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.


Amanda said...

I cannot agree more with your sentiments on Records Management. In my opinion, as we move into a more "electronic" records environment the existing records management models for managing records will not work. I have stated to Records Managers that I know that they must re-invent themselves or see their vocation die. Staff want to be empowered to manage their own information and they do not want to have to seek Records assistance to find and retrieve this information which is the case at the moment to access paper-based records. This means the traditional barriers to information access erected by Records staff must be removed and most definately cannot be re-applied in the electronic systems used by business staff.

Tasha said...

The word Steve is unfamiliar with is "compliance". Modern records managers can be viewed as legal counsel with respect to the records-related issues. They are not inventing inconvenient rules for their own fun (as Steve thinks), they are protecting the enterprise from litigation and other "pleasant" things.

Steve asks, "What weight will arguments about retention management ... have ... ?" With proper support from senior management, the offenders will be fired. IMHO it is convincing enough.

To amanda: what the staff desires, is not necessarily the right thing to do. Restrictions (especially the ones connected with security) will stay and will get tougher.

Media Maven said...

The primary purpose of records management in this age of compliance and new rules for discovery of electronic records is not to assure records retention but rather to assure records destruction of any record that is not legally required to be maintained and has no clear business use. It is not a storage cost issue, it is a legal review cost issue: $500/hour lawyers cost considerably more than 500 GB drives

Anonymous said...

The records Or information "Records Management" is concerned about, are the assets and regulatory obligations of the company, not of individual employees.
If the previous employee used public, freely available Web 2.0 services to manage company business records.
What happens to the company when an employee leaves OR even suddenly dies ! How will the next guy pick up the pieces ? So that the show can go on. This cannot be the answer.
The solution may be in making the same ease of use available in enterprise class services. My personal impression is thats where we are heading.

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