Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Practicing what we preach

There are not many days where I end up thinking, ‘God, why do I bother’, but today just happens to be one of them.

Few records and information managers would surely disagree that a large part of what we preach to others are:
- managing information appropriately
- providing access to information to only those who require it
- describing information appropriately to facilitate easy resource discovery
- limiting the amount of information being created, circulated and stored to a required minimum

I suspect that even fewer of us would disagree that the number of emails we all receive represent a major burden for us all as users. Indeed, I suspect many of us have produced guidance material or run training events designed to encourage our users to manage email appropriately and broadly in line with the aims I stated above.

So why, in the name of all that is holy, is it that a group of information and records managers seem singularly unable or unwilling to apply these same principles to their own activities?

Those who are not a member of a closed jiscmail list for information and records managers and compliance officers working in the UK FE/HE sectors will not know what I am talking about, but those who are most certainly will!

Here’s how it goes. One of the important functions of the list which has evolved over time is for institutions to check with colleagues whether other institutions have received the same FOI request (so called ‘round robins’ where one person sends a blanket request to a large number of institutions are surprisingly common and it can clearly be useful to know if the request received falls into this category). Now I clearly see the value in this and have no wish to interfere with this function at all. At the same time, the amount of email traffic this generates is quite considerable and usually consists of one person asking ‘has anyone received a request relating to X’ followed by somewhere between a dozen and twenty or more people replying saying ‘received here’ or ‘no, not received here’. Useful for the requestor and those others interested in such things, extremely irritating for those already snowed under by email and who have no need for such information.

After one particularly busy day of such email I suggested applying a little bit of information management to this problem (a radical idea I know). How about we agree a consistent subject heading for such requests? How about the person who originally sends the request uses the prefix ‘Round robin:…..’. Then those who do not wish to receive these emails can simply use the ‘rules’ functionality within their email client to automatically route such messages to their deleted items folder without troubling them. Those that are happy with the status quo and who wish to keep receiving these messages need to nothing at all. It doesn’t even require an action from those who reply to the original message as when they hit reply their message will automatically use the original subject heading containing ‘round robin’.

Not rocket science I know, but simple, unobtrusive and effective.

But not, apparently acceptable to the members of the list who, I believe decided not to adopt this radical step at a meeting last Friday. Now I wasn’t able to attend the meeting so do not know why not. Maybe I have overlooked some fundamental flaw in my reasoning, but if so no one has bothered to tell me what it is. All i do know is that it does rather make one despair about the profession.

Are we really that conservative that we are unable to countenance the concept of such change? Or are we so arrogant that we feel that the rules we seek to apply to others do not apply to us?

Either way such a minor and trivial issue has utterly depressed me on a wet and windy day

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The making of a maturity model

Where to start when asked to produce a ‘maturity model’ for records management within the HE/HE sector? Maturity models and other benchmarking tools certainly seem to be popular at the moment in all sorts of areas, especially in relation to ICT. On the plus side they allow an organisation to think objectively and comprehensively about the subject in question. They encourage investigation and reflection and through the picture they paint allow organisations to celebrate their strengths and to address their weaknesses. Maybe it’s no surprise that such approaches are gaining in popularity at a time when budgets are being squeezed as a much clearer idea of spending priorities should emerge as a result of working through such a model. On the minus side I’m always slightly concerned about the terminology and the (unintended) slight which may be felt by those who cannot demonstrate full maturity in a particular area and who might, justifiably, be reluctant to admit to being ‘immature’.

I’m hopeful, however, that the emergence of maturity models for records management is, in itself, evidence of a new phase in the profession’s development. For these are not tools attempting to demonstrate the need for records management or to justify expenditure in it, they assume (rightly or wrongly) that that stage has already passed. No. The maturity model assumes that whatever it is that is being assessed – records management in this instance - is an accepted and valued function of the organisation and that what is required is an assessment of how well it is performing and the impact that it is having. Thus hopefully the very existence of such models are evidence of a new level of maturity for records management as a discipline.
But to return to my opening question: ‘where to start’ when asked to produce one? My first thought was that this is a potentially risky endeavour. After all, in order to assess ‘maturity’ this implies that you have a clear idea of what ‘mature’ records management should look like.

Starting from scratch in this regard seemed especially foolhardy. After all, it would be a pretty bold claim to assume that I alone or even we as a service were in a position to define what this would look like. Getting together a working group or consultation panel would have been another approach and would certainly have increased the chances of producing a more rounded model, but wouldn’t we then be in danger of trying to reinvent the wheel? After all, what we are talking about in terms of this picture of ‘mature’ records management is surely pretty similar to defining a ‘standard’ for records management – and, as we all know, there are plenty of those around already (as someone once said: the great thing about standards is that there are always so many to choose from!). And we certainly didn’t want to try to produce a JISC infoNet standard for RM for people to start comparing with and mapping against 15489 et al.

The most logical approach therefore seemed to be to make use of an existing definition of a mature RM system; one that is current, authoritative and which has been developed collaboratively. And this is where fortune smiled on us by allowing us to combine two parallel, but related agendas. For just at the time we were planning the maturity model so I was part of the working group helping the National Archives to revise the s.46 Code of Practice on records management which accompanies the UK Freedom of Information Act. Not only was this a statement of what RM should look like in a public authority in order to ensure compliance with the legislation which ticked all those boxes mentioned earlier, but was also an initiative that we would want to be supporting for the sector anyway. When the original COP was published JISC produced the Model Action Plan for FE/HE Compliance with the COP. We could have taken a similar approach and produced another sector-specific Model Action Plan for the updated Code but felt that a Maturity Model better reflected the fact that the sector is now nearly a decade further down the line and would better appreciate tools to help assess how they are doing, rather than one which assumes they are still yet to get started!

So although firmly based on the National Archive’s Code of Practice and developed with their knowledge and assistance it should be noted that this Maturity Model was developed separately to it and any mistakes or omissions are very much ours not theirs. It also therefore follows that this Maturity Model is quite specific in its focus and the model of mature records management that it represents – i.e. a model appropriate for UK further and higher education institutions who want to be able to ensure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Of course the benefits of achieving such a model should be felt much further and deeper than this and in many more contexts but this remains at its core.

The Maturity Model and guidance for its use are available from today and we look forward to hearing of your experiences in using it. We also hope that as many institutions as possible will submit their completed forms to us to enable us to get an overview of the current maturity of RM within the sector as a whole and thus help inform how we can best tailor our own efforts to continue to support it in the future.