The sky is falling! Or is it? Wither the records manager in the digital age? Roundtable National Archives of the Netherlands John McDonald

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1 The sky is falling! Or is it? Wither the records manager in the digital age? Roundtable National Archives of the Netherlands John McDonald I would like to begin by thanking the National Archivist for the kind invitation to participate in this celebration of Hans retirement. It is a wonderful way of marking the significant contributions he has made, throughout a long and distinguished career, to the advancement of recordkeeping in the increasingly digital environment we are living in. As a contribution to the objectives and spirit of this event I was asked if I might comment on the extent to which a paradigm shift has occurred in records management based on my experience at the then National Archives of Canada and my subsequent career as a consultant. At the National Archives I managed programmes that facilitated the management of records in federal government institutions and in my more recent experience as a consultant I advised over 50 public sector organizations both within Canada and internationally. In doing so I thought I would begin by reflecting on the records management landscape when I first joined the National Archives and then jump forward to examine the extent to which that landscape has experienced a paradigm shift especially in terms of the impact of the digital record. I joined the National Archives in 1975 as an archivist with a new division called the Machine Readable Archives Division. Machine readable was the name we assigned to what later became electronic records because they could only be read by a machine. In the days before s and PC s our focus was on significant data sets generated in the research areas of government departments. Many were used to inform important policies that shaped our government and the country for many years to come - from bilingualism, to aboriginal affairs, to environmental protection. In all of our acquisition activities we rarely saw a records manager. The role of those we did see was restricted to signing off on the transfer of the data sets to the archives. We undertook the actual negotiation, acquisition and transfer with the creators of the datasets in the department. In 1982 I had the opportunity to join the Government Task Force responsible for preparing the federal government for the proclamation and implementation of the new Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) laws. It was recognized early on that the successful implementation of the laws would be dependent upon the quality and integrity of departmental records management functions. This is why a records management policy was developed and approved by the government s central agency, the Treasury Board Secretariat. However, while the records management policy covered paper records it did not extend to electronic records including those found not only in data sets but also in the growing number of databases supporting a wide range of government functions from welfare, to taxation, to immigration, to national security, to the environment, to health, and so on. At the time, and without knowing very much about Government IT systems and the IT community itself (our involvement had been with researchers and their data sets) I had subscribed to the common perception by archivists and records managers that electronic records were not under proper control, that they were not being preserved (the 1

2 archivist s concern), that they were not included in retention schedules or records inventories and they weren t accounted for in departmental subject file classification schemes (the records managers concern). There seemed to be a feeling by archivists and records managers that electronic records were out of control and that a strong policy was required. The Director of the Task Force agreed with the records management community, as supported by the National Archives, that a policy on electronic records was needed in addition to the records management policy. Both policies, one on paper records and the other on electronic records, would help to underpin the implementation of the ATIP laws. I was asked to develop the electronic records policy as one of my Task Force responsibilities. The problem was that no one had told the IT community! One of my first consultation sessions was with what today we would call the Chief Information Technology Officer for the Government. When, in my naiveté (I was a young not-very-well-informed archivist) I said that electronic records needed to be brought under control he leaned back and very quietly asked me if I had received my pay cheque. A little surprised I responded that yes I had received it. Was it accurate, he asked. I said yes it was. He asked if I received it every two weeks and were the amounts on the cheques accurate. Indeed they were I responded. Then he leaned forward and said, Well, John, it looks like electronic records are working pretty well for you. It was a good learning experience. He was really trying to have me understand that across the digital landscape all was not bleak when it came to the way in which electronic records were being generated and managed. Although there were issues to be sure and although electronic records were not accounted for in the records management function, the sky was not falling. Incidentally, the electronic records policy I drafted was never approved. At the time there was considerable pressure by those on the ATIP Task Force and those within the National Archives to have the coordination of the policy rest with the records managers in departments. This was based on the logical premise that the central focal point for all matters pertaining to records management, regardless of the form of the records, ought to rest with the records manager. Not surprisingly the heads of information technology across government, perceiving a power grab by records managers (who they saw as low level paper clerks), killed the policy. I tried to salvage the policy by proposing alternative governance scenarios including having the head of IT assume a stronger role but I was between a rock and a hard place and was lucky to escape relatively unscathed - probably because I was at such a junior level that my head didn t come above the radar sceen into the gun sights of the IT people. Fast forward to today. There is no doubt that the world has experienced a tremendous change and perhaps even a paradigm shift in the way that information is created, communicated, used and otherwise managed. We just have to examine our own lives (at least for those of us who are long in the tooth) to recognize the quantum change that has taken place from the days of paper and the telephone to the current age of tweets, blogs, wikis, instant messages, big data, dark data, open data, and a host of other information 2

