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Let’s Be Better Records Managers

[Dear Readers, a records management colleague recently reminded me of this article I wrote for an industry association, and I thought it would be worth reposting here. Sadly, almost nothing except my bold prediction that ‘cloud computing’ was here to stay, seems to have aged in the eight years since I originally posted this piece. Here’s hoping things get better soon. – Cheers, Don]

The explosive growth of information technology over the last three decades – and the corresponding tidal wave of newly created recorded information – has been both a blessing and a curse for those of us in the Records Management profession.  Never throughout our long history has the work we do been more critical to the success and wellbeing of our customers than it is today.  Every component of every organization benefits from effectively managing the information lifecycle and applying the information governance processes to support it.  And thankfully, modern technology is continuously providing us with better, more efficient tools to do that. 

And yet, in many ways, we behave as if things haven’t really changed all that much.  We often talk about managing electronically stored information and leveraging the latest technologies, but subconsciously many of us are still thinking in terms of paper-based solutions.  That paradigm has not been relevant for a very long time and we must separate ourselves from it and embrace the new (often better) methodologies that modern technologies provide. 

Change of this kind is never easy, but I believe there are a few simple, yet powerful ways we can make this happen quite quickly and I’d like to provide them to you here.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Everything’s a Record

Let’s put an end to this pointless argument over whether a piece of recorded information is a ‘record’ or not a ‘record’.  How you and your organization labels an item of content is meaningless to a judge in a legal discovery procedure.  If the information exists at your organization, it is potentially evidence and subject to discovery and so should be managed throughout its entire lifecycle.  This applies to content in your records repository, SharePoint libraries, on file shares, on backup tapes, and in email inboxes.  It also applies to web sites, social media, instant messages and material stored in the cloud.

But please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not implying that some subset of your organization’s total collection of information doesn’t have much more value or doesn’t require longer term preservation than the rest of it.  That has always been true and will remain so.  What I am suggesting is we can’t focus on simply managing that material through its lifecycle and ignoring the rest of our organizations’ content which can be far more costly to maintain and pose equal levels of legal liability. 

Solutions that Work

Let’s all agree that good enough is good enough.  We can’t keep rejecting information lifecycle management applications because they don’t manage content exactly like our organization does right out of the box.  We must accept that these applications are designed to meet the needs of a very broad market and so cannot possibly include all the unique features that each of their customers demand. 

Let’s select the application that best meets our requirements and is within our budgets and leverage it to the best of our abilities.  This likely means some level of customization, but it also means being open to implementing different (but effective) methodologies that our organizations might not be used to.

Yes, a few things will inevitably fall through the cracks.  But, thankfully, the courts don’t expect perfect records management from any organization and can be reasonably forgiving as long as you are implementing some sort of solution in good faith.       

Buy an Application, Implement a Solution

Let’s stop calling information lifecycle management applications solutions.  They aren’t solutions, they are tools with which solutions can be created.  Let’s stop assuming buying Product X will solve all our records management problems and blaming Product X when our solutions fail.  Blaming an information lifecycle management application for a failed records management solution is like blaming a hammer for a poorly constructed house.

Let’s do our homework and determine which application (or applications) best support our information lifecycle management requirements.  Let’s create realistic budgets, keeping in mind that ‘free’ products (i.e. open source) can actually be very expensive, while extremely expensive applications aren’t necessarily better than simpler, cheaper ones.

And let’s deploy these applications using proven implementation methodologies that promote iterative development and rollout processes so we can create the efficient, productive solutions our end users need.      

The Email ‘Problem’

Let’s stop acting like we are Captain Ahab and email records management is Moby Dick.  This is not a problem worth obsessing over.  Let’s accept that archiving all emails for a couple of years is an acceptable solution for the vast majority of our end users and select the few primary decision makers in our organizations for extended email archiving retention periods. 

Let’s also provide our end users with the simplest, most efficient method for declaring an email into our corporate records repository, but let’s be realistic about how often they will actually use it.  Let’s be happy if the average user declares one or two email records per month and our key decision makers declare one or two per week.         

And let’s defend this as the only realistic email records management solution that has any real chance of producing successful results. 

And then let’s move on.  Please.   

A Cloudy Future

Let’s accept that cloud computing presents a terrifying list of records management challenges, but represents the biggest advancement in technology since the move from mainframes to client/server architecture and is the undeniable future of Information Management. 

