Friday, 23 October 2009

The evolution of an Impact Calculator

It’s a well known truism that it is easier to criticise something than it is to solve it. Certainly anyone who has heard me at any of a number of workshops and conferences over the past year or so ask questions of speakers regarding the evidence base for the ‘facts’ and figures they have quoted citing the alleged benefits to be realised through investing in records management will be aware that I have not shied away from the criticism side of things. Though I should, perhaps, add that these questions have always been asked not to try to trip up or embarrass the speaker concerned, but as part of a genuine attempt to understand whether the numbers concerned -: whether it be regarding how much time senior managers spend looking for information or how many copies of the same document exist in the same organisation - are (as I always hoped) based on sound, empirical evidence or (as I always feared) were as mythical as the ‘Coopers & Lybrand’ study that so many seem to reference. Regrettably, if not unpredictably, it seems as though the latter of these scenarios is more often than not the case – as demonstrated in more rigorous fashion by the literature review we published last month.

But as I said at the outset of this piece, lamenting the lack of any reliable, objective, empirical data demonstrating the quantifiable benefits of investing in records management is one thing. The real question facing us was: what to do about it?

After spending a little time wandering up and down blind alleys investigating (and quickly discounting) a ‘Time and Motion’ based approach to measurement we soon settled on a focus on the process as the basis for measurement. After all, records management is surely only ever a means to an end? We spend resources on it to improve how we run our organisations, to improve the service we offer to our stakeholders, to improve our standards of governance and accountability and to ensure we are legally compliant. Surely if we could find ways of measuring how effective a process is before we improve it and then again after we’ve improved it we should have some means of quantifying the impact we have made. Then take away the costs involved in making the change and an even more illuminating set of results emerge.

But what to measure? After all, if you were to automate a previously paper-based process you might expect to see a reduction in both time taken processing information and the space required to store records. We can’t know what it is that you want to measure so we leave it up to you to define what and how many metrics you want to include: be they square metres of storage space, pounds and pence, staff time or C02 emissions - the choice is yours.

A real turning point in the project came when we started to think about the role of RM in a process improvement. After all, there must be few occasions (if ever) when it can be asserted with confidence that records management alone is responsible for achieving an improvement. Indeed, how would we even define what is ‘records management’ in this context? To take our previous example, the introduction of an electronic workflow system to replace a previously manual process clearly has a strong RM influence but it’s also about a technology change. So should it defined as an improvement caused by a new system or RM or both?

The answer (eventually) was obvious. There would be no arbitrary distinction between what aspects of the process improvement RM was responsible for and which were due to other factors. Nor any attempt to classify what counts as RM in this context and what does not. Again we let the user decide. This wasn’t a question of ducking the issue, it was an acknowledgement that process improvements are complex and multifaceted and that individual organisational drivers may differ markedly. The consequence of this decision has been to develop a tool which not only better reflects the complexity of real life, but also broadens its potential scope enormously. Yes, you can measure the improvements realised as a result of RM according to however you choose to define ‘records management’ but equally you can apply the same focus to whatever other element of process improvement that your organisation happens to be interested in measuring the impact of, be that people, IT, equipment or the combination of them all.

All of a sudden we no longer have a tool which might help fill the current dearth of facts and figures regarding the impact of RM, but also a way of deconstructing and measuring process improvement across the board.

But in some ways the hard work still remains to be done. We are well aware that using the Impact Calculator is not a trivial task. In the spirit of ‘garbage in; garbage out’ you can only get reliable, detailed data out if you are prepared to gather raw data of a similar kind in the first place. That, I’m afraid, is down to you.

We are also happy to acknowledge the Impact Calculator as ‘work in progress’. We’re hopeful of funding some pilots studies within the UK HE sector soon and would be very interested to hear the experiences of all those who make use of the tool, wherever they be, so that we can incorporate any improvements into a Version 2 in the near future
Finally, I should like to pay credit to my colleague, Joanne, whose statistical skills, sound judgement and commitment to the project have all helped turn my rather sketchy and notional idea of just how such a tool might work into this finished and infinitely superior end product. Nice one.

So do please take the time to download the tool, make use of it and let us know how you get on (if you do post anything online about your experiences we would be grateful if you use the tag ‘impact-calc’ to enable us to track it).

Its available now at

Friday, 16 October 2009

What is Sharepoint for?

From the speakers and discussion at the TFPL 4th Sharepoint Summit I attended in London yesterday the answer to the question in the title seems to be ‘for collaboration but not for records management’. This is hardly breaking news, after all any records manager will happily explain how MOSS falls down as a specialist records management system. But what was more surprising (and potentially worrying) was that people seemed to view collaboration and the kind of controls that records management should provide as two completely different and unrelated beasts entirely.

I’m certain there are no sinister motives for this and that it simply reflects a genuine organisational requirement to be able to share ideas, work creatively in teams and to ensure ready access to the right information – but why are these goals and the functionality used to achieve them thought of as not requiring records management nor of having any records management implications in themselves? Is it really possible to separate the two? Surely all this collaboration is in aid of something, is designed to further the strategic aims of the organisation or to meet a genuine business need? If so, aren’t we straying pretty darn close to records management territory?

And even if we were to ignore the fact that the outputs of most of this collaboration does result in some form of evidence of a business transaction and were, for the sake of argument, to assume that all of this collaboration is in fact the end in itself, then surely this would still require the existence of some RM controls to work effectively (authentication, version control, access control, audit trails etc spring to mind)? Otherwise aren’t we in danger of straying down the information equivalent of ‘sofa government’: all cosy chats over a latte and no accountability. Of course it may be that MOSS does offer most, if not all, of the above as part of its collaborative tools (I’m afraid I’m not enough of a MOSS expert to know), but if so its interesting how nobody present at the event seemed to equate these controls with records management.

Part of the problem here lies, I think, in RM’s image problem. Whereas everyone wants collaboration so no one wants records management. Some may (reluctantly) realise they need it but only in the same way that someone with toothache knows they need (rather than wants) a trip to the dentist. There are undoubtedly many reasons why this is so, ranging from our rather impenetrable terminology through to a decade of pushing a rather negative compliance-based spin on what we have to offer. I suspect it also lies in our failure to demonstrate the relevance of RM to current, live, active records and the information streams and processes that will form them. What the views at the workshop yesterday seemed to confirm was the prevalence of the idea that RM only needs to happen way down the line as a means of dealing with the accumulated backlog. A completely separate process divorced from day to day business functions and the technology they employ. So much for the Records Continuum.

I had hoped that, despite its flaws, Sharepoint represented a way of making real steps towards closing this gap between business processes, information creation and records management but unfortunately I fear this optimism may well have been misguided.