3 types and communication forms that we couldn t have imagined just a couple of decades ago. While 30 to 40 years ago electronic records were viewed as a special media issue today they are the de facto means of recording decisions and actions. (In fact, in many respects paper records have become the special media issue). Unlike paper records that declined in value over time (unless they were of archival value), records in electronic form are being viewed as a rich and valuable resource the value of which will increase with time. Given the ability to store enormous volumes of data on ever-smaller devices, the thought that perhaps we can keep it all isn t as fanciful as we may have once thought. In a survey of government databases conducted in it was found that the total volume of all of the data characters in the government totaled 15 gigabytes - an enormous number in those days but insignificant today when we realize that the same volume of data characters can be stored on an inexpensive flash drive. In fact we all know that today organizations ranging from government intelligence agencies to Amazon and Google to telecommunications giants are all amassing huge volumes of data drawn from what used to be seen as boring and burdensome call center records, purchase orders and other similar records sources. At a broader level, the changes taking place in the way we communicate and the quickly shrinking global environment in which we are living has transformed the way we as individuals function and the way in which entire organizations carry out their business. The power of the technologies combined with new and innovative approaches to organizational design and management have transformed businesses and business processes and, as a result, have caused huge changes in the nature and characteristics of the record and the way in which records are perceived and valued. In spite of the dramatic shift from paper-based to electronic work processes and the shifts that have taken place in the way in which organizations carry out their business, they have, for the most part, continued to carry out their mandates, achieve their goals and priorities, and function reasonably well. Banks are managing digital banking records, telecommunications companies are managing digital billing records (and exploiting the data therein to support their marketing efforts), and taxation departments are managing digital tax records. When we do online banking or shopping we count on the organizations we are dealing with to manage our digital records. I don t keep any copies of my bills because I know that the Water Department, the Gas company, the cable TV company, and others all keep a history of my bills and when I paid them. Sometimes digital records will run astray but for the most part the level of my trust in the recordkeeping abilities of the organizations I am dealing with is very high. It would be understandable to conclude that coincident with the shift that has taken place in the nature of the record and the way organizations create, communicate use and manage records, there has been an equally strong shift in records management. At one level this is true. In the space of just a few years the records management and archives , Survey of Database Activity in the Government of Canada, Data Processing Institute, Ottawa,

4 communities have made significant strides in developing the building blocks of the infrastructure organizations require to manage records effectively, especially when they are in digital form. International standards such as ISO and the ISO series of standards together with records management technologies such as Electronic Document and Records Management Systems (EDRMS) are in place. Guidance is available on managing digital records in a host of environments such as those supported by the cloud and the web. Training and education programmes are increasingly accounting for the digital record. All of these and related developments have benefited from the rich understanding of records and recordkeeping concepts that emerged from the Pittsburgh project 4, the Interpares projects 5 and the Australian initiatives that led to the Continuum model 6. Based on these developments it would only be logical to conclude that the sky is far from falling and that the reason organizations are able to function so well in spite of the transformations they have experienced is because of the advances that have been made in records management around the world. The rosy picture I have painted begs the question. Is there a digital records crisis - especially if most organizations appear to be functioning very well in spite of the shift to the digital record? Well, in fact there are issues, as most of us at this event should well know. A common issue for many organizations is the challenge of preserving the integrity and authenticity of digital records through time. As we all know, digital records are subject to loss because of the fragility of the media, the eventual obsolescence of the technology, insufficient metadata, and the absence of effective governance and accountability structures (ie. structures that would reflect the assignment of responsibility for the proper management of records). Other issues are also having an impact on organizational business and the ability of organizations to account for their decisions and actions. Some of these include the challenge of managing and other electronic records in the modern office, the impact of the cloud on the management of digital records, the issues associated with managing web records and records generated through the use of social media, the complex role of metadata, and the means by which the information and data in records can be harnessed, extracted and exploited to serve purposes beyond those for which they were originally created. In light of these recordkeeping issues, is the records management community well positioned to address them? Is it exercising a leadership role in advancing the effective management of records? Based on what I have seen over the past three to four decades and based on my consulting work I would suggest that records management still has a 2 See: ISO 15489:2001 Information and Documentation Records Management, 3 See: ISO 30300:2011 Information and Documentation Management System for records, 4 See: Univeristy of Pittsburgh, Electronic Records Project; 5 See: Interpares at and itrust at 6 McKemmish, Sue. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: A Continuum of Responsibility, Proceedings of the Records Management Association of Australia 14th National Convention, Sept 1997, RMAA Perth

