Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Our invisible profession

When a national incident such as an outbreak Foot & Mouth Disease occurs it is a sure bet that journalists and commentators will look to professionals such as vets, biologists and experts in disease control to explain what the problem is, what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to put it right. The same is true of virtually every other type of incident or accident you can imagine: from crash investigators and air traffic controllers after a mid-air collision; to surgeons after a series of botched operations.

Indeed for some professions it seems as though there presence is only ever recognised or given any consideration when a lapse or error by one of their number highlights the fact that they exist at all. I'm thinking here of the people who check the points on railway tracks, hospital cleaners or those responsible for checking machinery within a factory.

I mention this now because the overriding thought which struck me during the reporting of the loss of millions of child benefit records by the government was how invisible the records management profession seems to be in all of this. So far as I could see there was no 'records management experts' consulted by the media to explain what may have gone wrong, or what should have happened; nor even reference to the failure of records management as being a root cause.

In a story regarding just about the biggest and potentially most significant ever failure of records management in the UK the records management profession does not get a single mention, not one, neither as villain nor potential saviour; and that has to be a worry. Is our profile really that low? Is the true extent of our professional remit really that narrow and the impact of our actions really that negligible?

I hope not.


Fred Grevin said...

"Is our profile really that low?" It is in the USA. This kind of news item usually gets comments from the IT industry on how much better off the organisation would be if they had only used a technology-based system.

"Is the true extent of our professional remit really that narrow and the impact of our actions really that negligible?" No, we're just not considered significant enough as a profession to be on the media's "radar screen".

Larry Medina, RIM Professional said...

I think this is an improper characterization of our "profession" or RM's role in this event. What hapened here was no fault of RM, it was the fault of individuals who failed to properly follow policy/rules established for the handling od such information by the HRMC.
Obviously, the individual who made the copies of the data had the proper permissions to acces it to begin with, so there was no breach of security in their gaining access or improper controls established. The problem was one person making a bad decision regarding what to do with the authority they had been granted, and no measures exist within RM practices to control that.
This was a failure of policy and a misuse of authority, plain and simple.

Larry Medina

Red Kite said...

I agree with Larry. This doesn't seem to be a failure of records management; more a failure of applying RM policies and procedures properly.

However, I do think there's probably a role for Records Managers to assert the importance of managing information correctly; effectively and efficiently.

It definitely wouldn't hurt to be more proactive by issuing press releases etc when something like this happens.

Steve Bailey said...

Thanks for your comments. I was a little surprised by Larry's comments which seem to have mis-interpreted my posting as an attack on records management. That wasn't the point of it at all (nor am I quite sure that it is possible to draw that conclusion from the text).

Surely no one can deny that a story about the loss of 25m records by a government department (regardless of the specific cause) is a story of direct relevance to the subject of records management? My point was that if this is so, how come we never hear from the professionals in this area (ie records managers) when it comes to media comment, expert opinion etc in the same way that we do from other professions when an incident related to their area of expertise hits the headlines.

As Red Kite helpfully mentions, perhaps a press release from our representative bodies (RMS, Society of Archivists etc) putting forward a response on behalf of the profession would be a first step forward in this regard?

Larry Medina, RIM Professional said...


I may have bristled inappropriately, however, as one who regularly comments not only to writers and editors of numerous publications who just don't seem to "get it" when it comes to RIM, I don't find us quite as invisible as some others.

And yes, Red Kite raised an important issue as to the relevance of RM policies and practices to running an organization, but until something goes wrong, we remain "out of sight and out of mind". And I think this may have been what you were getting at. It's sort of like the appendix, right? No one ever thinks about doing anything special to ensure the appendix remains healthy, like they do the heart, or liver, or kidneys.., but when something goes wrong with the appendix, you know about it.

So, maybe RIM is the "organizational appendix" =)

There are those of us that spend a lot of time scouring news and press releases and we do point out the glaring errors in stories, especially when the role and importance of RIM is improperly characterized, and that happens regularly in the IT trade rags. I pointed it out so frequently to Computerworld that the editor finally called me one day and said "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" =) I told him I just wanted them to get it right, and to provide accurate information about the management of information assets, especially when it came to who they BELONG to in an organization. I was tired of hearing the stories of the role IT plays in the equation and the failure to mention RIM at all, so he said "IF I give you a Blog, and promise not to edit it, will you be satisfied?" And while I was posting frequently early on, I haven't had the time I need to stay on top of it recently... take a look if you're interested.