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.