Records Management at a crossroads

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.

2 comments

  1. Brendan says:

    I support quite a lot of your arguments here. I am probably not alone in focusing on compliance issues, as it is the one that has traction with senior executives in the organisation; if it gets you noticed you tend to use it.

    I see my role in records management as trying to make sure that ‘stories’ can be retold whenever they are needed – whether for compliance, as a contribution to the national or organisational history, or to help with our current work in learning from the past, and saving time by having a good knowledge base in which to future activities. Organisations have embraced a new breed of ‘information workers’, who use a landscape of IT that processes data rather than information. Despite remarkable changes to technology, we still rely on email to transact much of our business. Most systems treat each email equally, unless you force the user to assign metadata to it when storing it into an EDRMS. As a consequence, we have vast stores of emails that people manage with varying degrees of success.

    As the digital boundaries get wider, we become focused on technologies. We make up the rules based on paper, trying to get it to fit. We fail, not because we are wrong – but because securing that ‘story’ gets ever more difficult. How exactly do you assess the value of a tweet for the official record? Often you capture them all, or ask the user to put it into a system where you can deal with it.

    The amount of data we hold is growing. Paper storage has been squeezed purely because we can see the costs of doing that activity. Often the costs of digital storage are hidden – and they are growing exponentially. Add on the costs of digital continuity and you have a looming budget crisis in a few years. We really do need to combat the culture of ‘save everything, it might be needed’, but retention scheduling doesn’t help with that problem. We could save time in compliance if we reduce the information acting as ‘noise’ – no one will be helped if more and more information needs to be waded through. A decent search engine will help us find, not manage.

    I see the future of records management in being able to select the information of most value, and creating a culture where it is accepted that information has to be deleted at some point. Compliance is today’s issue – burgeoning stores of digital information is looming, and we need to get to grips with that next. Then onto digital continuity. Our hope after that? That email systems wither as we adopt workflow systems that ‘do’ records management, where most of our valuable information will reside.

  2. Sarah Graham says:

    I too agree with a lot of your arguments here. When looking at the types of roles being advertised in the Information Governance area, it is very rare to see someone requiring a ‘Records Manager’ these days. It tends to be ‘Data Manager’, ‘Information Manager’ or a role which has a large element of information security / compliance work.

    In my experience, as a qualified records management professional working in a large City Council, the records management has often come secondary to information security and compliance aims. Records management was seen not as an end in itself, but as a means of protecting the council in termes of Data Protection and security issues. I accept that this is the reality of the situation, despite my loyalty to the RM cause!!

    We need to be realistic and accept this, moving with the times. We all know it’s an important discipline, I’m not detracting from that – I have a Masters Degree in the area so I don’t dismiss RM. But a hybrid approach is now the way forward I feel.