Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ATR: The Future of Records Management

I've had several opportunities for a lot of introspection recently. My own role has radically changed over the summer. I'm backing away from records management and now run a team that I call "Information Governance". The focus is really on the protection of information. My team writes our information security policies, we keep an eye on data privacy, we audit SOx compliance for IT, we do security risk assessments, and we do computer forensics. Oh yeah, records management, too. It is a unique opportunity and a broad spectrum of governance activities. I'm again drinking from the fire hose and thinking... a lot... about how to make this group make good business sense to the company.

As I go through this process, I had occasion to look at extending an offer to our summer intern to work for us full time after he graduates next year. That causes me to make sure that the path we will take him down is personally rewarding, as well as a role that truly adds value to the company. I had dinner with a long time ARMA colleague and we talked at length about the profession and the Association and where it is heading. One of my staff has had an opportunity to step outside his comfort zone and enter a totally new professional focus as a leader and talking to him about his interests and capabilities gave me pause. I'm also speaking as a part of the Fellows forum at ARMA on just this topic and wanted to start sorting my thoughts out. Lastly, a dear colleague shared some of her musings online and those thoughts also set my head into a noodling mood.

As I look at our profession, I continue to wonder if it will exist a few years down the road. Is it truly a profession? Nearly 20 years ago, as a wide-eyed youngster in the profession, I was asked to participate in writing the Code of Professional Responsibility. At the time, we felt it was another step on the road to being recognized as a profession. But along the way, we seem to have lost focus on professional practice. The window to properly deal with email opened and closed. We records managers tried to manage it by insisting that email be printed and filed as in the old days. Like many Japanese-held islands in the Pacific during WWII, we were quickly bypassed. The inability of our profession to come to grips with the explosion of electronic records will spell the doom of the profession. In many organizations, that omission has made us irrelevant. If you look at two of the "hot" topics in technology, cloud computing and smart phones, we're seldom found. Google and the other cloud providers ignore retention as we know it and most organizations have no way to deal with records created on mobile technologies.

We can talk about the need to properly retain information, but there is so much accumulating and so little time and resource to manage it, that information just gets piled up and shunted into cheap storage. I fear the day when there is a significant judicial ruling punishing a company for diligently attempting to, yet failing to, manage electronic records in a manner satisfactory to a judge. The real fear there is that the judge will suggest that the company should have just kept everything if it couldn't have a completely compliant program. I see hints of that sort of thinking in a lot of places. It is what Google suggests to customers.

The failure is that we have focused on the tactics that won the last war and we have not adopted new strategies to win the next war. We continue to be drawn into debates about tactics and not ones that are about strategy. We fail to deliver meaningful value to the business. Yes, those are significant indictments of our profession.

Part of the problem comes down to simple constraints of a profession that rarely has members reach significant management status. The cardboard ceiling is very real. That lack of status means lack of visibility and influence. It means lack of buying capability and power and that means lack of market influence.

We are also fundamentally challenged when it comes to technology. I can't recall how many times I have stood in front of an ARMA audience talking about something in technology and the majority of the audience not only were unaware of the issue -- they were unaware of the technology of which I spoke. And many had no desire to try and deal with the issue. This vacuum has allowed IT professionals into our tent. IT is becoming more about the information and less about the technology. Recently, a senior IT executive told me that she wanted to be out of the "infrastructure" business and more into the information business -- finding ways for IT to help the business use and manage information. I would submit that information utility and utilization will drive retention periods more than any law that is passed.

The days of thousand line item retention schedules are over. I'd further suggest that the days of one hundred line item retention schedules are over. The end user in most organizations can't deal with more than four or five choices and likely would prefer that the decision about retention be made automatically.

So where does that leave us? Clearly, most records managers will have little opportunity for advancement. Those who do advance have great foundations to cover a broad spectrum of information issues. They can translate between IT and Legal. They can listen to the business. They can think creatively while setting bounds for new ways of managing information. But these opportunities will likely come along for a small subset of the profession. It will take a lot of personal effort, and a whole lot of right place and right time luck for many to progress.

A healthy dose of realism is required for us all. The days of starting in the file room and getting promoted into managing the records management department with 40 staff are likely gone from most organizations. The file room is a commodity to be outsourced. The records center, likewise. Imaging, the same. Microfilm, yep, a commodity. Certainly, there are pockets of records management work that will stay in house for economic or control reasons. But the base of records management will shrink. At the same time, higher end positions will likely come to the fore as adjuncts of litigation functions or compliance departments. Unfortunately, those positions will require education, deep communications skills, and significant business sense. You don't get that with a high school diploma and command of the alphabet.

I've argued here and on the Records Management Listserve that people need to "show their work". It disturbs me that so much of what we do is not footnoted or referenced. There is no standard "body of knowledge". We have much to do, folks. Handouts, opinions, and no real standard vocabulary and method do not a profession make.

So where does this leave ARMA, AIIM, and the profession at large? The opportunity for these professional organizations is that there are no other organizations out there who can step up and lead the records management profession into the future. The challenge is hooking the right people with the right message and the right skills and tools to meet the needs of information management broadly. That requires vision and the ability to build on the past without remaining anchored by the past. It likely means moving away from the old core constituencies. This is hard to do. ARMA started down that path a number of years ago and mangled the change management. But change and growth are necessary for survival. Maybe ARMA's GARP initiative is the hook and the opportunity. But that will take a lot of push and a few breaks along the way.

