At the 2012 Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) Conference, Northumbria University academic Julie McLeod asked the audience a simple question. She asked how many of those present worked for an organisation that had articulated a vision for electronic records management. Less than 10% of the audience raised their hands.
On first sight, that’s a pretty startling statistic. The IRMS is the main industry body for records managers. If anyone could be expected to have articulated a vision for electronic records management, it was the people in that room.
But the truth is, I’m not that surprised by Julie’s experience.
Firstly, I think it’s partly to do with what Julie asked. If she’d asked whether those present had a records management policy, I suspect a much bigger proportion would have put their hands up. And many records management policies probably include a statement saying how the organisation aspires to manage electronic records. That’s a vision – but those present probably didn’t think of it as such.
But what about those who just don’t have any statement? I suspect a lot of people in that room didn’t have anything – no policy, no strategy, no vision. And I think I know why.
The people responsible for records management in a lot of organisations are nervous of getting it wrong. And all the talk of visions, strategies and programmes isn’t helping. All the competing theories and evolving attitudes are hard to keep up with. 10 years ago, public bodies were being encouraged to adopt electronic document and records management systems. Now it’s rare to hear a success story about such systems, and hardly anyone thinks they’re a good idea. How do you come up with a vision for the future operation of your organisation when the future keeps changing?
What’s more, in most organisations, the person responsible for records management may be relatively junior. Often they will be someone who was drafted into the role; it might only be part of their job.
But it is important that records management is addressed. Any business needs to manage its information. Back at the start of my career I worked for a pharmaceutical company. Our records management unit ensured that they were able to prove that they discovered their marketed drugs first – some of those records were worth billions to the business.
And it is necessary for compliance with legislation. For example, if you look at many civil monetary penalties issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office, you will find that poor records management played a part.
And public authorities of course are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Section 46 of the Act requires the Lord Chancellor to issue a Code of Practice on the management of records. The Code of Practice was written by the National Archives and sets out the features that they expect to see in public authorities’ records management.Whilst not a statutory requirement, the Information Commissioner is unlikely to look kindly on a public authority that fails to meet its FOI obligations due to records management failings. Indeed he has been known to issue a practice recommendation to an authority insisting that they improve their records management.
So organisations – especially public sector ones – need to do something about records management. But what?
We can start by using the Code of Practice as a guide. What do the experts at the National Archives think should be in place?
And we can stop letting “the best be the enemy of the good”. Julie McLeod’s straw poll, as well as the more detailed research she was reporting on at the conference showed that many organisations had done very little. What actually needs to happen is something. We should improve records management one step at a time. We must be pragmatic.
That’s what I’m going to attempt to do in my new course for Act Now Training on Records Management and the Section 46 Code of Practice. I’ll explain the different requirements of the Code and practical things you can do to meet them. That’s obvious. But I’ll also tell you not to panic. Don’t try to do it all at once. What are the key things you can do that will improve your records management almost overnight? You will leave with an action plan for your organisation – so you’ll instantly be ahead of 90% of those conference delegates I mentioned. The key words are “Just Do It.”