5 long way to go. In spite of the progress that has been made in the development of standards and practices and their supporting concepts, records managers in many organizations tend not be well placed to exercise a substantial role in the management of digital records - the de facto record of organizational business. Although they are technically the authority points for records management across the organization and are supposed to be exercising a leadership role, few seem to have any influence beyond the wild frontier of the modern office. Even in the modern office where efforts are being made to introduce an EDRMS there appear to have been few successes. In a report on EDRMS implementation in the Government of Canada 7 it was noted that 75% of EDRMS projects failed. Few records managers have ventured beyond the office to build relationships with those grappling with records issues in application systems, geomatics, statistical data, and other digital records-generating areas of organizations. Policies on records management tend to be weak or non-existent and if they are in place they tend to be ignored. The corporate file classification system may exist but it is not considered relevant to many areas of the organization and especially to those supporting their own metadata schema. Retention schedules may cover paper records but not digital records and if they do cover digital records the retention and disposition specifications are poorly expressed and applied. While records managers are considered professional they are often poorly paid relative to their counterparts in information technology. Most do not have university degrees and those that do have degrees have graduated from programmes offering only superficial insight into what it means to manage records in a digital environment. Records management training and education at the community college level fills some of the gap but is not sufficient given the need. This may seem like a rather harsh indictment of the records management community, but it is the reality that I have witnessed over and over again in the organizations I have come across. In setting out this reality, however, I don t want to blame the records management community. If one understood the legacy from which today s records management programmes have emerged and the huge chasm that exists between where it was and where it is situated today one would appreciate the enormous strides that have been made. Let me give you an example of the legacy I am speaking about based on my own experience. When I was a public servant back in my pre-national Archives days in the 1970 s I worked almost entirely with paper. I had very little, in fact nothing, to do with records management. When I scribbled out a memo on a piece of paper I would give it to the secretary who would use an electric typewriter (and later a word processing machine) to type it onto the government s standard Government of Canada memo form. In addition to the date, subject, and the to and from fields she would also insert the file number because she had access to the file classification scheme and knew where my memo should ultimately be filed. Incidentally she created the records using one of the greatest inventions to ever have been developed for records management - carbon paper. The top or master version of the memo form went to the recipient, the yellow record copy went to the file room, and the last white copy went to me. I didn t know 7 McDonald, John, Survey of EDRMS Implementation in Selected Government Departments in the Government of Canada, unpublished report for Industry Canada, Ottawa,

