Monday, 6 December 2010

Records management: the plasterer's hammer?

“For a field largely reliant on the active participation of the individual users responsible for creating, using and managing records to achieve its aims, much of records management appears sorely lacking in the depth and sophistication of its knowledge about those same user s, their needs and objectives”.

So begins the conclusion of the paper written by myself and Jay Vidyarthi and published in the latest volume of the Records Management Journal. (Vol 20, No 3)

The paper discusses the way in which records management has focused almost exclusively and to the exclusion of virtually all other considerations on the needs of ‘the organisation’ often to the detriment of the users we are so reliant upon. Records management is a discipline which strives for standardisation, consistency and uniformity; for example in the form of functional classification schemes attempting to map activities across the entire organisation with a view to constructing a ‘corporate file plan’ or shared metadata schemas. This drive to standardisation isn’t just evident within organisations, but across them – be it in the guise of ISO 15489 or any of the specification standards for an EDRMS – all of which have at their heart the desired goal of uniformity of approach.

Read any section of 15489 and it’s abundantly clear who the main beneficiary of records management is intended to be – and its not the user. Virtually every section defines its objectives in terms of the benefits it will provide to ‘the organization’ with the user(s) getting barely a mention. Now none of this may strike the user as particularly surprising, nor in any way negative. After all, records management has long strived to be acknowledged as a ‘corporate function’ alongside HR, finance etc and clearly many of the drivers for it (accountability, governance, regulation etc) tend to apply at the organisational, rather than the individual level.

None of this is intended to criticise, but to shed some light on why it is that records management often struggles to satisfy the requirements of the individual users it relies on for success and why it could be argued that it has given up even trying. At its most extreme this disparity between the design of many records management systems and the needs of the individual user is most succinctly summed up in a quote made by one EDRMS user to me once that ‘making me use an EDRMS is like asking a plasterer to use a hammer’!

This clearly puts records management and the technology we rely on to implement it (whatever that technology may be) in something of a quandary. Is it really possible for it to successfully serve two equally demanding masters? Can we really hope to find ways of meeting the myriad, highly specific, highly personal demands of our user community in a way which not only pleases each individual user but also in a way which continues to meet the obligations and interests of the organisation as a whole?

Carry on as we are and I fear the answer will continue to be ‘no’; but open our eyes and ears to some radical new perspectives and it could yet be a ‘yes’. Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI is a combination of computer science, cognitive psychology, sociology, information science and design which might just represent the ‘missing piece of the puzzle’. A blog post doesn’t provide the space to explore the detail – that’ what Jay and I start to do in the RMJ paper. Here it suffices to describe it as a structured approach which puts the users first to ensure that they can interact with the system in ways which meet their needs whilst also continuing to meet the needs of the organisation. By shining a light on the behaviour, needs, opinions, tendencies and motivations of end-users it’s the first step towards achieving truly effective records management systems. After all, give somebody a tool that patently saves them time, energy and frustration and they would be foolish not to embrace it; but so too we must acknowledge that the reverse is true and that to try to make somebody use a tool that promises to only help someone (or something) else but at their own personal expense and surely we must concede that they would be a fool to use it.

The implications of such a shift in emphasis are profound, for records management as traditionally conceived is a house built from the top down determined by the needs of the organisation, and not one built from the bottom up based on the needs of its users. But it also offers some tantalising prospects: not just RM systems that users actively want to engage with, but also the possibility that we could start to use this new found knowledge of user behaviour to design and create records management systems that can actually manage records ‘automatically’ (at least in part) based on this behaviour – in a way similar to that used by Amazon et al to organise their content to aid the user experience. Desirable? Definitely. Possible? Who knows, but what this space…