Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Google providing University email services (and more)

I suspect some in the UK records management community will have read my previous postings regarding the rise and rise of Office2.0 and its inevitable impact on records management with a certain amount of disbelief.

For those of us working in the higher education sector that future is already here. If you don’t believe me take a look at this story on the BBC website about Trinity College Dublin’s decision to outsource its student email service to Google.

And that is only the tip of the iceberg as the following quote from the same article illustrates:

“The offer to higher education also includes free online tools, hosted by Google, which allow students to work on files from any internet-connected computer, on campus, at home or anywhere else.”

That’s right; Google won’t just be hosting all student and staff emails, but potentially all the documents, spreadsheets and other files students create as well.

No more storage costs, no need for resource-driven retention management, no need for classification schemes, file plans or thesauri, no need for back-ups and disaster recovery...

Okay so we as records managers might disagree with the validity of some or all of the above statements, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this is exactly what senior managers are thinking.

The business case for an institutional EDRM system just got a lot harder to sell...

Monday, 11 June 2007

JISC Web2.0 for teaching and learning report

A very interesting report has recently been published by JISC. Web2.0 for content for teaching and learning in Higher Education by Tom Franklyn and Mark van Harmelen makes many interesting observations and though (as the title would suggest) focusing on the teaching and learning world has much to interest those concerned with the impact of web2.0 on administrative systems and processes. Indeed I would be very interested to see a sister report produced on just this area.

One of the key issues addressed by this report is the pros and cons of an institution developing their own brand 'official' versions of web2.0 applications for use by their staff and students' versus allowing use of externally provided commercial systems. As the report itself makes clear there are certainly advantages to the first route and this is likely, I suspect, to be the favoured option with records managers: not least because of the potential it provides to impose a greater degree of control over this space. It may not be the kind of micro level of control we are used to aiming for, but could at least provide the means of designing applications with certain records management functionality built within it (bearing in mind the need to retain the kind of 'light touch approach in the use of regulations that might constrain experimentation' advocated by Franklyn and van Harmelen).

The question is, however, whether it will prove possible to keep the genie of commercial systems in the bottle and whether institutions will be sufficiently able to pace with the sophistication and functionality required to satisfy user demand. Or whether as a consequence of resource issues and the slower nature of development within large organisations they will forever be playing catch up and trying to enforce use of systems which look obsolete as soon as they are launched. In fact the report provides its own evidence of the liklihood of this occuring with references to the fact that no institutions have attempted to develop their own instant messenger system thanks to the success of MSN, Skype etc...

It is also questionable whether this approach takes sufficent notice of the increasing breakdown of work/leisure use of IT that seems to be taking place. Put simply the student with a passion for photography who has used Flickr at home to build up a large portfolio of images is more likely to want to continue to use Flickr for any images they produce as part of their formal coursework, than the university 'own brand' system.

Lastly, the report also comments on the difficulty of managing version control, audit trails and ensuring the longterm preservation of web2.0 content. Further evidence of how the need for the fundamental principles of records management continue to be relevant regardless of technological innovation - it's just how we achieve them that needs to be reconsidered.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Records vs Information

Not surprisingly there has been abit of debate sparked by some of my earlier posts about the whole records vs information/knowledge debate.

Of course one answer to this whole ‘march of web2.0’ debate might be to take refuge in the fact that by and large the content created by such systems do not represent business records and therefore are not our problem.

As records managers we have traditionally been in the fortunate position of only dealing with a small proportion of the information created by an organisation: that which fulfils the criteria of a ‘record’. Could we not just dismiss the vast majority of the outputs of Web2.0 applications and services as mere ‘information’ and leave it to its own devices? In theory I guess we could, but my strong feeling is that we shouldn’t.

Firstly, I would point to the fact that the traditional divisions between records and information are beginning to become less clear cut and of less relevance than they once were. An example? Consider the Freedom of Information Act. It is just that – a freedom of information act. It makes no distinction between whether the text is held within the context of a formal business record or on the back of a fag packet. Both are covered by the same conditions and both may well be treated as being of equal significance by the recipient.

Secondly, it can act as a distraction to the main issues. Look at email, we spent (and still sometimes spend) a great deal of time and intellectual effort trying to determine whether an email did or didn’t count as a record instead of just trying to work out how to manage the damn things.

Thirdly, unless we start to cast our professional net as wide as possible we risk becoming less and less relevant to our organisations. Let me illustrate what I mean with some spurious statistics but ones which will hopefully explain my point. Forty years ago in the days of typing pools, formal registry systems and memos the percentage of an organisation’s information that we would acknowledge to be ‘records’ may have been around 80-90%. Twenty years ago with the birth of the PC this may have dropped to 60% (as the amount of informal drafts and ‘documents’ etc increased). Ten years ago with the birth of email, rise of relational databases etc the percentage of the total information within our organisations that we considered to be within our professional remit may have dropped to 30%. Now with the exponential rise in information being created with terabytes of research data, geo-spatial data, image files, multi-media files etc our records management programmes may only be covering less than 5% of our total information holdings.

