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?’


David T. Macknet said...

However, helping the user to do their job better isn't necessarily the purpose of an RM system, just as it isn't the purpose behind many other types of information system.

When working for HP / Agilent, we built a defect tracking system. Its primary purpose was to gather information for engineers (so that they could fix underlying engineering issues by doing root-cause analyses), but it gathered data from people assembling systems (signal analyzers, signal generators, etc.). The system certainly didn't help the assemblers in doing their job at all - in fact, it made their job more difficult, as they had to actually enter data into a system. However, their buy-in was necessary, as they were the ones who had to use the system, and were concerned with HCI issues such as the number of mouse-clicks. Without their buy-in, it wouldn't have gone as smoothly, but ultimately their adoption of the system had to come by fiat: they had to be told that their job now consisted not only in building systems, but in entering data.

I'd imagine that RM systems face a similar situation when it comes to adoption: those entering data into the system are not necessarily those who will benefit most from the system, and view it as something which interferes with their performing their job. Thus, they will perform the task begrudgingly if at all, and will bypass the system when they can.

Yet, their buy-in to the interface is critical if they are to use it at all.

SO: buy-in is necessary at some level, if only to ease the process, but the implementation and adoption of the product must also be driven by upper management, who must recognize that the RM process will not necessarily improve the working processes of those using the system.

BenP said...

Steve, I'm finding this series of posts really interesting and important. An executive of a vendor with whom I've worked a lot came close to hitting the nail on the head when he said to me that his product should disappear from the users' sight altogether: it should be the secure auditable repository that exists underneath the apps the user uses to do his/her work, and of which the user should be almost completely unaware. Unfortunately neither that vendor nor, as far as I know, any other has a clue how to go about making this a reality!

Part of the reason is that what people want to do with corporate information varies so dramatically - from person to person or team to team, from day to day or minute to minute. One day I want a piece of information to be available only to me and a few others - the next I want to be able to send a link to it to anyone in the organisation and beyond. One day I want to be able to read through a file sequentially as the story of a piece of work, the next I want to see bits of information from across a range of files all in one place. And so on. And I want these things to happen without faffing about resetting complex privileges, building complex searches, and so on - I want the system to understand what I'm trying to do now, and just do it.

In the past, with relatively unsophisticated users and relatively dire alternatives to EDRMS (such as Windows file shares), we could sell EDRMS as "better than nothing" for our users. Now, I, like you, am far from sure that's the case.

Steve Bailey said...

Interesting to see two different schools of thought emerging on this topic encapsulated in the previous two comments.

I can almost see an A-Level exam paper thus: :-)

Is records management a 'necessary evil which all users must bear for the greater good' or 'something that should be kept hidden from the user at all times'. Discuss.

DSchultz said...

Steve - really good post. The comments cause me to pause and think about your question, too. I have always believed that usability is key to any systems adoption and you need to measure that with your users early in the design or configure process depending on whether you are building or buying. You don't want your system to cause a user extra steps or destroy their productivity. But on the other hand, good recordkeeping is a necessary evil, required by many laws, regulations, standards, etc. I really lean more toward the answer of disguising it as much as possible from the end user, but not so much that it compromises your ability to provide the necessary recordkeeping. Really tough question. Look forward to seeing other comments.

Phillip Ruston said...

A favourite phrase of mine is "it depends". I work in a regulated industry, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that RM is something that should be kept hidden from the user - at least in our environment. I've worked in a number of site exit scenarios in recent years, where people who are losing their jobs are expected to index records for the future benefit of the ongoing part of the organisation. It's not surprising that the quality of such indexing is not top notch. My own view is thus very much along the lines of making it invisible, or even removing some of the burden from Joe Average, who has more important things to worry about than whether his records can be located by a total stranger in x number of years time.

Trevor said...

I manage a unit that focuses on Awareness, Learning and Engagement as the techniques to reach "users" whose starting points are, well disinterested to say the least. My opinion: you need the user to do the actions of RM. They do it already but poorly. Aka shared drives. So, we need to win their minds in order to win over their values.

Our focus is use adult learning, and proper communications to reach this audience.

But it all starts with knowing that your methods have to work through the "Information Culture" or really, the work culture of the organization itself.

A University of Toronto study by Professor Choo, ( is one the many out there that take us RMers down the path of seeing the issuance of solely policy, or that coupled by an email to all users saying "use it and be happy" and woefully insufficient.

So I recommend to all, to read Information Culture types studies as it positions our business to accept that to reach and engagement users we really need novel, fun, and pragmatic methods. For example, where I am, it isn't Information of Business Value. It's green. Very large stretch of course but so is IM Policy to end user implementation.

Keep up the great blog work and thanks

david povey said...

As an archivist AND an EDRM administrator I'd like to put forward the "what are we replacing?" argument, as it might put the issues around user acceptance of EDRM into some perspective. For many users, filing was a process that they bought into rather inexpensively - the top right of a document was marked with the appropriate file name and left in a "for filing" basket on the desk, or added immediately to a file previously "brought up", end of story.

What was wrong with that system? I'd suggest that nothing was wrong with it. Or I am being too simplistic in believing that was a working, workable information management solution?

From the user's point of view, that solution was so inexpensive that it was essentially free - so the user-cost of an EDRM replacement has to be carefully calculated, because like any purchase user resistance must be overcome. When going from "virtually free" to any charge at all, the level of resistance is proportionate to the increased charge (provided the perceived user benefit remains the same).

I do appreciate that my depiction of the halycon days of paper RM are very much in the past - although at least one of my recent employers maintained just such a system (a bishop and his chancery). The reality was more like reduced administrative staff, slip-shod filing and word-processed documents on the file share. However, it is that image of ease of filing that we should address in an EDRM implementation - it is "the invisible RM" spoken about.

David Gaynon said...

Achieving buy in is much more complex than it first appears. It is often related to the size of groups. When groups have more than 10 or 15 members the focus shifts from resolving the problem to mitigating the impact to the individual member. This often results in a strong localized perspective and a not my problem attitude toward global issues. An example of this may be the case of a lack of balance when looking at cost to use versus cost to deploy/support.