Monday, 23 May 2011

Its the user, stupid

Take a look through ISO-15489 and see how many of its requirements are directed at meeting the needs of ‘the user’. Now I’d hesitate to say “none” as its quite possible that I’ve overlooked one or two, but I think I’m pretty safe in suggesting “precious few” as an accurate answer. Reading through it soon becomes clear who records management’s primary stakeholder is assumed to be – and its clearly not the user with virtually every recommendation defined in terms of what “the organisation” requires and what is in “the organisations” best interests.

This probably doesn’t come as a great surprise, after all RM has long strived to be acknowledged as an established ‘corporate function’ with an enterprise-wide remit. Indeed all the benefits that RM can offer as stated in Part 1 of 15489 are described by the way in which they “enable organisations to…”.

Most RM technologies follow this lead and seek to deliver benefits to ‘the organisation’. But where does this leave the individual users of which the organisation is comprised? Can we automatically assume that what is in the best interests of the organisation will also be so for its staff? Taken to its logical conclusion the answer must inevitably be yes; after all the organisation that fails to make a profit or continually finds itself in the law courts will soon find itself unable to pay the salaries of its present staff or the pensions of its former. But how strong a connection is this really seen by many? Might it be that the vast majority of staff simply wants to turn up in the morning, complete their allotted tasks as quickly and easily as possible and leave at a reasonable time in the evening with as few complications and hurdles as possible?

Few record managers have the authority to compel users to adopt the procedures or systems they introduce. Instead we rely on a mixture of inspiration and perspiration to encourage adoption – with varying degrees of success. My review of the existing literature is still in progress but from what I have read so far a recurring theme when it comes to RM system implementation failures is lack of staff engagement. As Rachel Maguire stated in her ‘Lessons learnt from implementing an electronic records management system’ (Records Management Journal, Vol 15 No.3, pp.150-7)

“In spite of extensive training, most staff never got to grips with the system”

From the literature and anecdotal evidence this seems a common occurrence, but why should it be so? Is it that the solutions we offer simply don’t meet the requirements of our users? Do we even know what their requirements are? Or have we been guilty of paying lip-service to such considerations whilst instead focusing our attention of trying to deliver solutions which benefit the organisation entire but at the users’ expense?

Outside of the RM sphere disciplines such as HCI (Human-computer interaction) and User Centered Design are well established and important aspects of the design and implementation of IT systems and technologies and help to deliver devices and applications that users actively want to use, partially because they have had a very real and active role in the design process and because this has led to solutions that make their lives a little bit easier. Myself and Jay Vidyarthi (a Human-Computer Interaction specialist from Canada) wrote a paper for the Records Management Journal (Human-computer interaction: the missing piece of the records management puzzle?, RMJ, Vol. 20 No.3, 2010) looking into some of these very issues but inevitably that only scratched the surface.

Now as part of my role at JISC infoNet I am hoping to build on this work by producing a resource which seeks to redress this balance and to find ways of integrating aspects of HCI and User Centred Design into the design and implementation of information management technologies. As such I would be really grateful to hear of any examples that you know of or have been involved with of information or records management projects which may have explored any of these issues and sought to apply these principles; or (perhaps more likely) to hear of projects which have stumbled or failed due at least in part to failings in this area.

Of course none of this is meant to suggest that ‘the organisation’ doesn’t matter, or that we should lose sight of the bigger picture whilst attempting to solve the specific problems of every member of staff – but merely to recognise that without the genuine and positive engagement of the latter we will never truly be able to serve the interests of the former.