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…


Amy said...

"records management as traditionally conceived is a house built from the top down determined by the needs of the organization, and not one built from the bottom up based on the needs of its users."
I find this comment very misleading and overall more of an IT approach than a true RIM approach. Records starts at the bottom by speaking with the users who touch things day to day not corporate executives. By working from the bottom up you do not run into issues like creating cumbersome, enigmatic, and over all non-user friendly application. I think this tends to happen when IT steps into a Records Management capacity and does not really understand the need to inventory, discuss, and agree before creating systems. If true RIM professionals are involved in system/ application facilitation, this does not happen. In the last decade more and more RIM professionals are being phased out and “Document Managers” are being brought in who have no real time records training and who approach systems/ applications from and IT perspective so the traditional RIM practices such as file inventories are becoming more of a last minute thing. You can not fit a square through a triangular hole and right now that is how systems are being built. If inventories are done first the RIM group can then create class and file structures that make sense to the end user. A system cannot be created based on a corporate org chart or departmental listings. Again, record use is something we find out during the inventorying process. Who uses the document, what do they call it, are there other groups how use it, what they call it and so forth are just a few questions that go into inventorying files and readying them for system and or application creation. If this stepped is skipped or not done first, companies and their workers are in a heap of trouble

I agree a system needs to fit users needs but no system will ever fit every users needs. That is why training is mandentory and why a system should not be so cumbersome that change can not be easily made. Like a records policy or retention - a system should be maliable enough to meet changes.

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Amy,

I wouldn't disagree with anything you say. Indeed I suspect the main examples of where RM have been guilty of imposing from above was in relation to EDRMS where user requirements often seemed to come a very long way down the priority list. Whether this was more the fault of 'IT' or 'RM' is debatable.

Inventories/record surveys are certainly important and well established as a means of ensuring the structure of a records system is fit for purpose and at least usable by users (rarely, does it seem are they ever actually welcomed). But such inventories and surveys hardly ever, if ever, look at how users work. We may understand the processes they are involved in and identify the records they create - but not the way in which they work: how they prefer to search for things or to create things; what their priorities are and what it is that would most make their working life easier.

This is a side of the workplace that RM seems to ignore. We might say that its outside our remit, but without due consideration of it in our system design we are likelty to find our job that much harder to achieve.

David T. Macknet said...

RM strategies - even those outside of EDRMS implementations - do not tend to focus upon the users' needs, but upon the needs of the organisation, often to the detriment of the "larger picture" of what's going on within an organisation. They focus upon a narrow subset of the vast quantity of information flowing about in any organisation.

If you consider the future needs of historians, for example, or the future needs of a business team or group, RM excludes them in favour of fetishising "the record" above all else. This certainly might result in certain types of records being kept (or destroyed) properly, but does not serve the broader needs of the business.

It sounds like what you're getting at is the need for a shift towards addressing such broad needs of the organisation, and towards recognising that users are all* very idiosyncratic in their use and disposition of organisational information. In the face of such seemingly-random behaviour, in which no party can be trained to "follow this plan," the systems themselves need to be designed to fill the gap.

Well done - am seeking out the article now!

*note: I make such a strong statement about the users based upon research I'm in the process of writing up which studies this very issue of HCI with regards to records and information.

Mel Gould said...

Upto when I retired I always found there were two camps. The first camp is that with which you are rightly expressing concern, that of the pure records manager who seeks to manage important records from the point of interpretation of the Company and its legal obligations. The second camp, where I sat perhaps too strongly, is what I called the Records Service - and its a title I much prefer, because it enshrines the ethos we must adopt. Someone has to want and appreciate the service, to give us the success stories we need to spread the gospel of preserving records for future use. I'd much rather hve real examples of how the Records Service saved time or money, or helped respond to an emergency - rather that than a scare story about being taken to court if we got found out for not saving something noone will ever want.

So I agree with the gist of the topic, well done for raising it

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Steve Bailey said...

Hi Oliver

By all means...

Thanks for asking