Monday, August 27, 2007

Technological Pack Mules and Pack Rats – Eleven Years Later

About 11 years ago, I wrote this article. I then followed it up in 2001. I’d like to reflect on some of the things that I wrote back then with some new thoughts. My 2001 comments are in BOLD text. My current comments are in BOLD text and prefaced with "2007:"

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I noticed a strange thing the other day when I was putting on a shirt. It seemed like my right arm was longer than my left (or the cleaners had managed to shrink half of my shirt). It dawned on me how this could happen: lugging my “office”, a laptop computer, to and from home each day. Later, as I stood on the train station platform, I watched a parade of commuters pass by, many of whom were also lugging their “offices” with them. It occurred to me that perhaps shirt manufacturers should take notice...

I’m having the same problem now with the front of my shirts…

2007: The more things change... the more they remain the same...


This month’s column is not intended to be a neo-Luddite (yes, I had to look that one up too) treatise on how technology is ruining our lives. Rather, I’d like to reflect on how technology has changed how people work and how information is managed. This technological revolution of the past ten or so years has far-ranging implications about how we do our jobs and how we will manage the information of the future.

Okay, that “Luddite” term was pretty avant garde when I wrote this…

2007: Yep, still out there, although the usage of the term seems to have died in the past few years. I guess people are just used to all this technology stuff.

As for me, I've given up on the shoulder bags... my hip was beginning to bother me, so now I have a backpack. And now I take it for granted that I will bring my office home every night. I have high speed Internet at home and I can work 24 by 7 if I so desire.


My first “home computer” was a 40 pound “luggable” Kaypro computer back in 1985. That antique, which happened to be built like a tank, ran the CP/M operating system, had 64 kb of RAM, two 360 kb floppy drives, and no hard drive. I learned the WordStar word processing software on that machine and opened my eyes to a whole new world of technology. I wrote papers for graduate school on that machine, built rudimentary spreadsheets with it, and learned a little bit about databases. Today, I have a 5 pound Compaq laptop with 48 mb of RAM, a 2 gb hard drive, a 256 color screen, a modem, and enough software to keep me on the low end of the learning curve for the next 10 years. For all the advances that have been made in the 11 years that I have been using personal computers, this column could have been written just as easily on that old Kaypro. Many will also argue that this column could have been written with an Underwood manual typewriter, a sharp pencil, or a stick and soft clay tablets.

My current arm-stretching laptop weighs about the same, but boasts 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive and a processor running at 600mhz. It also has a 15-inch screen, a DVD drive and a network card -- and is able to outpace my current desktop. And I’m still learning how to use everything.

2007: The current laptop is running at 1.83ghz, has 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive. And we expect it to have not only the DVD drive, but it can also burn CDs. And it is lighter by about half than the last laptop I had.


Back to the central theme, it occurs to me that each day when I pack up my laptop, I am taking home literally megabytes of company information. Hundreds of files, proposals, presentations, e-mail, etc. are locked inside my laptop. The weight that stretches my arm is the hardware alone, but well could be the thousands of pages of information in the computer. Imagine this: let’s say that I have 200 megabytes of actual information in my laptop. Now let’s suppose that every page of word processing text in my laptop occupies about 5 kilobytes. That means that the 200 megabytes would be equivalent to nearly 40,000 pages of printed text. My rule of thumb is 2000 sheets of paper per cubic foot, so I’m walking home with 20 cubic feet of information every night! No wonder my arm is getting longer! The reality is that I don’t have 40,000 pages of text in my laptop. Many of the files are quite large because they contain graphics or are in special formats. Nevertheless, there is a LOT of information in my laptop.

