Wednesday, 4 February 2009

More on the end of records management as a profession

Rather than try to respond to the significant number of comments that my last post generated individually, or within the comments area I thought it might be worth expanding on my theme a little in a new post.

As you might expect, I had considered whether the comments in the review that I alluded to and the thinking that lay behind it, actually represented a positive step in the development of RM. If I genuinely believed that this was evidence of the growing influence of the RM profession and our emergence as a profession into the IT mainstream I would see it as a source for optimism. Alas, however, I fear this is not the case for reasons I shall explain, but first a point of clarification.

It is worth noting that my previous post was entitled “The end of RM as a profession in its own right” and I think we need to draw a distinction between the aims, principles and methods which lay behind records management as a discipline and the Records Management profession as the practitioners of that art. I have long said (in my book and in numerous other places) that the aims and objectives which lay behind records management are now more needed than ever before but that the way in which we, as a profession, currently try to achieve them will shortly no longer be fit for purpose. I think the recommendations of the 30 year rule reflect this. Yes, organisations and society need records management now more than ever but it is no longer automatically considered the role or preserve of the records management profession to deliver this. That role is now (rightly or wrongly) assumed to fall to IT and that seems to me to be a significant shift (and not a positive one for our profession).

I have always been of the opinion that there is nothing particularly complicated or difficult to understand about records management theory. It is not alchemy nor some other arcane ‘dark art’, nor does it require the kind of specialist knowledge that say medicine, dentistry or nuclear physics does. It is a particular perspective, a unique viewpoint and set of priorities regarding how a certain subset of information should be managed. In short, we have been interested in elements of information use and management that nobody else to date has been. This is not to belittle the profession, this unique viewpoint has served us and our organisations well but it also means that we are vulnerable. For a decade now myself and a few select professional colleagues have foreseen the day when the IT profession would ‘get’ records management: when their priorities would change (or be changed for them by circumstances) so that they had to start considering things from the records management perspective. And that when that day came, the records management profession may well find that their former USP had suddenly gone and that they were struggling to demonstrate the value that they could bring. In this situation our organisations would inevitably start to look to the IT department, not the records manager for answers and solutions and this, I fear, is what the statement in the review reflects.

So, yes, I agree with many of those who left comments, when they say that we should view this as a positive step for records management but I still remain concerned that it marks a milestone in the decline of the records management profession – at least in its current guise.


Dean said...

I agree. Records management as a practice has never been more important.

But as more data has gone digital, the information management responsibility has shifted from corporate libraries and archives to the IT department.

It was only natural. Computing, like RM, is an offshoot of information science. And the IT departments had the budget, and were familiar with the new tools.

DaviMack said...

In a way, then, you're making an argument along the lines of there being a different aim between the practitioner and the professional, similar to their being a different perspective between the physician and the medical ethicist: both deal with the same domain in the same way, but each is charged with a different task, and has a fundamentally different objective with regards to that domain.

I would argue that it might be possible to drive the objective right along with the task: into the heart of IT. I think it's quite probably an easier thing to do, too, than to keep RM to itself.

Steve Bailey said...

Not between the practitioner and the professional, but between RM as a subject/discipline/set of principles/methodology (call it what you will) and the community of professionals who put it into practice.

Its interesting that you make the link with the medical profession as I have drawn a similar parallel in the past to illustrate the above point:

The archive and records management professions are innately conservative; indeed we rightly pride ourselves on taking the ‘long view’, a position that is entirely appropriate when you consider that we are responsible for record collections often spanning several centuries. But, I would argue that whilst our professional goals and objectives should remain absolutely fixed and solid, this does not mean that our methodology and working practice must do likewise. The two are not inextricably linked and indeed it is not just desirable, but necessary, that we are prepared to constantly and fundamentally challenge the way in which we do things, to ensure that we are fit and able as a profession to continue to strive to achieve our objectives.

Today’s heart surgeon can trace their values and objectives back to ancient Greece and the time of Hippocrates, but, thankfully for us, the techniques they employ change virtually out of all recognition every few years. We now have to be prepared not only to accept, but to embrace, a similar rate and degree of change, if we are to retain any semblance of professional relevance in the years ahead.

(From my keynote to RMS conference 2008)

Anonymous said...

Having just ploughed through the whole report, I share some reservations about the report's attitude to recordkeeping generally and the likely impact on those who would actually have to implement the recommendations(eg where are 'recordkeepers' as a category in section 5? plenty of us gave evidence; there's also a really dismissive paragraph 6.16 noting "academic anxieties about the likely impact...on record-keeping functions").

But I'm still puzzled as to why records management professionals being moved into the 'mainstream' should be seen as a negative? Surely the labels don't matter, as long as the job gets done by people with the right skills. And if the IT label ensures that the job gets done quicker, with better resources and senior management support, so much the better?

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Aaron Taylor said...

Your comments concerning RM not being a "dark art" or all that difficult dovetail with the approach of Dr. Mark Langemo, an ARMA Fellow and "guru" of the industry - his standard comment being "Folks, this isn't rocket science." The profession is by necessity becoming more aligned with IT functionality; the goal of a successful Records and Information Manager should be to be positioned to direct and guide an organization with regard to the actions related to their profession - managing information and complying with regulatory requirements for information. IT is still responsible for managing data, a different requirement.