Thursday, October 11, 2007

Back From ARMA, the Competencies, and Certifications / Certificates

Well, I safely made it home from ARMA's Annual Conference. I have a wicked cold, courtesy of a fellow Board member that I sat next to for a number of hours in Board meetings who insisted that he "only had some allergies". Uh huh. Guess that's what I get for staying out of airplanes for a while again. (When I was in the air on a monthly / weekly basis, it seemed like I was never sick because I was exposed to so much recirculated germy air.)

It seems like the Conference was a success for us. Even with conflicts for US Columbus Day and Canadian Thanksgiving, traffic and attendance looked good. The crowd was younger than I recall seeing before. I had a number of people mention that to me. That bodes well for the profession if we can continue to engage these folks and help them make a career out of records management. Step one is finally delivering the Competencies. Over the past week, whenever I had a few minutes, I spent a fair amount of time working through the various levels. If nothing else, they are exhaustive. The trick is going to be getting people to use them and start to see them used to create really comparable positions. We also need to ensure that we do a good job mapping education resources to them. But they are now available and, from what I hear, being downloaded like hotcakes. "FREE!!!" tends to do that.

There is a fair amount of debate in the profession about education and testing. Debate is always healthy, as is competition. Market forces will eventually determine the winner. But what I have found in my 20 years of experience doing this stuff is that you cannot substitute a book, a class, or a CBT for good, old-fashioned, on the job experience. A healthy bit of curiosity and a fairly retentive grey-matter data bank help. I'm not big on all the new-fangled classes and certificates being offered over at AIIM. A bunch of initials after your name in technology circles seems so 1998 to me. What they prove is that someone was willing to pony up some big bucks, you attended a class, and you proved that you could parrot back the correct answer. I suspect that most tech-savvy kids fresh out of school could get a string of initials after their name. They would grasp the high points, but miss the nuance.

Let me take you back a couple weeks to my last post. If you recall that post, I waxed on about spinning my IT manager's head around when she came in with a simple question. That same question came up in my session at ARMA. I had mercy on that victim. Nonetheless, you're not going to be able to work through all the permutations of the legalities of imaging unless you have been around the block a few times and been mugged by lawyers, a client or two, and the business. THE BOOK or THE CLASS or THE CBT will tell you the theory. You'll know your dpi and your image formats and your cost analysis. But applying that knowledge is learned by experience.

Let me give another example: I dropped by one of my company's offices yesterday. They are doing some imaging there. The process was explained to me at a high level and I determined at least three process improvement opportunities simply by listening to what was described. And I would expect that someone who had a bunch of initials after their name would see the same opportunities. The challenge is listening harder and applying what you know. While the quick fix is to solve those issues (and, in theory, they are pretty low-hanging fruit), that's not the way to fix the problem. When you react like that, you're very likely to miss the root cause and miss more significant and underlying issues. There is truly an opportunity there, but that opportunity is to look at a sick process rather than a few symptoms. The rule that I learned over time is that you have to look at the whole process and then start looking for where things are broken -- and it may not be the things that look obvious. Oftentimes, fixing the obvious problems simply makes bad things happen more quickly.

The beauty of ARMA's Competencies and the CRM exam is that they demand very broad knowledge across many areas of practice. You're not walking away thinking that taking an open book test means that you know enough to be competent. That may be true for one narrow band of practice, but you have to understand the broader implications and apply good solutions in order to be truly effective and competent.

Another example: I had a meeting today on lab notebooks. My experience with lab notebooks is limited to a consulting engagement with a food manufacturer's R&D facility and various conversations and presentations from folks who need to be compliant with FDA regs. So I walk into a meeting about lab notebooks with a mindset that they are critical documents that are absolutely essential to protecting patents and intellectual property. BIG MISTAKE. I fell into the inexperience trap. That's what THE BOOK would say. The reality is far different. You have to look at a variety of opinions -- lawyers, engineers, management, bean counters, etc. While THE BOOK says that these things (lab notebooks) are as precious as gold, those folks live in them every day and know the problems and opportunities tied to them. Perhaps they do have real value into the future; perhaps they are only valuable to the person who doodled in them. And dropping THE BOOK solution on that crowd will get you run out of town on a rail. In my case, I listened and asked questions. I probed around what I thought to be true and found that in the FDA-compliance world, life is truly different. Our business has a different sense and a different set of experiences over time. There may well be a need for tighter and more effective control of the lab notebooks, but that is driven by forces other than compliance. The good consultant listens, questions, listens again, analyzes, then speaks.

So the point to this rant is that initials aren't everything. Competencies are. If you can demonstrate a broad base of experience and knowledge -- and the ability to turn that knowledge into value for the business, the initials after your name will enhance your credibility -- "Hey, this guy knows his stuff and he made an effort to document that knowledge." But those initials aren't going to magically render you a savant and a guru. You've got to be able to walk the talk first. I'm proud of my CRM and I'm probably prouder of my Master's degree. My certification and my degree are prominently displayed in my office. One is an accredited graduate degree; the other is an accredited certification. Both have been deemed to be valuable in the outside world and have credibility. But if Patrick Cunningham, MA, CRM can't develop solutions that work both outside and inside the box, even those initials are worthless.

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