And now it seems that no matter how big my hard drive is, I manage to fill it up. I recently purchased a new technology toy -- a “Zip” drive -- essentially a big floppy disk that holds 100 megabytes of information on each removable disk. I bought 10 disks, a GIGABYTE! After backing up my laptop and moving some information to the Zip disks, I had two blank Zip disks left and barely 150 megabytes free on my laptop. I looked at myself in the mirror and admitted that I am a technological pack rat. As I wedged the Zip drive, power supply, extra disks, and cables into my laptop bag, it occurred to me that my arm would be stretched a little longer by the new weight and that I would continue to be a technological pack mule as well.

And now I’m burning CD-ROMs at home for backup. Each of those disks holds 650MB of data. And this capability is starting to show up in office desktop PCs. So I don’t have as much gear to lug around to access information, but I’m able to carry a lot more information with me.

2007: I can burn DVDs now. And I walk around with several gigabytes of storage on thumb drives. Heck, my new cell phone has a 2GB memory card inside. The amount of data that we carry is expanding exponentially. The weight of that data is being reduced almost exponentially. Thumb drives take up very little space and can hold more than several DVD disks. I don't need a separate drive house and power supply.

In some respects, the "Pack Mule" aspect of this technological change is on the way out -- but we always manage to find some new gadget to pack in the bag and haul around.


And so, 690 words into this column (now there’s something WordStar couldn’t do!), I turn to the records management considerations. First, more and more information is being created and retained electronically. While a lot of the space on hard drives is consumed by bigger and bigger application programs, people are finding that retaining documents, reports, spreadsheets, etc. in electronic form enables them to rapidly recycle pieces of the information for future use, or search and find information more rapidly than if the information was retained only on paper.

That information is also going home with employees more often. If you’ve seen the video “Buried Alive”, you might recall “Charlie’s garage”, where a retired employee had put boxes of company information because he couldn’t bear to see it all turned into “confetti”. Charlie’s garage is in the boxes of floppy disks, home PC hard drives, Bernoulli disks, backup tapes, and now, Zip disks, that can be found in any home office. And the information on that media will be much easier to locate that the papers in Charlie’s boxes.

And don’t forget those CD-ROM disks. Plus, so much more is being done via email these days, so people are often taking almost all of their work home with them.

2007: Still true and getting worse. Add in high speed Internet connections available to most Americans (DSL or cable) and tremendous amounts of data are moving from the workplace to home. And there are many more places to store that data -- not only physically, but virtually on the Internet. So "Charlie's garage" exists not only in Charlie's house and in his briefbag, but also in a hundred places on the Internet.


As a records manager, you need to understand that this is occurring in your organization. The information on the hard drives of laptop computers is no different than paper information stored in boxes. It needs to be made part of the retention schedules of the organization, and employees need to be aware that they should not be retaining information longer than approved retention schedules, regardless of the physical medium of storage. At the same time, for every one of us who retains two or three backups of information, there are probably an equivalent number of others who never back up their computer. This is equally risky because computer hardware fails, and when it does, it can damage information. The challenge, then, is to encourage people to be somewhat conservative in what they retain, while ensuring that they are protecting information in the first place.

In the next couple years, you will hear the term “terabyte” more and more. A terabyte is 1000 gigabytes. It wasn’t that long ago that “gigabyte” was a foreign term. Now home PCs come with 2+ gigabytes of hard disk storage. After the terabyte, look for “petabytes”... The point is that storage is becoming a cheap commodity both for personal computers and for business as a whole. While application software continues to become more and more “feature rich” (i.e. “fat”), it is also the expansion of data being stored on PCs that drives the need for storage capacity. This is a direct function of the increasing utilization of PCs and servers to manage applications that were formerly run from a mini-computer or mainframe. Our challenge as records managers will be to find strategies to manage this data and ensure that no information is retained longer (or shorter) than it should be.

