An Open Letter to ARMA from a Records Management Professional at a Critical Turning Point in History

Business concept: Folder With Lock on puzzle backgroundI have been a professional records manager for nearly 20 years. I started my career in the late nineties with a small software company that produced an ‘enterprise records management application’ which we marketed to both public and private sector organizations across the world. Since beginning my career I have held just about every position a records manager can, including Project Manager, Product Manager (on two DoD 5015.2 certified solutions), consultant, solution architect and trainer. Along the way, I completed post-graduate courses in records management, became a Certified Records Manager and a Certified Document and Imaging Architect. I also managed to earn a certificate from the National Archives in Federal Records Management.

As a committed records management professional, I naturally joined ARMA soon after beginning my career. For the first ten or twelve years, I faithfully attended ARMA’s annual conference (sometimes at my own expense), I rarely missed my local ARMA chapter meetings and I served on my chapter’s board in several different capacities.

To my great regret, about five or six years ago I began to feel that ARMA was losing its original focus on supporting the records management professional and becoming increasingly concerned with functioning as a profitable business. I believed my fears were confirmed when I logged into the ARMA association website one day and was saddened to see that ‘Information Governance Professional’ had taken the place of ‘Records Manager’ on every page of the website – including the organization’s mission statement.

Few people who know me would deny that I am fully committed to promoting the records management profession. I do it every day in my normal course of work, the frequent writing I do and the presentations I give. But like everyone else with a full-time job and a family to feed, my time is very limited and I am constantly forced to pick my battles. So feeling that turning ARMA around was too big a challenge for one person, and also believing that ARMA had left me, rather than I had left ARMA, I quietly discontinued my membership.

Unfortunately, most of my greatest fears from so long ago are now beginning to materialize. Organizations everywhere have built up massive, unsustainable stockpiles of useless information. Regulated industries are wildly out of compliance. IT costs continue to skyrocket, while budgets are getting slashed. And devastating data breaches continue to occur at an accelerated rate.

All of these issues are rooted – either partially or entirely – in records management and, by themselves, present extremely difficult challenges. But the frightening reality is that the explosion of new information created by emerging forms of technology – including cloud computing, mobile devices and, in particular, the Internet of Things – are on the cusp of making the last few decades look like the ‘Good Old Days’ of information lifecycle management.

The next few years are a critical time in the history of information technology and much of its ultimate success (or failure) will rest on the shoulders of trained, qualified records management professionals. And like all groups of dedicated professionals, records managers need at least one association that represents them and helps them learn, progress and provide the highest quality service to their customers.

ARMA, in its current form, is not that association. In fact, at its current rate, ARMA is in serious danger of fading into irrelevance and taking the records management profession down with it. This would have catastrophic results.

ARMA must look within itself and decide if the association wants to remain an organization focused on chasing profits, placating vendors and following the latest fads just like countless other ‘information management’ organizations…or if it wants to be the preeminent association representing one of the most important professions of the Information Age.

If ARMA chooses the latter – and I sincerely hope it does – then here’s what the association must do next:

Recommit the organization to representing the records management professional.

This will likely prove to be the hardest change to make given how broadly diluted the association’s brand has become – but it is also the most critical change for the same reason. ARMA should clearly state within its mission statement that the association represents records management professionals. Period. End of statement.

And I would further suggest returning ‘ARMA’ to its original meaning: the ‘Association of Records Managers and Administrators.’ People have never stopped calling it that, anyway, so an official change won’t be particularly hard to adopt.

Downsize the organization.

To be fair to ARMA, long-standing associations in every industry are experiencing unprecedented challenges. As with so many other new difficulties in business, much of this is the result of the Internet. Right or wrong, young people no longer believe that there is value in face-to-face networking in the age of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and association memberships everywhere are falling year after year as a result.

ARMA must embrace this reality and redesign the association to be a more agile, web-based organization that leverages all the benefits that current social media channels provide. The association should do this even if it means consolidating some of their local chapters or reducing the frequency that some chapters meet.

ARMA must also focus on the products and services that support traditional records management, but leverage the most current technology. Yes, there are still tremendous amounts of non-electronic records in many organizations and, yes, our grandchildren will probably be managing some level of paper records many years from now. But the future of records management is unquestionably digital and ARMA should focus as little time on paper-based records management issues as possible.

Instead, the association should invest resources in investigating and promoting the new technologies that will soon revolutionize records management. These technologies should include content analytics, block chaining and cognitive computing systems. This is not only a good strategy from an industry best practices perspective, but it also makes excellent financial sense, given that the records managers who understand how to leverage this technology will soon become some of the most valuable information managers in the world.

Clearly define ‘information governance’ and explain how it differs from traditional records management.

I am proud to call myself a records manager. It is a noble and vital profession that has existed for centuries. While our methods have changed countless times over the years, we have always provided the same vital service: We effectively manage information, regardless of media, through its entire lifecycle: creation, distribution, use, maintenance and disposition.

Over the years, ARMA has replaced the term ‘records management’ with ‘information governance.’ If ARMA is going to continue to use the term ‘information governance,’ it is critically important that the association define exactly what the term means and clearly explain how it is fundamentally different from traditional records management.

Further, ARMA must explain if it believes someone can be an ‘information governance professional’ without being trained in records management.  It must also explain where on the corporate hierarchy the two separate professions would be expected to reside. (In other words, does a ‘records manager’ work for an ‘information governance professional’ or is it the other way around?)

(Alternatively, ARMA could declare ‘information governance’ is simply another term for the work its records manager members perform and leave it at that.  This would undoubtedly be the simplest solution.)

Articulate a clear and committed association position on the DoD 5015.2 Electronic Records Management Software Applications Design Criteria Standard.

The DoD 5015.2 Standard turns 20 years old this year. As I stated in this AIIM article three years ago, the Standard is a fatally flawed model for enterprise records management and it has had a disastrous effect on information lifecycle management wherever it has been adopted. Yet the DoD 5015.2 model of records management continues to be regarded as the standard for records management solutions at federal agencies, state and local governments and private sector organizations across the globe.

If ARMA intends to serve the professional records management community, the association must objectively evaluate the industry’s leading functional specification, the DoD 5015.2 Standard. After evaluating the Standard, ARMA must publicly release its findings, explaining exactly why the association decided to either support the Standard or reject it as a failed attempt to impose paper-based records management methodologies on electronically stored information.

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I still benefit tremendously from ARMA. Some of the relationships I developed through the association have had a tremendously positive effect on my career and are likely to last long after I retire. And I’ve been honored to speak at ARMA events multiple times since leaving the association and I hope to continue to do so in the future.

I also have the deepest respect for all the hardworking men and women – many of them volunteers – who run the association and I’m extremely grateful for their dedication.

But the over-retention of all forms of information has already reached critical levels and its negatives effects can be seen in almost every organization worldwide.  These are problems that can only be resolved by trained, qualified records managers because only trained, qualified records managers are willing to bare the responsibility of ultimately pushing the ‘Delete’ button.

The world needs records managers now more than ever.  And records managers need an association dedicated to supporting them.  It is my fervent hope that ARMA will once again fill that need.


One thought on “An Open Letter to ARMA from a Records Management Professional at a Critical Turning Point in History

  1. Don, could you post this on the RM Listserv? Your thoughts and opinions are shared and more folks need to know this to turn the ship around…

    Like

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