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.


Trevor said...

I agree with the thought. We in RM (IM to most) can appease the Corporation but it's the desk top that hosts the RM system, and it's the person (individual) who we are asking to play a part. Away from just abetter designed system, I advocate (with Fed Gc Canadian context) focussed Change Management ala comms and training. We ensure effective (as in not policy driven but practical and values based) awareness is crafted and delivered. We include a focus on the values through a three step process 1) awareness which leads to 2) learning followed up by 3) engagement. I'll have more on my RM blog in the comming months. Thanks. Keep up the great blog.

Trevor said...

I agree entirely with the essence of this topic. We in RM (IM to most) have a history of appeasing the Corporation (via the issuance of Policy - yawn) but it's the desk top that hosts the RM system, and it's that person who we are asking to hit the 'button'. But this will only happen if we win them over. We can do that via effective Change Management aka Communications and training should always be factored in. That can be done via the ALE process: Awareness of IM practices which focus on user values and their set of resistances; which for some leads to wanting to know more via training (actual training not ppt) which is then followed up by Engagement. I'll be investigating this angle @ while I continue to follow Future Watch. Thanks.

Tom Norcliffe's Concience said...

Hi Steve, as part of the ISO (putative)committee that is looking to review and redraft ISO15489, I understand your concerns. Times have changes and 10 years ago 15489 heralded a ground-breaking initiative in attempting to standardise records management practice. The increasing maturity in Records and Information Management (RIM) that it has (significantly) contributed to by kick-starting the debate and further refinement of approaches has led to it being a victim of its own success.
I certainly will be voicing my oppinin that we need to move to a more user focussed approach, however, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so we need to encourage organisations to move to a staff/customer outcome focus rather than a functional or systematic one. I believe it is a cultural rather than a procedural change that is required by organisations rather than by RIMers. What us RIMers can do is make the process invisible to user and very much a "back-office" process, Wizard of OZ-like undertaking as it used to be 30 years ago. Let the metadata and the systems do the work, users just want the stuff!

Stephen Clarke

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Stephen

Thanks for the comments. Apologies if it sounded as though I was implying 15489 was to blame for all the ills of the world. I agree it was/is a huge leap forward for RM and, a with most things, was/is very much 'of its time'. I guess its a testiment to its stature in the profession that I was able to use it as a sort of all-encompassing reference point for the point I was making in the post.

It's certainly good to hear that its being reviewed and revised and am encouraged by what you say about the direction it is travelling in.

I'm sure the committee has already got all the bases covered, but do let me know if you think there is anything I or our work in this area can assist with.

Best wishes


Dean Thrasher said...

I used to implement DM/RM solutions at a previous job. Overcoming the barriers to user adoption was the most challenging part of setting up any new system. It's good to see other folks championing user interface and user experience improvements in enterprise software, and in information management software in particular. Thanks!

I agree with comments here that it's a tall order, though. For most knowledge workers, the immediate needs of finding and working with information override any thought of long-term storage or preservation. You have to survive today's events before you have the luxury of worrying about legacy and history. Most end users are too caught up in the moment to spare much thought about RM practices.

At the organizational level, with IM professionals and senior management focused on the big picture, the details of daily operation, usability and aesthetics are secondary to meeting compliance objectives at minimum cost.

Those differing worldviews lead to big tradeoffs in the design of RM systems. Extensive training, communications, and change management initiatives are the price we pay for those compromises.