Friday, February 6, 2009

The Joy of Paper

John James O'Brien, CRM, gave us a lot to think about:

Greetings Steven and Shawn,

First off, I’ll add my commendation to Steve Bailey’s. It is great to see this approach to calling a community of practice to the challenges faced by Travis County (and so many other organizations). You have articulated the challenges well.

Brief introduction: I am former Director, Government Records Service and Principal Archivist, Hong Kong SAR Government with a career-long involvement in RIM, ERM, archives, privacy & ethics, and KM, more recently Intellectual Capital Management, including public, private and non-profit engagements and a role as past President, Institute of Certified Records Managers, a co-founder of the Information Records Management Association of Victoria, BC. Currently active internationally.

I fully appreciate the challenges associated with compliance but am not a fan of short cuts. The records manager operates at multiple levels, one with an enterprise-wide sensibility to the overall RIM needs; another with a pragmatic understanding of organizational culture and context, still others include the diplomat and the cop. The first enables integrity in the role. The second guides navigation that must, surely, maintain that integrity. The next two facilitate the first two.

Can everything be retained? Not if the law says no (as in Steve’s cited privacy related legislation which is the norm in most of the world, today, but possibly not the US. Nonetheless, citizen expectations in this regard can carry a political cost, regardless of the law). That takes care of one option. That leaves you with "do nothing" or "make RIM work" in the reality of your context.

I suggest renaming your option 2. You are not really seeking to make every employee a records analyst — even though that title might sell better than file clerk.

A records analyst is expected to have a far more nuanced understanding of the issues in the RIM domain. In my shop, the RA has also been expected to have a horizontal and vertical understanding of how meaning, retained in multi-media information resources, plays into a range of considerations from transparency and good governance to learning and capacity building, to risk, litigation and compliance management. All of these need to be factored into your solution—but not at the desktop by people who are pressured to do a job that fits within only one or two of myriad considerations.

It is not unreasonable to expect that a worker knows what they are doing. If you have a function-based classification scheme, then it has categories that are directly relevant to your workforce — or needs reworking so that it does.

It is possible to frame each user profile against the core job description mapped to applicable records series, and to similarly map ad hoc and development projects such that the user is presented with a limited, transparently relevant set of choices – so easy as to make selection easier than the periodic call to clear out space when IT servers fill up. Yes, it takes development of new habits…change. Yes, it may be a lot of work to put this in place, but it is central work that reaches throughout the organization to achieve the RIM function, ongoing.

A red herring, perhaps, is the idea that paper files were designed for access, not management in terms of today’s liabilities. If you have not had the dubious pleasure of experiencing paper file systems that don’t work for access, you have been very lucky indeed!

The joy of paper, however, lies in its tangible presence. If you have information overload and mismanagement in paper, it’s hard to miss. The same is not true of electronic records — email and otherwise. If access were enough, then a folksonomy would work in place of a taxonomy. But it is fundamentally impossible to manage
records in accord with legal limits and value to business without a taxonomy that is linked to media type, relevant series and a retention plan. No less importantly, this content needs defined relationship to records in other media. Email is a container, and medium is NOT the message.

The degree to which you opt to engage users in this level of detail is an entirely different matter more related to change and program management than it is to RIM.

As for the elected officials, your functional scheme should recognize quite different needs for that group that are, as you say, accountable to the people. Lengthy retention that ensures accountability is the game — and they may object to that far more than to your advice that they can select from a drop down box to ensure appropriate destruction. That’s how I’d sell it — and the climate is right to do so.

All the best in your work — don’t hesitate to link up if inclined.

John James O’Brien

Many thanks, Mr. O'Brien, for your thoughtful comments.

Steven and I are no fans of short cuts either, and if we decided that the right approach for Travis County's email retention was to retain everything, we'd do so mindful of the legal requirements to purge certain records (these are rare in our environment).

Any change to the current practice -- including a change to a "retain-everything" approach --would require a complex effort coordinated among IT, legal, audit, and other Travis County offices.

We're noticing that some of the experts responding to our plea for assistance seem to be suggesting that what we are calling Option Two, Make Every Email User a Records Analyst, is more workable that we realize.

Because this suggestion has been made more than once, we are rethinking how we decided to describe Option 2 and will post an addendum here soon.

Until then ...

Listen Carefully to this video featuring Travis County Records Management Officer Steven Broberg:

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