Wednesday, 16 January 2008

An interesting debate on RM in the Web2.0 world...

Readers of this blog might be interested in an impromptu debate which occurred yesterday on the Records-Management-UK email list. The discussion was kicked off by a seemingly innocuous email pointing out the availability of peripherals for laptops which enable broadband-speed wireless connection, even where there is no WiFi service available.

This soon led to an interesting cut and thrust regarding the relative merits of web2.0 and the role of records management in this regard (before moving onto a debate about how best to continue the debate!).

I thought it worth bringing the main trust of this discussion to the attention of those not on this particular list, whilst also providing one means for anyone interested to continue the debate without monopolising the list in question.

What follows may miss out one or two of the side-shoots of this discussion but hopefully captures the essence. It reads from top to bottom and I’ve kept the first names of the author of each message at the foot of the relevant message to enable the reader to keep track of the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’.

I’ve also responded to Peter’s last message through the blog’s comment facility…

Happy reading and my thanks to all those who contributed!


Hello all,
I’ve just had the following gizmo brought to my attention by a Business Information Systems colleague. Despite its irredeemably tacky name, it looks incredibly useful – essentially, a USB stick that gives full broadband access from your laptop wherever you are (once you have mobile phone network coverage).

Two RM implications struck me at once:
(1) There is now absolutely no excuse for people working remotely to store data on hard drives or portable media devices, with all the data security and version control problems that attended those practices. Instead, organizational networks can be accessed directly through the broadband connection. No more ‘MI5 loses laptop with country’s entire defence network details in railway station café’ headlines!

(2) The possibilities opened up for managing electronic records in developing countries or remote regions with little or no reliable IT or land-based communication infrastructure. Ubiquitous mobile broadband access could now be coupled with web-hosted applications and storage to facilitate robust systems for managing electronic business records with minimal resources.

On the face of it, this is that rare thing in mobile communications technology over and beyond the basic ability to phone or text people – a truly useful development rather than a gimmick. But perhaps there are drawbacks I don’t know about. Has anyone out there actually used this device?


This may well be a convenient way of delivering wireless access (in addition to all the existing ways) but it would not, for me, replace having files available to me locally. The speed of wireless, never mind unreliability and unavailability in many parts of the country does not provide the service I am looking for.


There may be truth in what you say for now, but I wonder how long this will remain the case? I suspect within the next 5 years or so the current limitations that you rightly point out will have disappeared and the advantages of online access to centrally held master copies will be seen to far outweigh the disadvantages. I always believe we should look at where the technology is likely to lead us in the near future, rather than feeling constrained by its current limitations. (its abit like a century ago saying ‘I’m sticking with my horse and cart, those automobile things are always breaking down and running out of fuel!!)

Andy is also right to point out that concentrating on wireless dongles and cards is probably bit of a technological cul-de-sac. I think Andy is right and it will be the gradual but relentless spread of ‘commercial’ wifi services to public spaces that makes the real difference. As I mention in my SoA paper, the role of wireless cards will probably be restricted to those more remote ‘rural’ locations where commercial factors don’t make a wifi service viable – so they in effect fill a temporary and ever-reducing gap in coverage.


Happy to play the luddite on this one. Don't share the general enthusiasm in respect of Web.2 and file storage heaven.

"Tough luck it's inevitable"? Yes, probably and certainly there's a need to address it - but I want to see 'rules' and that seems to fly in the face of what Web.2 offers - and its main attraction. (ie - unrestricted freedom)

No doubt rules will emerge retrospectively after something goes wrong. (they usually do) Don't ask me to speculate on what might go wrong (luddites don't have to) but once the imagination is given over to the ideas of Web.2 and Google storage, I find images from 'The Matrix' coming to mind!!!


The problem is, it probably won’t make two hoots of difference whether we as records managers share the enthusiasm for web2.0 or not, the simple fact is that users do and we bury our heads in the sand at our peril. If records managers ruled the world (God, what a thought!) it might be different, but we have to acknowledge that when it comes to shaping the IT trends which are redefining our culture, society and economics (as well as our organisations) our opinions tend to count for virtually nothing. Saying we don’t approve and don’t endorse the technology might be one approach for us to take within our organisations, but pretty soon it is likely to be one that is soundly ignored by all and sundry.

Organisations do not come more traditional than the Royal Household and the Church of England and if both of those saw fit to use YouTube last year for their respective Christmas broadcasts I think we can be fairy certain that these technologies are now well and truly beyond the ‘techno-geek’ phase and here to stay…

List users interested in this subject might be interested to know that I have a book coming out in the summer: ‘Managing the crowd: rethinking records management for the Web2.0 world’ which explores these issues and the challenges it poses for records management in much more detail!


