper, it’s far easier to bin a record than to pay a team of people to organise and manage it – and that’s why we have records legislation.

Now we’re dealing with a different problem. Rather than being easy to destroy, it’s actually become difficult.

To be fair, what’s actually difficult is creating the conditions so that information is well organised.

When information is well organised, we know we can destroy with confidence.

When it’s poorly organised, the only thing we can do with confidence is retain.

I think that if agency heads had to sign a statement every year to the effect that “we have not retained any information longer than we are required to”, records managers in government would be in a very different situation.

I think we would also find many other initiatives easy – open data, open government, digital, anything involving data science – and everything else that relies on well organised information. 

When we get right down to it, well organised information is a necessary precondition for solving almost every information, data and records management problem in existence.

And it would probably be cheaper overall.

I think it could all start with a change to mandate destruction, because mandatory destruction requires us to organise, and all mandatory retention incentivises is a mess.

How does mandatory metadata affect capture rates in records systems?

This is an outstanding question for me.

Marketers know that there’s a drop off in the sign up rate for every additional field they ask a user to complete.

I’d bet we see the same thing in Records.

The more mandatory metadata that we demand, the less records we capture.

I think this is one of the reasons that there’s often so much enthusiasm for network drives and other systems that don’t demand metadata when people want to store things.

Has anyone ever tested this? Or do you know of good research that has?