6 where the record copy went and frankly I didn t care because I never expected I would have a need to see it again. In the very rare instance when I needed something from the file room (which was located in another building) I went through the secretary who would go to, or call, the records management office, have the file charged out, and then give it to me with a bring forward date. After I finished with the file I would give it back to the secretary who would return it to the records management office. In the equally rare instances when I might conjure up a vision of records management the images that came to mind were of file clerks running around a dusty file room in the basement. As for archivists I don t think I was alone in imagining them as being male, old, wearing spectacles, having beards and being in deep reflection as they hunched over old documents. I would never have imagined that they had a role in supporting records management across the government. When I reflect on those early years in the 1970 s I think it s quite amazing that records management and, to a certain extent, archives have made the kind of paradigm shift that they have. For instance, in the past couple of decades records managers have been required to jump from the remote regions of the back office into the wild frontier of the front office in order to provide support to users who, through the use of an EDRMS, are being asked to engage directly with the records management function (re: filing and retrieving records). Some have been successful in making that transition but many have not. Nor should they be expected to be successful given where they have come from and what they are expected to do. Too many are still reflecting the legacy I ve just described and far too many are in the marginalized situation I ve already outlined. If this is the reality of records management today, then how is it that organizations have been able to continue forging ahead so successfully in a digital world? Who were the people who tackled the digital records issues their organizations were facing and, through their efforts, have enabled their organizations not only to conduct their business electronically but to exploit the rich data resources they continue to accumulate? Who is addressing the records issues currently being faced by organizations and where is that expertise coming from? As far as I ve been able to see, and while there are a number of exceptions, those people haven t been records managers. In the highly structured application systems area (often the home of big data initiatives) it s been the IT specialists, business systems analysts, information and systems architects, data administrators, and the business managers and users themselves who have assumed this role. In the research and policy areas where digital data sets are created, used and increasingly disseminated through open data initiatives the responsibility for managing, protecting and even preserving the datasets has fallen to data managers and the creators of the data sets themselves. In the geographic information systems areas responsibility for organizing, describing and classifying complex digital cartographic data normally rests with the geomatics community, a community that has been at the forefront in developing expertise in 6

7 capturing and preserving complex layers of integrated cartographic, demographic, geomorphologic and other types of geo-spatial data. In the web environment, information discovery tools and other tools for accessing web content, including the web records generated as part of web site management processes are the purview of those responsible for web site design and management. In the area of security it is the IT security experts working with policy officials who are generally the ones responsible for addressing security and privacy concerns across the digital environment. And the list goes on Are these professionals doing the records job well? Who knows! Given that there is no one in authority to provide a framework for evaluating a given recordkeeping situation it is difficult to know if the records in question are being managed properly. The answer seems to be that those involved are doing the best they can given the circumstances. For the most part they aren t doing a bad job - it s what our Australian colleagues would call pretty good recordkeeping. But many would say they feel they are on shaky ground when it comes to confirming that their standards and practices are enabling records to be managed as records, especially when they are in digital form. In one agency I found very bright systems people and senior programme managers experiencing paralysis as they felt they didn t have the expertise to make decisions that would have enabled them to migrate to fully electronic data capture forms. The information was too sensitive and their knowledge so poor that they didn t want to run the risk. No one had thought to ask the records manager, an understandable situation given that the records manager knew even less and was reluctant to get involved. The same happened in another agency where the lack of knowledge and the absence of a strong centre of expertise inhibited decisions from being made that would have otherwise enabled records to be generated in electronic form. So where does this leave records managers? In many organizations it appears that they are being marginalized (if they haven t been already) as others fill or at least try to fill the vacuum. Even the more progressive records managers have found themselves being left to tackle (often poorly) the highly complex digital records generated in the modern office while others in other disciplines are left trying to tackle the often more critical recordkeeping issues associated with the central business functions and processes of the organization. Against this reality many organizations still assign the authority for the management of records across the organization to the records manager regardless of where and in what form those records are generated. But is this feasible and practical in today s environment? If not, and if we accept that the so-called records management community is actually broader than we might have thought, then who should serve in that role, especially if we subscribe to the principle that records - all records - should be managed as corporate assets and that an organization-wide infrastructure - similar to those for other corporate assets such as human resources and finance, should be in place? What sort of competencies should individuals in this community reflect? What sort of 7