Now you and I may know that not all information is equal and that our 5% is actually the most important – but is that something widely understood by the rest of the organisation? There is a very real risk that senior management might start to look at this from a risk management perspective: ‘okay, so I know that your tiny percentage of ‘records’ are more important than some of this other stuff, but getting value out of the other 95% of our information (the stuff that represents our intellectual capital) is a far bigger priority which adds value and promises a return on investment. I’ll spend my money there and take the risk thanks…."

Where the challenge (and the opportunity) now exists is in the fact that this other 95% of the information we hold does needs many of the management and governance controls that form the basis of records management to be applied to it. The trick for us is to work out which bits and most importantly how given the radically different environment in which this needs to operate.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Digital Repositories - getting to grips with the same issues

I have been an interested observer of the world of digital repositories for the past couple of years. Not least because of the multi-million pound investment from JISC and others into this area to create repositories which whilst not necessarily records management systems ('all records management systems are repositories, but not all repositories are records management systems' - discuss!) are clearly very associated with them and the objectives of records management. I have had, and indeed continue to have, many interesting discussions with colleagues more closely involved in this area regarding the degree of overlap between these two agendas and the need to join the communities of practice for mutual benefit. As the scope of these repositories begins to widen from 'white' and 'grey' literature (i.e. published and non-published research papers) towards housing things like research grant applications, minutes of meetings and other 'corporate records' so the opportunities (and risks) of cross-over or lack of increase further.

By their own admission the respository community is beginning to struggle to know how best to tackle issues such as the need for version control and tracking audit trails. Records managers have a great deal to offer here in terms of our experience in these issues - I just hope that within institutions that expertise is being tapped into.

However, what struck me having attended the first day of the JISC Dealing with the Data Deluge workshop in Manchester today is an even more fascinating parallel between the two agendas.

Those responsible for implementing and maintaining institutional repositories are beginning to notice exactly the same impact from the rise of Web2.0 as I have been predicting for records management. They are beginning to notice that users are turning away from the structured, formal, well managed official repository and are instead turning to 'quick and dirty' services offered by externally hosted services - and in particular to those services that people are using in their lives outside work such as Flickr etc.

The keynote speaker, Andy Powell from Eduserv advocated viewing repositories as just another web resource (as this is the way in which users do), rather than from the system architecture perspective to make sure that we start asking ourselves the right questions. That way we might start to understand what makes these web2.0 systems so attractive to users and to learn lessons from this. Andy's presentation will soon be available from slideshare but wasn't up yet at the time of writing this. Incidently, posting it on slideshare is of course just another example of how an online service is being used right here and now to store and manage a record folks...

So the repositories community are today facing what we as records managers will have to face tomorrow. The approved institutional repository may be a carefully designed, well structured and tightly managed system which adheres to best practice and adopts standard metadata but the signs are that this is not what the user wants. They want something looser and more free. Something with less boundaries and walls that enable them to reuse their material. They want to be able to call it whatever they and their community want to and to access it wherever they are, unfettered by constraint. They want to be able to find it in Google and share it with who ever they choose and if the formal systems being imposed on them can't deliver this - there are a host of online services out there which will...

Friday, 1 June 2007

The rise and rise of Office 2.0

Continuing on the theme of my last post about the demise of enterprise architectures & the rise of emergent systems.

One of the greatest challenges we as information managers will soon face is the increasing use by staff of externally provided online business applications. I mentioned a few examples of social software that falls into this category such as Facebook, what I didn't mention was the whole Office 2.0 movement.

Those in the vanguard of this movement foresee the day in the very near future where a user's PC need contain nothing more than a web browser: no applications, no content files. Just a browser. Far fetched? Take a look at this site for a fascinating glimpse not only of the incredible range of Office 2.0 applications already out there, but also of how one user is beginning to pull them together to operate in a purely online realm.

Of course the draw back of 100% reliance on online applications is that without a connection to the internet you are unable to do anything. Now this is less of a problem than it was even a couple of years ago thanks to high speed domestic broadband and the ever increasing spread of wireless hotspots around our towns and cities but there are undoubtedly still gaps in provision (I can testify to this living in rural Herefordshire!).

Now those good folks at Google appear to be actively addressing the issues raised by the online/offline gap with a product called Google Gears which will allow offline access of web resources and applications by caching them on a user's drive and then automatically synchronising when they are back on line. Interestingly the Guardian article this morning specifically comments on the potential this development could have for bringing Google closer into competition with Microsoft when it comes to business applications claiming:

Docs - which incorporates word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs - works only with an active internet connection. Allowing it to operate on a computer's hard drive would bring it into competition with the dominant Microsoft Office brand and mark the latest step in Google's slow but inexorable invasion of the Seattle-based software company's territory.

Lets think about this from the Records Manager's perspective. We may moan about Microsoft and we may complain that users never store documents in the right place on the network - but at least they are using our version of the software and storing their information on our network. The user will soon be in a position to cut out the middleman (ie the corporate structure and records management) completely.

Try selling a clunky, restrictive EDRM system to a user or a project team who can save what they want where they want and share it with who they want via Google Docs or whatever other provider takes their fancy...

Of course we could just ban our staff from using such technology and insist they use the corporate systems provided. Indeed I am sure many will take this approach at first (with varying degrees of success) but I strongly suspect we will only be able to hold back the waves for so long. Rather than pretending it doesn't exist and hoping it will go away, we might be advised to start seriously thinking about what this will mean for records management and what role (if any) it has to play in this new world.