George Despres, CRM
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University
(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)
Like most people, I prefer to have a reasonable sense of job security, as long as my interest is engaged. I hope and need to remain in the workforce for many more years. At the risk of sounding alarmist, I have concerns about the records management profession’s long-range future. We are members of a resilient and passionate profession, given the challenges we face in an exponentially growing and complicated digital world. While this posting will pose some observations, I hope that it is received as more of a thought- and answer-provoking question–what will our professional future look like?
Chaotic, Counter-Control Culture
A recent futurist reading binge has been an exercise in masochism-or deer-in-the-headlights simulation, or emperor’s new clothes realization. In The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, traces the current and future evolution of our digital culture, and by culture I mean the way most people are interacting, and will increasingly interact, with information. He argues that, looking back from the year 2050, the first few decades of the digital revolution that we’ve experienced as a sort of Phase I will seem marginal when compared with what’s coming in Phase II after 2016. Our profession has been playing catch-up all along during Phase I. If Phase II is even more disruptive, where will that leave us?
Flow of information (“extravagant dissemination,” “ad hocracy”), Kelly argues, is everywhere and inevitable. Mass duplication and the decrease of fixity are two considerable pieces of it; a perpetual state of becoming (i.e., continually and repeatedly adapting to the next, fast-moving technology) is another related, future factor, Kelly says. When we consider that fixed, controlled records following recordkeeping principles and information governance are typical objectives in our programs, it’s not unreasonable to get a little scared by this. Reading through Kelly’s book as a records manager or archivist is an exercise in marathon squirming. He lays out, in hard-to-contradict ways, how the evolving digital world is and will be contrary to (our) traditional goals of information control, accountability, protection, and validation, among others. IMHO, we should already get gold medals for braving it to date. It’s like trying to eat a big ice cream cone in 100-degree heat and keeping your hands clean.
While we’ve long talked about the challenges of “volume, velocity and variety,” fluidity has trumped and will trump fixity in many places. Stable artifacts are succeeded by glimpses, fragments, and streams of distributed information. Sequence reordering, common acceptance of raw info, snipping and morphing pieces of information assets and radically repurposing them, and personalized tweaking and re-tweaking across multiple formats, apps, and media without version control are ubiquitous and here to stay. Doesn’t sound like RIM/IG to me.
Trouble in the House
And then there’s organizational chaos (pardon the oxymoron): within most institutions, parallel, siloed information storage is here to stay. Our decades old dream of one controlled, master enterprise repository that all employees responsibly and diligently use is normally just that – a dream. Unless you are in a highly-regulated, Big Brotherish, org culture–and even then–employees will use their generic file shares, and Dropbox, and Sharepoint, and Box, and Google Docs, and 2 MB Gmail attachments sent to twenty people, and thumb drives, and home PCs, and unauthorized personal devices, and BYOD devices, and unsaved electronic white boards, and VR and augmented reality spaces, and cooked books, and any of hundreds of IM/file loading cloud apps, and other rogue silos, with many new ones on the way.
A recent Iron Mountain US government employee survey cited the skills gaps that need to be closed by tomorrow’s info pro. The ability to manage enterprise records “regardless of format” is still emphasized as one of them: we’ve long had “regardless of format” in our definitions, but most of us still haven’t corralled what our organizations have generated to date, according to bleak industry surveys (e.g., AIIM, Cohasset) and to the fact that Iron Mountain is still calling out basic digital format coverage as a problem.
The Rise of the Machines (and Software)
As Alec Ross suggests in The Future of Industry, enhanced artificial intelligence (AI), in combination with blockchain technology, threatens to remove intermediary and gatekeeper roles in several industries, even out-Ubering Uber through pure peer-to-peer ride agreements and mesh networks. AI covers the thinking and blockchain covers evidence fixity through distributed crowd-witnessing (public ledgers). Massive information analysis, tagging, metadata assignment, and classification are a few of those roles that smart machines, once trained, may cover completely: many on the legal side of our profession have already experienced this through technology-assisted review. There are dissenters to the blockchain growth argument. However, the technology has been around for seven years, new applications are emerging, and many huge companies are spending lots of money on blockchain technology development in new sectors while providing blockchain-based services today, despite bitcoin hacks and ransomware incidents in the financial arena.
The “public ledger” role and “smart contract” applications of blockchain already in existence sound suspiciously familiar to our turf, and they’re handled by encryption keys and code, not by people. As expert Vicki Lemieux and her U of BC team simply put it, “Blockchain technology is fundamentally a recordkeeping technology.” No red herring here. Given what some tech assessments portend (and I hope they’re wrong), the only remaining human task for RMs may one day be to manage residual paper files and press the “Are you sure you want to delete?” button – if we still want to rely on any human intervention at all. So, not only is what we are trying to control becoming more uncontrollable and chronically changeable; the very technical solutions to these control and validation challenges will either radically redefine our work or put us out of work. But don’t jump off the bridge yet.
Our job isn’t going away tomorrow morning. We still have big paper footprints and offsite storage arrangements with vendors, who are still adding warehouse space to accommodate growing customer deposits. Organizations don’t want ugly headlines, and some actually do something about it through our services. We can also partner with technology in the near term to mitigate the chaos-for example, using R programming tools to mine text, categorize, cluster, and de-duplicate unstructured data collections. As a profession, we must closely follow blockchain and other relevant technology developments, from CRM, IGP, and CIP exam content, to our conference sessions, to our social media feeds. Gaining analytics skills can also enable us to continue our work into the next-gen environment. The Iron Mountain survey referred to above states that analytics skills are a key proficiency in closing info pro gaps between now and the future.
Perhaps we’ll assume more of a track, analyze, report, and consult responsibility and less of a custodial one. Perhaps we will monitor massive data grid activity. Perhaps cloud brokers will offer some sort of information control as a service (ICaaS). Perhaps we will all just work in information security. But as the machines mature even more, can we continue to use new technology advances to redefine our job, rather than being gobbled up by the technology? And can we keep up with emerging IoT (Internet of Things) platforms, where almost every object will be a substrate covered with sensors, chips, and monitors fire-hosing data all over the place? Big data being managed today is but one dimension of a much more complex future environment. Maybe we will rise to the bigger challenges, despite a rather slumbering digital precedent.
I don’t have any good answers yet, but would pose the following questions to my good colleagues, many of whom are much more tech and industry savvy than yours truly: how will we adapt to manage and control liquid information that is always in flux? What level of information control must we concede in a digital culture of independence and flow? With information lifecycle analysis increasingly covered by AI machines like Watson, where will we come in, or not come in? What will our jobs look like in 10-15 years, and how much will we need human intervention for information control?