Records Management and Narcolepsy

Nov 17, 2010


I once watched a television documentary about a terrible affliction called narcolepsy. In the program, people kept falling asleep, literally midsentence. During a support group meeting for sufferers, it was deemed necessary to have more than one person keep the meeting minutes ... just in case. It was, as they say, tragicomic. And though my heart really did go out to those poor souls, I could not help but wonder what would happen if someone raised the topic of Records Management (RM). Would they all drop off simultaneously? For no area of Content Management evokes such dismissal and disinterest as RM, despite the fact that the accurate long-term management of records and archives is an essential, if not vital, element of our work.

That being said, RM is undergoing something of a minirevival at the moment. Indeed, if you were to trust in the marketing swill that comes out of the vendor and analyst community, you would believe that large organizations are not just embracing RM but are actually hugging and kissing it too. Driven by a need to be compliant, organizations are (allegedly) enthusiastically managing and archiving large SharePoint installations and having meaningful discussions about how to deal with Web 2.0 content, after having taken control of the email mountain.

This is nonsense. SharePoint sites continue to grow unabated, and nobody has even started to deal with email as a record, let alone the plethora of technologies that Web 2.0 encompasses. You can find the odd example of brave souls who have made progress if you look hard enough, but they're the equivalent of a few grains of sand on a beach.

Legal has no clue what IT does (beyond provide a poor quality helpdesk), RMs (Record Managers) have nobody's ear but the RM community's, and management thinks it knows best and listens to no one. Oddly, the vendor community is for once the voice of reason. Strip away the marketing hype and you find that vendors have made good progress in delivering solutions that provide excellent RM capabilities for today's highly fragmented enterprises. The problem (for there is one) does not lie with them.\

In many ways it doesn't matter where the problem lies; what matters most is who is going to fix it. More specifically,where does one even start to fix something that is so broken and discarded? In my opinion, the place to start may be the beginning and to question RMs very "raison d'être." Once, office workers made use of filing clerks, who in turn made use of cabinets, folders, and file plans. Information was managed, and no one needed to know the magic behind it-it just worked. When you needed to get hold of a piece of information the filing clerk got it for you, and when you needed to dispose of information the filing clerk would likewise oblige. Were you to retire, move onto better things, or fall under a bus, you did so safe in the knowledge that the next person could pick up (information-wise at least) where you left off. Not so in today's office, where information is lost, information is hoarded unnecessarily, and when you go upward or onward, you often leave the equivalent of an information black hole behind you.

The role of managing information through its life cycle to destruction is arguably more relevant, vital, and important today than it has ever been, but whose responsibility is it? RMs are considered impractical and out-of-touch with modern reality, IT is clueless but sounds clever ("Don't worry, it's all backed up ..."), and business listens to no one. They believe they have the task in hand via Zip drives and desktop search.

To be frank, I am not sure if this need to rant about RM is connected to the recent discovery online of a photograph of myself from my days in the Army, and a subsequent visit to a Military Museum in Winchester, England,thus stirring up a deep-seated need to rally the troops (or more likely in my case to start an insurrection). But whatever it is, I do passionately believe that the time is long overdue for a battle royal over what RM should be, as opposed to what it currently is. A clean slate is needed, and fresh ideas based on the reality of the overwhelming volumes of information are essential. As information managers, we all need to contribute to the debate in the broadest sense.