8 competencies should the corporate authority for records management reflect? Given the substantial change that has taken place in modern organizations and the growing recognition of the importance of digital records not just for programme delivery and accountability but also as an exploitable resource, some critical competencies would appear to be the following: Knowledge of the enterprise - its functions and processes, its culture, and, above all, its strategic priorities - recognizing that digital records issues impacting these priorities will be the most critical from a business perspective. Knowledge of the purpose and attributes of records and how these should be identified, defined and reflected in a given business context. Knowledge of how to identify and express business-related recordkeeping requirements and how to integrate these requirements in a range of recordscreating environments. Ability to think strategically and manage complex projects and programmes. Ability to communicate with others especially at senior levels. Ability to partner and participate in and lead inter-disciplinary teams and initiatives. Ultimately, these competencies should be reflected in experts who have the knowledge and abilities required to develop and sustain the comprehensive infrastructure for managing records in a digital environment 8. Such an infrastructure is not passive where records are generated and then stored away in a trusted environment for some prescribed period of time according to prescribed preservation requirements. That certainly is a core role - ensuring the continuing integrity, accessibility and authenticity of records through time. Within the context of that role, however, those reflecting these competencies would understand that these infrastructures must be designed to play an active role in supporting directly the business of the organization. For instance, within those organizations providing data and data analysis services such experts would know how to capture, preserve, and reuse the digital records that form the basis for a wide range of digital data exploitation services including those delivered through big data initiatives. They would be capable of understanding the client demand for accumulated data, know how to build mechanisms for ensuring data interoperability across time as much as across space, and would be expert in facilitating the design of data extraction and analysis services because they would know how to build the trusted infrastructure for managing the digital records from which the data are extracted and analyzed. Recordkeeping experts reflecting these competencies would be highly respected because they would be solving business critical recordkeeping issues that impact the bottom line of the business. From the perspective of the organization as a whole they would be seen as the recognized corporate authority responsible for developing, issuing and monitoring policies and standards, and offering recordkeeping advice carrying a high 8 The combination of laws and policies, standards and practices, enabling technologies, and qualified/trained people supported by an effective accountability framework and governance structure based on people that have a high level of awareness and understanding of the importance of records to the organization 8

9 degree of credibility, relevance, and strength. They may not even manage records leaving the actual recordkeeping in the hands of the business units based on policies and standards that they issue or by outsourcing the entire function altogether. Now what does this mean for the archives? Given the reality organizations are facing today where the records management function is weak and where the competencies I mentioned are a distant dream, with whom in the records creating organization should it define its relationship? This is an important question but it can only be addressed after the archives has clarified the role it plays in providing records management support. I raise this point because in my experience some archives 9 have been challenged by the sometimes-schizophrenic situation of supporting a cultural mandate as well as a mandate to support the management of records across a given organization (e.g. a government). The two mandates should be seen as one (ie supporting a continuum perspective) but too often they are not and the resulting tension has been such that efforts to advance records management across a given enterprise are jeopardized. Far too often the cultural role holds primacy while the records management facilitate role, rather than being directed to supporting good records management for the sake of good government, is designed as a front-end operation targeting the identification and acquisition of archival records. Complicating the issue is the lack of coherence between the criteria used by archivists to appraise records for their potential archival value and the criteria business managers use to determine the value of records to their business. This can result in a cultural divide and tension between archivists who want to focus on the archival record and assisting researchers in accessing and using archival records and those responsible for the facilitate programme who want to help organizations (e.g. government departments) manage the records they consider essential to the delivery of their programmes, the achievement of their strategic priorities, and the ability to meet accountability requirements including (but not exclusively) those prescribed in archives legislation. Too often the facilitate programme, by being pressured to align itself with the archives programme (re: appraisal and acquisition), may not be in line with where the needs for records management support are greatest. In situations like this it is no surprise that records managers within the individual organizations subject to archives legislation (e.g. government departments) become suspicious of the archives intent when they come to realize how the archives role in facilitating the management of records is being shaped. The answer to the questions concerning with whom the archives should be relating in a department can only be answered after the archives has been clear about the objective of its role in facilitating the management of records. If the role is strictly to support an archival agenda that is not in synch with the overall needs of the organization it is supposed to be serving (e.g. a government and its departments) then it will be a challenge 9 For the purposes of this paper I am basing my remarks on what I have seen in medium to large-sized government archives supporting programmes designed to facilitate the management of records in government departments. I am aware that in some government and business archives the distinction I am making between the archives role and the facilitate role may not be as great as I am describing in this paper. 9

