Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Measuring records management in the 'post-compliance era'

I think few records professionals would argue that their profession has largely been dominated by the compliance agenda over the past decade or so, especially here in the UK with first the Data Protection Act and then FOI. Having compliance based arguments to rely upon was great. After decades of records professionals trying to get the message out that records management was important we now had far more powerful voices (government, regulators, auditors etc) saying the same thing. Okay, so none of these Acts explicitly mandated the need for ‘good records management’ (whatever that may mean) but it was certainly clear from reading the Act and from the guidance that surrounded them that it would be very difficult to demonstrate compliance without it.

This certainly helped simplify the business cases for records management we presented to management: “we have to because the law says so”. It also helped simplify how to sell records management to users: “you have to because the law says so”. Okay, so this is a deliberate over simplification but even so is probably not a million miles wide of the mark. If the number of new records management posts within public authorities over this period is anything to go by we also shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss its effectiveness as a strategy. But we should also be aware of the limitations and risks implicit in an over reliance on any one message – particularly one dominated by legal and regulatory compliance, namely:

• The ‘big stick’ approach rarely results in the kind of positive and constructive buy-in from users that records management requires
• Managers will understandably be reluctant to spend anymore than the bear minimum to ensure compliance
• And may even decide against the bear minimum, preferring to favour instead more ‘positive’ investments – especially if the perceived risk of detection or subsequent punishment appears low.

This is not to say that compliance-based arguments have no place in our professional repertoire as clearly they do (and to a degree that will vary according to the sector and appetite for risk in question; but does serve to remind us that putting all your professional eggs in one basket is always a risky tactic, especially if the basket in question is not necessarily a particularly attractive one in the first place. This would be true in times of economic plenty but becomes even more so in periods of economic downturn where budget cuts mean much harder investment decisions and a necessarily more hard-nosed attitude to risk.

‘Impact’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘business benefit’ are now the order of the day. Organisations need to know not only that they will get ‘bang for their buck’, but also how big the bang will be and for how many bucks. This is not new territory for many records managers, but at the same time it is not necessarily where we are most comfortable – not least because so many of the benefits we have previously prided ourselves on delivering (compliance, maintenance of the ‘corporate memory’ etc) have all been largely ‘intangible’ in nature and therefore, by definition, virtually impossible to measure.

But I doubt there are few records professionals who have not also made claims at some point in their careers of the more tangible benefits to be had: reduced overheads, increased efficiency, more productive use of staff time etc and have found figures to support these claims. Indeed open any industry whitepaper or article in the professional literature and you are likely to come across all manner of statistics confirming how long senior managers waste looking for information or how much time can be saved by digitising your entire physical record collection. But how reliable are such sources? How was the data gathered? Who gathered it and why? (And, indeed, in one or two notable cases – does it even exist??).

If records management is to be able to survive and thrive in difficult economic conditions it is essential that is has confidence in the evidence base supporting the claims that it makes, but is this currently the case? JISC infoNet today launches the first deliverable from its ‘Measuring the Impact of Records Management’ project – a selective literature review which aims to look at the extent of evidence available to support claims of efficiency savings made by the records management. This literature review is the prelude to an ‘Impact Calculator’ to be released in November which will provide a framework for organisations to be able to address these apparent shortcomings for themselves and to establish their own empirical evidence demonstrating the costs and return on investment associated with whatever record or information management initiative they are undertaking. Further information on both is now available from our newly revamped Record & Information Management Portal Page, also launched today, which also provides links to all our other resources in this area.

The findings from the literature review confirm that there is both a growing appetite for and a current shortage of ‘impact evidence’ in relation to records management. Hopefully this project will help address both of these.

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