Records Management: Back to the Future

Records and Information Managers are assailed with big picture thinking at present. Faced with an avalanche of information looming from the future, planning is currently consumed and frequently overwhelmed with making decisions on managing big data. Cloud computing, enterprise search and data based decision making are the themes of workshops, conferences and papers.

The need to research, consult and set direction for the big picture is self-evident. Past experience informs us that failure to forward think leads to poor outcomes. Organisations which failed to read the future litter the landscape. Think Kodak and digital photography, and IBM’s failure to change to a business model that could compete in the changing landscape of PC production. However, the overwhelming evidence is that most Records and Information Management (RIM) teams are struggling to manage the current requirements and needs of recordkeeping; just ensuring all records are captured in digital format or born digital and able to be found. Capture, titling metadata and security are still poor.

It is our observation that whilst it is exciting to be at the forefront of thinking and be involved in the hot topics, RIM professionals risk distraction from solving the problems of the here and now to provide the very platform they need to tackle the issues of big data, cloud computing and enterprise search.

Prepare for the future; learn the lessons of today

Whilst we all recognise the importance of learning the lessons from the past in dealing with the future, it is not a lesson easily learned by the passionate and optimistic amongst us. Nonetheless, here are three lessons, which utilised wisely, will both lay the platform for the future by concentrating on the present and ensure future opportunities are approached in a manner which begets success.

Get Real on Time

Our observations are that RIM personnel constantly underestimate the time required to plan and implement in a manner resulting in high user adoption.

For instance, how long does it take to create a vital records plan?

The time it actually takes to write the plan? Certainly. The time it takes to consult with business units? Of course. But, there is much more to be considered and we usually miss it.

Estimation of the time it takes to complete tasks involving multiple stakeholders is a major area of failure for people in any industry or role. Even experienced practitioners constantly underestimate the time necessary to perform the required tasks in a project. Frequently this is due to pressure from above. We aim to please and deliver to ourselves and our managers ASAP. Forefront in our minds is the ingrained human tendency to say yes. “Yes I can have that done quickly” makes everyone happy at the time of utterance. It’s a temporary happiness only. The reality unfortunately, is a failure to achieve unrealistic time frames resulting in everyone feeling let down. The result is criticism from all impacted and the loss of credibility for the future. Big data may soon become small data and “My data”.

Time comes in two variations; actual and elapsed.

Actual time is that consumed by the activity of completing a task. People are generally reasonably good at estimating this. The more experienced people are, the better they estimate.

For example, a meeting can be limited to a set time span. Or we may know on average it takes an hour to draft a FAQ. However, there is still a tendency to underestimate and not make allowances for worst case. Adding an extra 25% of time as a contingency is a wise precaution. If we don’t managers will learn to identify the worst culprits for underestimating in their team and add a multiplier to any activity, anyway.

Elapsed time is the major problem for people. The estimate for elapsed time is consistently totally removed from reality. Let me give you two real life examples:

  • A shared drive closure project set with a completion date in 3 months’ time, upon investigation, actually required 3 months elapsed time allowance just to achieve endorsement to proceed from all tiers of management.
  • A vital records project agreed with the Executive to be completed in 6 months actually required, upon investigation, 24 months of elapsed time with the then currently available resources.

The actual working time in both projects was minimal. However, both teams fell into the trap of thinking that if they themselves worked really hard they could achieve the timeframes, but made no allowance for the time required by external parties to provide responses or take actions, or the reality of completing a project whilst continuing business as usual.

Most elements of our work require an elapsed time estimate not just a working time estimate. For example, we write a report, but our manager must approve it before that task is complete. That could mean the manager edits it and returns it to us for further input. That creates a second round of approval. If the manager takes a week per review then two weeks have disappeared in a flash. The simple report, which took half a day to write, takes three weeks to be published. Make the allowance therefore of three weeks, and when a senior manager challenges the estimate explain the factors contributing to that reality. This provides the opportunity for the person responsible for the lengthy duration to either change their practice or accept the reality.

It can be more difficult estimating elapsed time when working on RIM projects with business units detached from the RIM business unit. We cannot control the volume of business as usual work that distracts people from establishing file plans or improving a process through use of the EDRMS. We can, however, determine if there are critical drivers that will constrain times and motivate people to complete required tasks, such as an internal audit. And we can expect that if that is the driver of a project for the business unit, then the project will extend to that deadline, not any preferred earlier deadline we’d prefer to set.