10 to find anyone who would be prepared to establish a close and active relationship. It is critical for the archives to demonstrate and make very clear that its objectives pursuant to its archival mission are aligned with and integral to those of the business of the organization it is serving. This is reflected in the principle subscribing to the principles endorsed by the International Council of Archives, the first principle which states, The archives should facilitate the establishment of policies, procedures, systems, standards and practices designed to assist records creators to create and retain records which are authentic, reliable and preservable. The intent of the principle was to confirm the archives role in facilitating the management of the records required to support the business and accountability requirements of the organizations embraced by its mandate. What hasn t been made explicit in that principle is the need for the archives and the business to work together to ensure that the agenda for the archives and the agenda for the business are seen as one. Both are dedicated to building an integrated agenda where the creation, use, and retention of records respect seamlessly the needs of the business and society at large. Such an agenda demands an approach rooted in continuum thinking where the archives and the records-generating business share the same values and objectives as these pertain to the management of records. Agreeing on the need to achieve such an integrated agenda is one thing. Finding the individual in a records generating organization who can serve as the point of contact for the development of the agenda is quite another. Traditionally, the corporate focal point for records management and the key contact for the archives was the records manager. Should this relationship continue, especially if it has become clear that the records manager s role is weak and marginalized? If a records management office is located in the executive Secretariat and is doing a pretty good job of looking after records generated in the Secretariat and if the Archives is only interested in acquiring records from the Secretariat and providing records management support to the Secretariat then a close relationship with the records manager makes sense. However, if the archives wants to respect it's role of facilitating the management of records and reach towards the goal of establishing an integrated approach to the management of all records, regardless of where they are generated, it may need to shift its attention elsewhere. But where should it go? Some organizations have brought together the library, records management, and other information-based programmes and created an Information Management Division or Directorate. However, many of the directors of these programmes lack the expertise required to lead the kinds of comprehensive records management initiatives that the organization might need. They may also have little influence over the management of digital records generated in the application systems area, the geomatics area, the statistical data area and other digital records generating areas of the organization. If records managers and heads of information management programmes may not be well positioned then who else could serve in the role? Rather than scan elsewhere across the organization to find others who might be more appropriate it might be useful to step back and ensure that we really understand what it means to be carrying out the work of records management. What does it mean to create, use, retain and manage records in 10

11 environments where the boundaries between organizations are blurring 10 as are the boundaries between the interests of organizations and the broader interests of society as a whole? What does it mean to be an authority point for records management in this kind of complex environment? Perhaps it s time to take a closer look not at the people or the positions but at the tasks and the accountabilities, recognizing that some of these may have yet to be defined. This would set the stage for the development of job descriptions, which would reveal where the various tasks would be carried out. This in turn would lead to the identification of the competencies required to carry out the tasks, the analysis of the gap between the competencies already present in the organization and those that are required, and the strategies for closing the gap from establishing training and education programmes to developing and implementing recruitment strategies. Compensation and rewards systems commensurate with the nature of the defined jobs and accountabilities would be identified and performance measurement and evaluation structures would be established. It is through this comprehensive and objective approach to the development of a human resources strategy for records management that will enable a clear and relevant picture to emerge of what is involved in managing records in contemporary organizations, who should be relating to whom in supporting the management of records, and, most important, how the required expertise should be acquired. Given the objective of building integrated approaches to archives and records management it follows that such a strategy should embrace the archives as well as the records generating organizations it is supporting (ie both are seen as one integrated whole). Such a strategy will also guide educators and professional groups in tailoring their professional development programmes in a manner that will be relevant to the need. Needless to say, the archives, working in partnership with others could assume a lead role in facilitating the way forward (as long as it understands that it may need to change the way it views its role and its objectives). All of this suggests that we might want to consider proceeding through our own paradigm shift in the way we conceive of the concepts of archives and records management, the nature of the work involved in managing records in a primarily digital environment, the competencies required to manage records, and finally the nature of the records management community. Hopefully that paradigm shift will begin as a result of the discussions at this meeting as well as at future meetings of this kind. 10 The author recalls a researcher explaining that he had much more contact with his colleagues in other organizations than he had with people in his own organization. His records issue was not about the management of records across the department or even within his own division. It was about how the records generated as a result of projects involving himself and his external colleagues would be managed. 11

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