Physical recordkeeping was established even before humans evolved to walk. Like us, our ancestors were like bowerbirds; collecting and keeping things that were precious to them. Formality came in with the written word and the collation of wisdom in documents of clay and papyrus. Documents replaced talk as the accepted and consistent method of retaining and sharing important information. As the volume of information grew the need to record where it was located for findability was developed, and thus recordkeeping was officially born.
The premise on which recordkeeping was born and promulgated through the discovery of more effective writing materials was simple. Write down where the physical object is located. Make sure you write down sufficient information to enable identification of that unique object. Giving it a unique number and adding that to the document eliminates error. Today that premise has evolved into electronic document management.
Electronic document management involves recording the document information in an electronic database on a computer. Initially, the activity of recording that information was owned by record keepers. However, in modern implementations everyone has access to the database on the computer and they can register their own records and search for those records themselves. Even if the records unit still does the physical labelling and retrieval it is more efficient, especially in a large organisation, than visiting the records unit every time they need to make an enquiry.
Electronic recordkeeping for physical records has been a fairly simple concept for records officers and staff to understand. It is a direct parallel to fully physical recordkeeping.
Digital recordkeeping is proving to be another world; a new paradigm that is proving very difficult to master for the records fraternity. The inability to truly master it is a major blockage point for the successful transition to fully digital recordkeeping and compliance with state and federal requirements.
Digital recordkeeping is registration of documents in their native format, such as MS Office applications, Adobe, etc. The same electronic registration of metadata occurs, but if the document is registered on creation (i.e. As the MS Word document is first saved it is saved into the EDRMS), then how it is handled is very different.
Examining two scenarios; the treatment of a physical record and that of a digital record, helps to understand the difference. In each scenario the record goes through the same life cycle phases, namely; Creation, Active Record, Closed, etc. Creation is almost the same between a physical and a digital record. The only real variation is metadata such as Home Location and Assignee. Any other data captured for a digital record could equally be the same if the record was physical.
However, once the Active phase commences, the treatment of the record changes dramatically. Let’s consider the development of a proposal with an external client as an example.
THE PHYSICAL RECORD
The file is registered in the EDRMS and the file cover created. The original request for the proposal is printed and added to the file. Any documents created in response or received are printed and added to the file. Any communications (email, meetings or phone) with the client are documented and added to the file. If there is information from another record which relates to this case it will be copied, marked as a copy, and added to the file. The documents may or may not be registered in the EDRMS, depending on organisation policy.
The records officers’ message to the staff member responsible is straight forward; add physical copies of any communications to the physical file.
THE DIGITAL RECORD
The file is registered in the EDRMS. The original request for the proposal is registered in the file. The document created in response is registered in the file, workflowed via the EDRMS to your manager for approval, sent to the client as an attachment. The document received back from the client with tracked changes is saved as a new Revision. If the final document is created as a PDF this is to be saved as a Revision, Revisions to be saved are preserved, and the record is finalised. If further changes are required the original document is saved as a new Version and the last MS Word Revision promoted to commence the new Version.
And that is just the first document your bewildered staff member has added to the file! There is a multitude of similar process decisions that need to be made on all the related documents. Certainly some will be straight forward, but many will require a set of skills that are foreign to traditional recordkeeping.
THE RECORDKEEPING SKILL GAP
In an era of big data and social media dominating the new horizons of recordkeeping, it is easy to forget the skills required in this era to have a truly successful digital recordkeeping operation. The transformation from physical to electronic and then to digital recordkeeping has opened up a significant skill gap. If that gap is not closed, it will continue to have a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of digital recordkeeping to improve productivity and reduce risk and ultimately impact the ability of recordkeeping, as a fraternity, to gain acceptance at executive level as a highly valuable resource.
The key skill gaps to close in the digital era are:
• Practical experience using EDRMS features for digital recordkeeping
• Communications skill
• Business process analysis
PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE WITH EDRMS FEATURES
When organisations move to digital recordkeeping the Records Unit invests their time and energy in configuring the EDRMS to be user friendly and appealing to the business. There is a narrow focus on technology readiness for Go Live. Rarely is there the required focus of equipping the records officers with practical digital experience.
Most records officers are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to using the EDRMS for handling digital records during the Active records phase. They are completely unaware of how to best harness the features, and how to align them for effective use as part of general business transactions. Whilst they may have experienced digital records in a final PDF form, the actual decisions made in relation to a ‘live’ document are foreign to them.
Records officers generally don’t create a lot of documents in their role, and even when they do the transactions on those documents are frequently fairly simple and don’t involve interactions with parties outside the unit. That level of interaction is at the Record Manager level. Therefore there is very little opportunity to have gained the required skill to support and direct staff in the organisation.
Typically staff in recordkeeping support roles are introverted by nature. That often goes hand in hand with excellence in attention to detail, which is exactly what is required, but communicating confidently is also necessary. This is frequently a challenge for an introvert. The records officer is often placed in a very challenging position, with staff requiring discussion and facilitation of how to best apply the EDRMS features to their workflow. Records officers without active listening, rapport building, reflection, clarification and meeting management skills gives rise to poor problem solving and decision making. Developing communication skills and resources is critical to maintaining a team of officers who can support the business.
BUSINESS PROCESS ANALYSIS
Deconstructing and understanding a business process is difficult, even when it is one you are familiar with. Teaching others how to do it is equally difficult. What are the actual steps to deconstruct the process? What are the criteria to use to make the decisions on which step you will take? How do you describe something complex so that it is crystal clear to other people?
To appropriately direct people, in the use of the EDRMS for digital records, even on a single document, requires the ability to ask questions about the process within which the document sits and to map the flow of decisions being made.
Records officers are overlooked when it comes to development of business analysis as a skill and hence, it is the Business Analysts who are tasked with mapping the processes and the decisions made. For processes the BA’s have worked on that may be okay, however, there are always many documents registered that are not part of a sufficiently vital process to have the process mapped by the business analyst.
THE WAY FORWARD
For records officers to gain these new skills requires exposure to formal training, coaching and on-the-job learning. In the Learning and Development fraternity, this is now commonly assigned the ratio of 70:20:10, being the preferred ratio of learning experiences for adults:
• 70%—informal, on the job, experience based, stretch projects and practice
• 20%—coaching, mentoring, developing through others
• 10%—formal learning interventions and structured courses
Examples of learning programmes created for records officers to acquire skills to close their skill gap include:
ALIGNING RECORDKEEPING WITH STRATEGY
The future of recordkeeping in the digital era is strategic rather than simply a means of recording where a piece of information is stored and enabling it to be retrieved and ultimately destroyed.
It is about integrating recordkeeping into the business process and its strategies. It is about demonstrating how recordkeeping better enables business strategies to be achieved and how better long term outcomes can be achieved using recordkeeping.
It is about being pragmatic rather than purist in approach.
In order to be pragmatic and strategic, in order to gain enough respect as a profession to gain acceptance within the business to be demonstrate the benefits of digital recordkeeping our records officers need to build key skills which are atypical of the skills required in the past.
New technology is interesting, even exciting, however what is really exciting is when recordkeepers with appropriate business skills can adeptly assist the business in realizing the benefits of the technology. That’s what is new.