Monday, 29 June 2009

The lost art of problem solving

A Tweet from @Northumbria_RM caught my eye the other day. It was a quote from a contributor to their AC+erm e-Delphi Study along the lines that “RM is something that should be done not something that can be bought and installed.” Nothing too controversial there you might think, after all its what we records managers always say: ‘no quick fixes’, ‘get the processes and standards right first’, ‘try to install a system on a mess and you just have an expensive mess’ etc etc

But what if we are wrong? What if this conventional wisdom is more a reflection of the nature of most records management technologies than representing a universal truism? Sure it’s a certain recipe for failure to attempt to rollout an EDRMS without having prepared every inch of organizational, procedural and cultural groundwork in advance but maybe that’s because of their nature: their size, the (unrealistic) scale of their ambition and their sheer (over?) complexity. But need it be so? After all, most of the technology which is transforming our organizations and our lives seems to be heading in the other direction. We now live in a widget-led world with people designing simple specific apps to solve very specific problems or achieve very specific end results. Take the recent Apple i-phone advertisements extolling the eclectic range of apps available for download, or the simplicity of something like Twitter.

It seems to me that what our users actually want and that we should be finding ways of providing are simple, specific ‘RM apps’ that can be quickly, cheaply and simply ‘bought and installed’ to solve specific problems. Maybe the underlying problem is that we have spent the last decade looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. We’ve been focusing on trying to fix the entire organization whilst hoping that eventually some of the benefits might trickle down and be felt by the ordinary user; where, with hindsight, we might have been better off working out what the problems were that were holding back individual users and building specific solutions to fix them.

When I first started out in records management in 1996 it seemed to me that records management was about finding creative and practical answers to genuine and specific problems in relation to how people managed their records. We needed a means of coordinating retention actions across multiple systems, so we designed one. We needed a way of maximizing the storage space we had available so we designed a location control module that meet our needs. Now of course the talk is of enterprise-wide solutions and international standards. I have no problem per se with either of these but do wonder if together they have unwittingly led us to a situation where all we have to offer is a homogenized, ‘one-size-fits all’ version of records management where we have little choice but to try to shape our problems around the available solutions and where our only route to success lies in trying (and largely failing) to first achieve organizational and cultural change on a scale which is frankly beyond both our reach and our pay-grade.

So it was with rather envious eyes that I read about the forthcoming Repository Fringe Challenge with a bunch of repository developers fired up to come up with genuine, workable solutions to an actual specific problem that is taxing their user community. This isn’t sitting back and hoping that the standards bodies and vendor community eventually acknowledge the problem and build in functionality to their products that are designed to suit everybody. This is a bunch of enthusiastic guys sat round PCs, thinking the unthinkable and finding cool ways of making it happen and then giving it out to the community to use as they see fit.

It’s a way of working and thinking which records management seems to have lost, and I think we are all the poorer for it.


RH said...

Hello Steve,

Though I agree with some aspects of this, I'd have to disagree with the overall thrust of your argument here. Yes, installing widgets, apps, specific fixes and so on would be beneficial, but that will never be enough on its own. RM, like any complex process - and even many simple ones - will always be first and foremost something that has to be done, not sometning you can 'plug and play'. It's like all those people making New Year resolutions to get fit, who go out and buy the expensive trainers, the weights, the exercies videos, the gym memberships. One month later, their owners are back on the sofa with a pizza, all these wonderful 'solutions' lying there unused. They are effectively trying to buy and instal what can only be achieved by doing.

Furthermore, if taking a broad, enterprise-based view risks the sort of unsatisfactory homogenization you describe, focusing on specific actions and processes carries the opposite risk. It is very easy to make one thing work perfectly; the problem is that these things almost never stand in isolation, and very localized solutions can easily cause wider or even systemic problems if not thought through.

Even on the level of personal RM / IM, using apps, widgets etc is not really viable. For example, Google widgets work with Google products, but not others; conversely, it is impossible to embed html or Javascript written for supposedly universal use into many Google products. The reason for this is not simply a lack of refinement or development; it is inherent in the ad hoc nature - indeed philosophy - of the way these applications are developed and distributed.

RM can never function like this: it operates within a multiplicity of frameworks and requirements, some external, others internal. It needs to operate smoothly across whole systems and jurisdictions, and complex operational and strategic domains. Yes, we should take what is best from new technological developments and ensure that as a profession and discipine we are creative and innovative. We also need to avoid over-committing to the current fissiparous state of a rapidly evolving technological environment in the belief that it is the end or base state.


Rachel Hardiman

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Rachel,

I agree that I (not altogether accidently) painted a rather simplistic picture and that there does, of course, have to be consistency and alignment across the solutions we provide for any overall progress to be made.

However, I do still feel that RM has become overly focused on the 'big bang' approach and that unless its going to change every facet of the organisation and touch every member of staff, we don't really want to know.

I think what i am suggesting is that we need to be more alive to what it is that our users actually need and more prepared to be flexible in how we meet these various, perhaps on occasion even contradictory, requirements.

Corporate file plans are a good example of this. We all know the logic: that it is important that there is one shared and commonly agreed file plan that everyone uses. But does someone in marketing really need to know where the estates department's fertilizer records are to be found? The danger is that by trying to deliver something that suits everybody we instead deliver something that suits nobody.

This then led on to my lament that we do not, as a community, seem well placed to deliver bespoke solutions to bespoke problems, hampered as we are by the need to always take an enterprise-wide/standards-assured approach to life. My concern being that such approaches always seem to work so much better in the text book than in real life and that while we are busy trying to design information architectures for the world, nothing ever much changes for the better for the poor little user on the ground...

Anonymous said...

I am mostly, in agreement. I believe that one must look at what an organization is doing currently, ask where they want to go, and then, systematically, and potentially over perhaps a longer period of time, implement policies, processes and technologies that, step-by-step get that organization across the finish line.

Our approach is not to implement changes that may require an entire organization to change their culture, but to address specific problem areas that the organization is responding to, and then work with the company to implement solutions that address the problem and minimally impact other facets of their infrastructure. We do not want to introduce solutions that introduce further complications and problems unless the introduction of that secondary problem brings with it the possibility of further organizational improvement as defined by the organization.

This COULD lead to a radical or at least an enterprise-wide shift, however, we don't feel that it has to. We let the user decide.

Matt Z said...

I read Steve's blog article with interest, then promptly read my own Head of Department's blog following a meeting we had had about our own EDRMS installation. In many cases Steve's thoughts are echoed by our own situation. Like many other organisations we are now having to think hard about what we want to do, and how we do it and whether, in current climates, we can pursue projects such as EDRMS in the way we thought we could. Suggest colleagues read my IT Directors blog entry at entitled "An elephant in the room?" for a real life case study of the types of issues Steve was talking about. I don't find this particularly easy in certain respects as a professional records manager, because you start to question whether you have made the right decisions. It does bring it home to me though that we are living in pretty remarkable times, and that RM, the relentless development of IT in the web2.0 environment and the current econmic situation are inextricably bound up at present in a pretty fluid and fast changing situation.

Nicola Osborne said...


Since you gave the Repository Fringe a kind mention in your original post I thought you might be interested in the live blog of the event which includes a brief description of our Grand Challenge winning entry:

Many thanks,

Nicola Osborne,
Social Media Officer for EDINA.