FOI Man wonders aloud about the future of records management and records managers.
Like many FOI Officers, I started my working life as a records manager. My initial interest in FOI came from a hope that I could use it to make the case for better records management – and I welcomed the Lord Chancellor’s Section 46 Code of Practice for this very reason. But like many others in this area of work, I’ve found myself questioning the future of this once central aspect of my work.
Records management was born of a need to get control over the increasing volume of paper that resulted from new technologies like printers and photocopiers. And as time has gone on records management has attempted to impose control over the digital world as well, with mixed results.
It is an odd beast as a result. It straddles facilities management, information technology and legal compliance. I suspect that I’m not alone in worrying from time to time that as a records manager I’m becoming a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
This also means that often records managers find themselves squeezed out when it comes to the important decisions affecting their work. Facilities Managers decide how much space should be provided for records storage (how many new buildings are designed with no space for filing!); IT Managers decide whether to implement document and records management systems; and lawyers have taken overall responsibility for compliance operations.
Not surprisingly, records managers have spent many years speculating about where this leaves them. Some have criticised their fellow records managers for allowing themselves to be squeezed out. This can be a tempting reaction – for a while. In common with many other records managers, I’ve spent rather too much time agonising over my lack of success in achieving what, in retrospect, was an unrealistic objective. Despite what they tell you at archives and records management school, it is just not possible for one professional records manager to impose an “ideal” of records management on a complex modern organisation which revolves around individual initiative. Especially given that records managers rarely have any budget allocated to them to achieve this.
Records managers and theorists have also tried to improve records management’s relevancy by adopting the latest management or IT buzzwords. But to me this always feels like a small boy trying on his father’s suit and shoes. They just don’t fit.
Constantly evolving technology has continued to contribute to records managers’ crisis of identity. Despite years of debate and experiment we’ve yet to find a workable and accepted method for managing email. And computing in “the Cloud” is not helping with that. IT Managers are generally in charge of budgets and the technology that they purchase. And records managers often don’t have the technical skills – not unreasonably – to understand how to manage records stored using that technology.
The difficulty here is that records managers have reached a point where they’ve got to choose. We can’t be technological experts AND legal compliance experts. Not to mention facilities managers. Which are we?
My personal choice – and I suspect that of most who’ve followed this career path – is to move closer to the legal compliance world. There is plenty of work in ensuring compliance with FOI, Data Protection and intellectual property law. Many organisations can’t afford full-time lawyers so there is scope to carve out a niche as institutional legal advisers, albeit ones who know their limitations.
We’ll retain certain traditional records management skills such as retention scheduling (though for how long in a world where people have unlimited storage for their digital information?). Some parts of our professional tool kit I’ll be happy to leave in the hands of the IT people. If there’s a need for file plans and classification schemes for much longer, I think they’ll be best off in the hands of those with the wherewithal to make them work. And I’m not sure that’s me. As Lawrence Serewicz suggested at the recent PDP FOI Annual Conference, some of the skills of records managers will continue to be essential parts of that compliance toolkit, but they won’t be central.
The need to manage records and information is, if anything, more important than ever. But the time has probably come to accept new, more practical ways to achieve that, with records management responsibilities shared across the organisation. Let IT Managers and Facilities Managers provide the environment, whilst we shape its requirements based on our knowledge of the regulatory world we inhabit. If nothing else, I suspect we’ll see less basements that way.