The company that I work for has a total email volume in the terabytes. We have associates with nearly 2GB of email stored on the server. We’re rapidly finding that maintaining all of this information is no longer “free”, but costs a lot of money to store, manage, and back up. Unfortunately, the problems of electronic data management are not as evident to people as the problems of paper management. Historically, when did records management start in organizations? Yes, when the file cabinets were full and the closets could hold no more paper. Today, employees just keep storing more and more on file servers and the problem does not become evident until the server can hold no more or until the mail system starts to crash with regularity. But most companies see this as a technology issue rather than a records management issue. For many companies, the solution to the problem is either one of “slash and burn” (i.e. delete large files and files that have not been used in some time) or buy more hardware.

2007: You can now buy terabyte hard drives for home use. And they are not expensive. But corporate storage seems to get more and more expensive. The end user doesn't understand it. They can go down to Best Buy and walk out with a 1TB hard disk drive for $400. They simply don't understand when corporate IT tells them that they can't buy them that volume of storage for anything less that hundreds of thousands of dollars. And they really don't understand when the records manager tells them that they need to manage that data and actually delete some of it now and then.


Ten years ago, personal computers were just starting to become office fixtures. It will be interesting to see if the next ten years hold as many changes in technology. What this bodes for us as records managers will be interesting as well. Looking into my crystal ball, I don’t see paper going away anytime soon. If anything, the volumes will continue to increase in the foreseeable future, simply because people are still more comfortable looking at data on a piece of paper than on a computer screen. This will change, certainly, as more and more people who have grown up with personal computers enter the workforce.

Five years later this remains true, although we’re migrating more and more to Web-based applications that use Internet browsers to access information. When I wrote this column, the Internet revolution was just getting underway. But we still generate millions of pages of documents. To use the September tragedy as a case in point, think of the pictures that you saw in the aftermath of that horror: thousands, if not millions, of sheets of paper blowing around lower Manhattan. But, I would suspect that we’re possibly coming to a peak in paper production as more applications move to the Internet and completely electronic business transactions continue to increase. Still, don’t sell your stock in those paper companies yet. People still do like to handle paper.

2007: And here, ten years later, paper is still out there -- and still growing. While I think the explosive growth of paper use is slowing (primarily due to more and more use of online forms and Internet-based systems), printers (particularly color) are getting cheaper and faster and encouraging people to print things just to toss them out in a very short time.

The pace of change seems to be slowing a bit. But we're finding new ways to put this technology to work. We're beginning to mainstream many of the technologies that we were just learning about ten years ago. Most significantly, we're compressing time and space and truly seeing how the Internet has made the world a much smaller place -- and required us to us the technology differently and more effectively. Now our records span the globe. They span corporate entities. And people are no longer tied to just one company, but often contracted out to many companies.


The message that I have been preaching for the last couple years remains the same: if you don’t have at least the most basic understanding of information technology and its applications, you will soon be as obsolete as an 8 inch floppy disk. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to come to grips with personal computer hardware and software, imaging, workflow, and document management. You don’t need to know how these things work, but you do need to know when they can be used and what they can do. If you don’t, you will remain beneath the cardboard ceiling that I've written about before.

And as we move into what ARMA International is calling “Strategic Information Management”, it is even more critical to understand technology and its implications for record-keeping. You can certainly add to the list above the Internet, storage management, email, data protection laws, and information security. Our role in the changing landscape of records and information management is to be more proactive, think and act strategically for our organizations, build bridges to all parts of our businesses, and contribute, measurably, to the bottom line – and that contribution should increasingly be in terms of revenue, not just reduced cost. If we are to continue to be effective in our roles as records and information managers, we have to understand, develop strategies to manage, and explain the implications of “technological pack mules and pack rats”.

2007: Well, SIM didn't quite cut it, but the knowledge base for records managers remains the same -- and then some. Coming this fall, ARMA will publish a document that outlines and delineates competencies for records managers. for the first time, we'll really be able to point to something that defines what a records manager really needs to know -- and records managers will be able to measure their knowledge in a new and dynamic way.



Originally published in the ARMA Chicago Chapter Newsletter, September, 1996
Second version published in the ARMA Chicago Chapter Newsletter, November / December, 2001

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