Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Encouraging user participation in RM projects

Its been a recurring theme of mine for the last couple of years now that records management needs to find better ways of connecting with users; of thinking a little less about ‘the organisation’ and a little more about ‘the individual’.  For without the support and enthusiasm of those on the ground even the most ambitious and robust of RM implementations is pretty well doomed to failure. 

Human Computer Interaction and User Centred Design based approaches certainly have a great deal of potential in this regard and the more I have researched these areas the more convinced I become that we need to find ways to bring such techniques more fully into the RM canon.  It would certainly be interesting to know just how many EDRM/ERM systems have ever undergone any robust, independent usability testing.  The change in tack from some vendors away from the “our product integrates ‘seamlessly’ with your users desktop” message of the past to the “our product integrates seamlessly with Sharepoint so your users never even know its there” message of today suggests a certain recognition that this was largely a battle lost.

I suspect many of those involved in RM projects might protest that user consultation and engagement has been an important facet of their projects.  Focus groups, ‘model offices’, and user representatives on project teams are all well established mechanisms for ensuring the user voice isn’t lost.  But how effective are they?  Are these channels which really proactively encourage free thought and honest reflection, or are they (perhaps subconsciously) designed to only produce a narrow range of responses with most of the important decisions already made: more a question of ‘Which user interface do you like best: A, B, or C’ than ‘What could we do to improve your access to the information you need to do your job more easily’?  Whereas the former already assumes a new interface is needed, whether the user likes it or not; the latter makes no such assumptions and could elicit a broad spectrum of ideas that go far beyond changes to a system interface.

As part of my role at JISC infoNet I’ve been increasingly engaged with participatory techniques and stringing these together to run participatory workshops.  These are simple, creative exercises that are designed to get groups of people working together, raising issues, sharing ideas and forming a consensus.  They are the polar opposite of most of the workshops I’ve ever encountered in terms of the energy and enthusiasm they generate and the results they generate.  Just this week we’ve released an online guide to how to conduct such an event through our Planning a participatory workshop infoKit.

We’ve been using these techniques extensively with project teams, College leadership teams and internally within our own team for over a year now and I increasingly think they have an important role to play as part of any information or records related project.  Of course, just getting running a participatory workshop or two or livening up a meeting with some of these exercises alone isn’t going to guarantee a successful RM project, but it might just represent one of the pieces of the records management puzzle that I’m increasingly convinced is missing at the moment.