To overcome these issues, make constraining elapsed time easier by setting up actions that move a project along. Break the projects into small stages instead of one long stage that drags on. Never have a project longer than 90 days. Make that another project. Succeed and celebrate, and then move on to the next project. Sure, we’ll still be thinking of the big picture, but in manageable and estimable chunks (think agile project planning).

Provide people with tools or a framework that makes decision making easy. This might be as simple as drafting three different options of folder structure instead of one for instance. That way the reviewers can easily select their preferred option. With a single option there is a high likelihood of rejection and of us being sent back to the drawing board with little direction and greater loss of project time.

Time is ephemeral. No sooner do we estimate the time it takes to do something and it seems the time we estimated has already past. People are notorious for underestimating the time it takes to do something. In the world of the future, projects will be more complex. The increase in complexity from paper to digital will seem child’s play compared with the increase from digital records to fully integrated knowledge management systems.

Deliver on Small Projects

Big picture thinking makes life complicated. We are working towards a perfect solution in one giant leap forward in an environment with many unknowns. It?s a sure step to disappointment and failure. We should lower our expectations and aim for small steps of continuous improvement. Rome was not built in a day.

Break large projects (anything that is likely to extend beyond 90 days to complete) into phases, and release these phases as projects in their own right, with a clear start and finish. There are many success stories out there in the world of recordkeeping, and the consistent practice demonstrated by those records managers is one of taking small steps, whilst always having the end goal in sight.

For instance a common project is SAP integration with HP TRIM to improve management of finance records. System integration requires software development and a business case, which take time to acquire and achieve. And once achieved the system owner expects instant action from records and instant outcomes from the project. Addressed in phases the records unit can operate independently of the system owner by creating three phases:

  • Phase 1 ensures all business units register digital invoices in the EDRMS and workflow them to Finance. This will require file planning, quality assurance, workflow training and may include a new record type. Stop and applaud your achievement here.
  • Phase 2 has Finance opening the digital record and copying the required data to SAP, removing the current practice of creating of paper records. When this is running smoothly applaud again.
  • Integration occurs at Phase 3. It may be delayed due to the business case, but when in the meantime the organisation has improved recordkeeping, met compliance and reduced physical storage. And when Finance is ready to proceed to Phase 3 the level of change required for all involved is minimal.

The RIM unit earns the respect of other units with this approach by meeting expectations and delivering results on each “small” project, and place less imposition on the business. Your own team will also be able to measure progress and feel the sweet taste of success.

Share Industry Experience

Don’t reinvent the wheel. The wheel was invented a very long time ago and the improvements over time have been slow and incremental. We leave any improvements nowadays to experienced engineers and select from what is available.

Records policies, procedures, FAQ sheets, Ministerial processes, etc. have all been created before. Training materials, system configuration, BCS models, etc. are all available for purchase or through collaboration. Yet records managers continue to devote inordinate amounts of time to reinventing them pretty much from scratch for their organisation. There are great resources available from the State and National Archives to commence with.

Certainly each organisation needs to contextualise to our organisation’s unique language and environment, but editing is not only easier than inventing, we’ll also be able to apply the lessons learnt and be more successful than our predecessor.

We must be certain to invest our time is the activities that make the most impact on volume and quality of recordkeeping; leading and managing our staff or engaging with business unit managers and facilitating their path to leading recordkeeping in their units. This is the type of activity where we can take advice from others, but they can’t replicate the value we bring to an organisation. Records management is more an art than a science.

We can all help with this by sharing at workshops and conferences, and in papers by being sure we paint a picture from which people can learn rather than by promoting our exploits. There is a tendency to promote, in papers and conferences certain actions over others and give a false impression of experience and outcomes. The impact of that may well be leading people off on a wild goose chase. For example, simply saying that we produced a good policy and that then drove adoption of recordkeeping in our organisation when the truth is that it required 3 drafts before approval and we engaged two vendors to plan and implement the program may lead people to believe their own journey will be easy. They may attempt to follow what they believe is the same path, but it leads to failure. Be we must be real and share all our learnings including elements which failed or took much more effort than appears on the surface.

The Future Beckons

The future of records and information management is exciting. Big data means that Chief Financial Officers and Chief Executive Officers are now “getting” the thought that information is an asset. If they do indeed get that concept, then they may well pay attention to the security, accessibility and reliability of information. However, we do not want the situation unfolding where, when finally we are getting the attention to our profession we deserve, we have that interest dissipated because we did not learn the lessons of the here and now.

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