Thursday, 9 June 2011

Paying lip service to the user

Since my last post on the need to rebalance our approach to records management around the needs of the user I have been doing a little research of the RM literature on the subject. Admittedly this has been confined to the Records Management Journal (as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board I have easy access to it!) but looking through the back issues of 20 years for articles relating to RM system implementation has still proved an interesting exercise. I guess I should say at the outset (if not already obvious) that this was no formal literature review, but it at least helped contextualise some of my own thoughts, observations and anecdotatal evidence.

I found 7 papers relating to RM system implementation; most, if not all, it has to be said, relating specifically to EDRMS and I guess this focus has to be borne in mind when making any generalised assumptions. But that aside they nearly all make the point that ‘user buy-in’ is critical to the success of the project and that projects are largely doomed to failure without it.

There is also a remarkable consistency regarding how this can best be achieved: ‘Involve users early’, ‘’invite user representatives onto the project board’, ‘invite user representatives to try it out in a model office’, ‘give users plenty of training and support’ etc etc. All perfectly sound advice you might think and indeed it’s difficult to argue against any of them but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that despite all these good intentions they are all missing the real point.

It’s a little like we are saying ‘when forcing a pedestrian to learn to drive a car its important to include them in the decision making process from the beginning; invite them to help choose what make and model; let them decide the colour; be sure to offer them plenty of training first and then be prepared to sit with them during their first few trips’. Great. But what if they didn’t actually want to drive a car in the first place? What if walking or taking the bus really suits their lifestyle? In short rather than simply asking them what colour car they would like, why not ask them how we could best improve their journey to work, however they decide to make it?

Biagio and Ibricu (RMJ Vol 18 No.3) inadvertently made an interesting point when they stated:

“users often fail to understand the corporate perspective of an EDRMS implementation and tend to remain focused on how the system will help them perform their jobs more efficiently and which tangible benefits and improvements it will bring”

Is it me, or do I detect a note of criticism of the user’s values here? Almost as if being censured for daring to put how they perform their own roles above what is of benefit to the organisation and its records managers. Well, welcome to the real world. Of course users are going to put their own working practice and working lives first. You’d have to be a pretty strange beast to volunteer to make your own work less efficient and less enjoyable just so someone else can benefit.

This question of just who the EDRMS is for also rears its head in another article by Ganesh Vednere (RMJ Vol 19, No.2) when he states:

“some people have been known to say ‘oh we are not that familiar with the technologies, so we let the technology team do the selection for us’ – well, that’s fine, but remember that ultimately it is the records management team that has to live with the platform”.

Now Ganesh was making a different point here about the need for records managers to get involved in the technical selection process rather than just delegating it to IT but what is striking here is the overt assumption that is the ‘records management team’ who have to live with the consequences of a poorly chosen system. A fair enough point, but what about the poor users? They don’t even get a mention. Doesn’t the same logic apply to them as well? Aren’t we asking them to ‘live with a platform’ that in all likelihood they had little or no input into choosing and configuring?

So my point? That the literature is absolutely right to highlight the importance of user engagement but that they seem to be fundamentally misjudging when in the process this needs to occur and the weight that needs to be placed upon their feelings. And that this process can probably best be started by replacing the question ‘how can we configure this system to try to meet your requirements? With ‘how can we help you do your job better?’