Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The end of the Records Manager as 'Philosopher King'?

Colleagues who attended the Gartner Symposium IT XPO in Barcelona brought back some fascinating stuff. Not least of which was the text of a presentation by Brian Burke a research analyst at Garter entitled Architecting for Emergence: New Game, New Rules. His paper charts the decline of the hierarchical, structured enterprise architecture and what we are now seeing in terms of its replacement by emergent systems.

I won't attempt to summarise his entire paper, but the following quote perhaps gives a pretty clear flavour of the crux of his argument:

"increasingly technology is becoming the catalyst for emergent behaviour where individuals motivated by differing goals interact to create a higher level of intelligence without the benefits of hierarchical structure. In all these structures there are clear rules that limit behaviour but do not dictate evolution"

At the outset of his paper he makes the historical comparison between Plato's concept of 'Philosopher Kings' (highly educated & solely possessed of the ability to understand abstract representations of classes of object) and enterprise architects. Plato believed the ruling class of Philosopher Kings to be an integral part of the way in which a belevolent dicatatorship functions. Burke argues that the modern enterprise is a belevolent dictatorship and that imposing such a centralised 'command and control' structure on its workers stiffles creativity and innovation and severely limits effective decision making.

To my mind Records Managers can equally be described as Philosopher Kings with the same penchant for imposing as many structures, restraints and rules on users as it possibly can. This may be for what we would argue are sound and justified reasons, but this does not lessen the burden it places on users, nor the resentment it causes.

Nor, and here is the really important part, is it scalable. We are living in an exponential age where information is now measured in terabytes and users are beginning to make increasing use of a plethora of systems to create and manipulate information. Furthermore, many of these systems are now hosted and made available by external service providers and are rapidly beginning to take over the role once performed by 'corporate' systems (for example academics preferring to use Facebook to contact their students, rather than the institutional Virtual Learning Environment or using Flickr to store photographs rather than an institutional repository).

Old style 'command and control' records management can't cope with this. What weight will arguments about retention management to save resources have when Google and others are promising to host all of your documents for ever for free? Besides, how are users supposed to apply series-level retention schedules and micro-appraise such vast volumes of data? Most of the assumptions on which the theory is based no longer apply. Equally it is futile to think the best solution is simply to ban staff from using such systems and naive to think it will never affect the organisation you work for, regardless of the sector it is in. Emergent systems and Web 2.0 are here to stay. If records management wants to remain relevant we are going to have to rethink our existing role as an enthusiastic part of the benevolent dictatorship and start considering how we can continue to play an important and meaningful role in the mangement of information in a very different future.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

"Why I prefer hardcopy" - bizarre...

I've just finished reading one of the most bizarre articles to appear in the RMS Bulletin for many a year. It is entitled 'Why I prefer hardcopy' and is by Katrina Hughes. It first appeared in Freepint and is well worth a read for its novelty value.

It really does have some odd statements in it, such as "if you do not have the computer resources to print something out, only one person can look at an electronic document at a time". Now I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at how many people are looking at the BBC website simultaneously but I wouldn't mind betting its more than one.

She also makes some rather strange remarks about the portability of paper over electronic documents. Okay, so it might be easier to read one page of paper on a bus than open your laptop but its hardly a scalable argument. New drug submissions to the FDA used to take up several lorries worth of paper. Not surprisingly they now ask for them on CD ROM...

Finally (and it was at this point I really lost the will to live) she claims that hardcopy is better because it is so much easier to find than electronic copies, noting that "when you download a document from the internet... sometimes the name of the file doesn't match the title of the document. Inevitably, the file name contains numbers and letters that jumble into a code that may even include non-alpha-numeric characters. I have difficulty finding documents I just downloaded."

Now would you like to tell this worker in the "information industry" about how to rename a document, or shall I?.....

For a far more interesting glimpse of how the worlds of paper and electronic media are converging take a look at Xerox's plans for a new printing technology which does not require ink and results in reusable electronic paper...

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Changing attitudes towards EDRMS?

To my mind there was a noticable, and welcome, sign of changing attitudes towards EDRMS (Electronic Document & Records Management Systems) at this years RMS Annual Conference in Brighton last week.

Previous years have seen a virtual total dominance of the conference agenda by EDRMS, either through vendors demonstrating them, consultants advising on implementing them, or practitioners explaining what they have done/would like to do with them. Even when a session was not about EDRM the implicit assumption throughout would always be that this was still the only goal in town.

Okay so this year's programme still saw more than its fair share of EDRM-focused sessions, particularly on day 2, but to my mind there was more than a whiff of the rear guard action about some of what was said. Having heard an excellent presentation on day 1 from Euan Semple about the challenges posed by Web 2.0 and social software presenters seemed to be working hard to try to demonstrate how developing an EDRM is still the answer to such changing and challenging times.

This was echoed by the flavour of many of the conversations I either had or overheard between sessions. More than one delegate expressed the view that they no longer believed EDRM was the answer (something rarely if ever heard even as recently as last year). The trouble appears to be that whilst people may have fallen out of love with the idea of EDRM they do not know what other options to pursue.

Why this is and where this might leave us is a theme to return to another day...