Without being drawn into the wider Web 2.0 discussion (I’m not a luddite but perhaps in a long career I’ve experienced too many ‘next best things’ not to be a little skeptical about the extent to which ‘organisations are being re-shaped by it’), Steve’s final example hardly clinches the argument. They may appear traditional organisations, but both the Church of England and The Royal Household have very savvy media relations and publicity machines and would be looking to use all possible delivery mechanisms and outlets for their respective messages, including YouTube. I suspect there are just as many technogeeks in those organisations as in any other – though there are, inevitably, probably more in academia than in most other sectors. It would be more interesting to know that they kept the records relating to the planning, creation and production process in a Web 2.0 environment, or indeed their ‘record copy’ of the final broadcast.


Might be worth remembering that both email and the web owed their origins to the ‘technogeeks’ in academia too, but it didn’t seem to stop them spreading rather further than that…


True. But it’s also true that those particular tigers have created difficulties for corporate organisations which they have yet to solve (before moving on to the next best thing) and as PK suggested in his post they are now facing the cost. We need to distinguish between what works for individuals and what works for organisations. Where the individuals are employed by corporate bodies – we should stop calling them users and recognise that they are agents in this context – these two things may be incompatible. Individuals in the corporate context need information to do their job. The organisation needs records as evidence of what it has done, usually for a much longer period and long after the original ‘tagger’ has moved on. That requirement will not change. Technology on its own, no matter how clever and ubiquitous, is not going to meet this challenge and what we should be trying to do is to find ways of moderating the process – rules if you like to use Gerry’s word – so that we get the best of both worlds.


Someone at a conference I once spoke at made the very pertinent observation that "you don’t stop a bulldozer by standing in front of it, you stop it by getting behind the wheel"
On that basis, all I would say is that if we are going to continue to insist on taking a traditional rules-based ‘manual’ approach to the management of information we are (in the immortal words of Private Frasier) "Doomed, all doomed…"


They’re not manual world rules but rules that produce a desired outcome irrespective of the medium. You can’t get behind the wheel of the bulldozer unless you know how to drive it and then you need to know what it is that you’re going to flatten. Flattening everything because you can would hardly be the desired outcome.
A pedantic point – records and information are not inter-changeable terms.


At the risk of boring the rest of the RM world I think this had better be my last post on this particular topic…

But I just wanted to point out that my use of the term ‘information’ was quite deliberate in this context. Focusing on the (rapidly diminishing) percentage of an organisation’s information that fulfil our criteria as ‘records’ and ignoring the fate of the rest is not only career suicide, it is exposing our organisations to a considerable risk to their assets by ignoring the fact that a significant proportion of the information it holds may well be equally as important (and potentially as dangerous) as our records.

As a simple example you only have to consider the paradox of talking about ‘records management’ in the context of dealing with freedom of information to appreciate this point…. At the end of the day the recipient is usually only interested in the content, and that could equally appear in a piece of ‘information’ as in a record’. Likewise that content could be equally as incriminating for the organisation whether it be noted on a scrap of paper or within a formal record keeping system.

What is surely needed are ways of ‘scaling up’ the principles which lay behind records management to cope with the volume of information held by organisations, not reasons for ignoring the true scale of the problem

Over and out!


My last post too.

What is all this information that isn’t a record and where is it? Why does the organisation have it? Who created it? Is it supporting a business activity or is it just sitting there, waiting? Perhaps your definition of a record and records management is too narrow.

The FOI point conflates what the requester receives with its source. The fact remains that the public authority must turn first to its records to provide information about what it has done or plans to do. It may need to process the content to extract the information in a way that answers the question but that is a different issue. Similarly, those records still have to perform the continuing evidential task.

Steve, I look forward to your book where no doubt you will have the space to develop the proposed solutions as well as posing the questions. In the end the records still need to be identified and managed.


1 comment:

Steve Bailey said...

Peter, Lets see…, how about ‘non-declared’ documents, drafts & personal/informal notes, the majority of emails, GIS-data, multi-media resources such as images, video clips etc, blog postings, wikis, relational databases, web pages - to name but a few which spring immediately to mind.

Of course it is arguable that all of the above could conform to the ISO definition of records as "information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business” (though I suspect many records managers would have some problems accepting the evidential value of many of the above examples).

But to be honest, it seems to me to be rather an irrelevant distinction. For if we do accept that the above list and others like it fall outside of our definition of a record, then the point I made about needing to broaden our scope and approach is valid. Alternatively if we do say that they are all records this gets us no further forward as the vast majority of records management programmes do not deal consistently and efficiently with these types of ‘record’.

The point is surely not what we call them, but that we are by and large failing to manage them and that is the problem we have to address.

My book will include some proposed ways forward (I would hesitate to call them ‘answers’), but judging from much of this discussion I still think there is a great deal more to do in terms of ‘posing the questions’.