I'll keep thinking about this topic more as we get closer to San Francisco.

ATR: The Speed of Business

Elsewhere in the tempus fugit world...

January 21, Associated Press – (International) Warming could open Arctic to data cable. Global warming has melted so much Arctic ice that a telecommunication group is moving forward with a project that was unthinkable just a few years ago: laying underwater fiber optic cable between Tokyo and London by way of the Northwest Passage. The proposed system would nearly cut in half the time it takes to send messages from the United Kingdom to Asia, said the CEO of Kodiak-Kenai Cable Co. The route is the shortest underwater path between Tokyo and London. The quicker transmission time is important in the financial world where milliseconds can count in executing profitable trades and transactions. “Speed is the crux,” the CEO said. “You’re cutting the delay from 140 milliseconds to 88 milliseconds.” Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34980901/ns/us_news-environment/

Now I would tend to suggest that a cable from London to Tokyo via the Arctic would represent a monetary savings simply by being shorter and probably not having anything to do with pesky telecommunications companies in North America, but what do I know? The stated reason is to cut the delay from "140 milliseconds to 88 milliseconds". Not quite by half, but we're still talking milliseconds here. That's quite literally, less time than the blink of an eye. But this is where we're at. Business needs to reduce communications time to fewer milliseconds of latency. In one of my presentations, I talk about records managers often being Kodachrome in a digital camera world. The buzzword for today is velocity. Your decisions about records and the ability for an end user to make decisions about records, has to be the briefest instant. There's simply too much stuff and not enough time to spend the amount of time filing that once was the norm. When businesses are trying to shave milliseconds off of a transaction, we can't be asking users to scroll through hundreds of line items in a retention schedule.

OTR: Tempus Fugit

Tempus fugit... time flies. My 30th high school reunion coincides with the alma mater's Homecoming this weekend. I've decided to go back and check the place out, as well as see what some of my classmates look like in our middle age. Facebook postings likely will follow.

I was thinking about this on the way home today. A bunch of us old timers will be at the football game Friday night, standing outside the fence or sitting in the stands and we'll be as relevant to the kids on the field as a bunch of class of 1950 alumni would have been to us. And if we pause to think about that, our reaction will be, "Nah, those guys were OLD, we just went to school here a few years ago." And then we'll set about complaining that in our day we played football on Saturday afternoons, in the sun, on the grass, and our parents sat on the old bleachers across the street. No lights, no turf, and no fancy college stadium.

I thought about that 30 year gap for a few minutes... The class of 1950 was born in roughly 1932. We were generally born in 1962, and the kids who graduated last spring were generally born in 1992. That roughly corresponds to our parents, us, and our children... three generations. And what of the experiences of those generations? When we graduated, the school was just beginning to deploy the TRS-80 personal computer. The IBM PC was still a year away. The kids in that school today are likely carrying laptops or iPads and / or smartphones. One smartphone likely has more computing power than all the computers in the school in 1980. Our parents went to school at the dawn of the computing age, where one computer weighed tons and barely had the power of a basic pocket calculator.

We were the first class to have to buy a personal calculator and probably the last class to buy slide rules. My letter jacket was wool and leather, not synthetic and vinyl. We still had 45rpm records. The science classrooms had just been built. I think they've all been replaced with more recent construction. The school has two gyms and a proper theatre. We got by with one gym and a makeshift theatre. we watched game films on film, then on a "big screen" projection TV, which needed a special ("DON'T TOUCH!!!!") screen and likely cost many thousands of dollars.

Even more striking is thinking about what each generation grew up experiencing. Our parents were children of the Depression and WWII. The TV was a luxury item in 1950. But they would grow to adulthood in the relative prosperity of the 1950's. We were born in Camelot and became aware of the world during Vietnam, the assassinations, and the riots of 1968. We stayed up late to watch the Moon landing. We survived the first energy crisis and the inflation of the 1970's without really understanding it. Our children came to age during the dot com boom and likely have never known a day without the Internet or email. The witnessed 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan wars and the recession of today.

We want to think that our parents left us smarter and more privileged than they were. We hope that our children are smarter and more well off than we are. Our grandparents made the world safe for Democracy. our parents exercised their democratic rights loudly, we took democracy for granted, and our children wonder if democracy and western civilization will prevail.

Each generation has made its own brand on the world. When we read about the things that our parents lived through, it feels like ancient history. When my 13 year old hears me talk about the Moon landing, I'm sure she feels the same way. Tempus fugit.

I know when I look at the roster of the kids playing football, my first thought is "What the heck are they feeding these kids?" There's a kid that's 6'5" and 320 lbs. And I suspect he isn't sitting on the bench munching chips. I think they have something like 15 kids over 200 lbs. I think we had two or three and that was pushing it. I imagine that there are a few more of us today... I know what I've been eating...

And so a few of us will gather, we'll tell some stories and more than a few lies. We'll likely gossip about this person or that person. We'll inflate a resume or two. We'll measure ourselves against our peers, but probably give greater measure to our legacy. Or so I hope.

Tempus fugit.