Let’s begin to have mature, open discussions about how we are going to work with IT and Legal Counsel to meet the challenges that cloud computing poses and support our customers in the very best way possible.  Let’s do what we need to do to understand cloud computing technology and be active contributors to any plans our customers have for moving their content into the cloud.    

Paper vs. Electrons

Let’s accept that technology allows us to do a million cool things we couldn’t do with paper records, but the absurd volumes of content we are creating now prevents us from the luxuries we once had managing our non-electronic content. 

Let’s stop arguing that we need human approval every time a record is destroyed.  Let’s accept that a well-documented, fully audited automated disposition process is a perfectly acceptable (and, indeed, possibly the only) way to manage electronic records disposition. 

Let’s promote realistic retention requirements that are based on business needs and state-of-the-art technology, not on how we once managed paper records.  Let’s acknowledge that records which were once transferred from one form of physical storage (e.g. a filing cabinet) to another (e.g. the basement archives) to another (e.g. off-site storage) can probably remain in a single electronic records repository for their entire lifecycle.  Let’s examine every multistage records retention policy in our organization and ask ourselves if they are truly necessary given modern technology.  And let’s eliminate the ones that aren’t.       

Trust, but Verify…and Automate

Let’s stop babying our end users and start treating them like the professional adults they are.  Let’s give them clear guidance on their records and information lifecycle management responsibilities and expect them to adhere to it.  And let’s develop methodologies to monitor how consistently our users are meeting their records management responsibilities and let’s not be afraid to call them to the carpet when they don’t comply. 

But at the same time let’s be fair and do whatever we can to reduce the records management burden we impose on our users and free them up to do the jobs they are paid to do.  And what is the easiest way to do that?  We automate. 

Let’s develop automated declaration strategies and email archiving policies.  Let’s automate transfers and content destruction.  Let’s automate metadata population.  Let’s automate file plan classification.  Let’s automate everything we can get our hands on and make records management across our organizations as unobtrusive as possible. 

We’re Records Managers

Titles matter.  Let’s stop referring to our profession as ‘Recordkeeping’.  We don’t get paid to ‘keep’ records.  In fact, I would argue the opposite is true.  One of the most critical and valuable services we perform is defensibly destroying information after it has outlived its business needs and successfully met is legal and regulatory requirements.  That’s not recordkeeping, that’s records management.       

We’re Records Managers, let’s call ourselves that. 

We’re All from Missouri

Let’s start demanding information lifecycle management product vendors show us real-world implementations of whatever application they are trying to sell us – starting with their own.  And if the vendor can’t show us how their company successfully uses their own product and is unable to provide us with opportunities to interview their own staff about how they administer their own product…well, let’s agree not to buy their product. 

A New Standard

Let’s acknowledge that the Department of Defense is about as good at designing a records management standard as the National Archives is good at building jet fighters and let’s create a new standard based on state of the art technology that addresses real-world final stage information lifecycle management problems in a realistic and effective way.

Let’s accept that stand-alone records management applications no longer exist and create a standard that applies to traditional records management services in any application. 

And let’s limit the new standard to a very small number of specific requirements, while including a much longer list of features the product ‘should’ have.  And let’s let the Free Market take it from there. 

The product can’t meet the complicated retention and disposition requirements of the US Government’s General Records Schedule?  Fine, that’s the Product Manager’s decision.  They just won’t sell into that market.  

An accounting application vendor wants to include records management services in the next release of its flagship product, but doesn’t see a need for a Vital Records Management processing feature?  Great, probably a good decision.  Just meet the few specific requirements of the new standard and leave out any optional features you think don’t make any sense.     

Already have a product that meets the rigorous, narrowly focused requirements of a previously existing standard?  Terrific!  Your product probably already meets the requirements of our new standard, plus you have added features like Supplemental Markings and Cutoff Processing that you can sell, assuming you find anyone who actually uses them.

Let’s get together as professionals and develop our own standard.  We do that and everybody wins.

Confidence and Courage

And finally, let’s be confident in our abilities and courageous in the decisions we make.  Let’s aggressively confront the information explosion head-on.  Let’s make every effort to reduce the volume of our customer’s content at every opportunity we have.  And let’s not be afraid to defend our actions from challenges by anyone.  That’s what our customers need and that’s how we become better Records Managers.   

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