Socializing Records Management

September 15th, 2014

George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

At a recent benchmarking group meeting involving records managers and archivists from small- to midsized colleges, the outreach challenge was unanimously called out as a big problem. In an earlier post, I reviewed the challenges to, and opportunities for, promoting a records management program within an institution. We are charged with persuading executive leaders and colleagues to buy in to our programs, but the prospect of just introducing RM, before we even get to mutual understanding, is a daunting challenge.

I’ve had the opportunity (not as a third-party consultant, but as a coworker) to introduce RM from scratch in well over 100 stakeholder meetings, with a wide range of audiences (in one company, to revenue-generating technical engineers and senior executives; at Brandeis, to people representing functions from across the university). Most meetings begin with apprehensive body language, and some individuals outwardly profess something like “I don’t know if you have the right person. I’m not a records manager.” I was initially perceived as a cop by some. By the end of every session save only two or three, the stakeholder sincerely acknowledged an appreciation for the RM mission.

By no means do I contend that developing and socializing RM is a simple process, or that waving a magic wand and sprinkling pixie dust will achieve your objectives. Socializing RM is a mindful, labor-intensive and delicate journey – or one piece of the journey. What I offer is that in many institutions there are tactical and strategic approaches to RM communication that can mitigate challenges to the program’s development, while improving the likelihood that we get our messages across and achieve buy-in. I say “many institutions” to mean places that want RM in the first place: chapter one, page one, of our literature tells us that if you don’t have at least some senior leadership support, you are wasting your time. Even your own lukewarm or closed-minded department leader can spell many hours of futility and detours for RM program development. Granted, some institutions are hopelessly RM averse/ignorant, at their peril. But professionals in aspiring enterprises should approach outreach as a fact-finding, back-and-forth conversation, and not as dentists.

Even in receptive institutions, we are encumbered with important-to-us but unwieldy jargon like “retention schedule” and “information governance” (say those five times, fast). I normally use “records policy” instead of“schedule” in conversation, even though the former is broader. And only my C-suite presentations, and meetings with legal counsel and info security might include the term IG – administrative and mid-level employees normally don’t need to hear it, as predominant as it is in the RM reads. Its precise definition and scope are still argued among our own colleagues (see this and that and this). I know firsthand that walking busy and groggy employees through this terminology is like working in a horse pill dispensary, or trying to sell kryptonite to Superman. We must normalize our communication language and keep some of the trade jargon to ourselves. Likewise, I’ve learned to keep the “non-record” rabbit hole out of the conversation. I’ve survived 1-2-hour meetings where this argument is beaten to the ground by records people, culminating in a stalemate shrouded in further head-scratching. If your institution generates it or receives it, then it’s a record, period. Move on. And your audience certainly doesn’t want to get that nerdy.

One of the best phrasings for the “about RM” elevator speech comes from Randy Kahn at a MER conference and other venues, and from Barclay Blair (not sure on the exact origin): “We can’t keep everything forever” and “We can’t destroy everything tomorrow.” That is retention management, plain and simple, and I’ve encountered no confusion or pushback when presenting these statements early in my conversations with stakeholders. One can easily follow up each of these statements with several justifications to which lay audiences can relate, as I have in my Brandeis webguide.

My stakeholder meetings begin with a brief Intro:

  • Standard record definition
  • We’re generating many thousands of these every day and they are mushrooming as we speak
  • We can’t keep it all or destroy it all, because…
  • RM comes in to inventory, categorize records, and publish retention policy (with Legal)
  • We’re identifying record-generating processes, gaps, issues with stakeholders like you
  • Oh, and we offer pilot offsite storage, secure document shredding, and digitization services

Offsite storage and shredding are relatively inexpensive operations that you should be able to justify with reasonable management chains. This sounds paper-intensive at best and Luddite at worst, but addressing old-fashioned, low-hanging-fruit opportunities goes a long way toward securing initial stakeholder faith and support in future activities, like building out the retention schedule, dealing with naysayers, and piloting electronic records management. Paper record solutions (we’re still not paperless, although it’s waned in many offices) also provide relatively easy, quantifiable, and tangible wins – e.g. space recuperation, secured personal information, # of boxes in managed storage.

The stakeholder introduction is followed by a question set that is conversational rather than authoritarian. The question set consists of both standard queries and other questions specifically tailored to the stakeholder ­– of course, the stakeholder’s intranet pages and any other documentation I can get in advance of each meeting has been studied to generate the tailored questions. The standard questions (generally speaking) include:

  • What is your paper vs. electronic records generation?
  • Are there paper-based forms that you would like to have in electronic format?
  • What record systems are used to store your documents and data – from file shares to proprietary solutions, and what is your satisfaction with them?
  • What are your record handoff points with other units – who “owns” what?
  • Do multiple offices keep copies of the same records?
  • What are your record and information pain points? (without promising immediate solutions!)

Notice that the questions are process-intensive: this discussion tends to be of great interest to stakeholders, elicits eureka moments for THEM (“hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could search those records online?”; “why are we keeping so many copies of those records?”; “I don’t feel comfortable with that personal data out there.”), and elucidates record-generating process outcomes for your fact finding and future program development. It tells you what needs to be fixed. You can also relay valuable information (situational awareness) to colleagues in Legal, Info Security, and IT, bumping up your street cred with them. Learning about the processes within my institution is one of the most rewarding aspects of my profession, and records are in the middle of it.

These recommendations don’t necessarily suggest that all advocacy and communication is harmonious. At times we have to escalate opposition against the dismissive and “I want to keep this just in case” people. That’s why we need the senior exec support mentioned above. There is a time for the stick, especially in highly regulated and ruthless industries. The emphasis here is for first contact to be a rolling up of the sleeves side by side and discussion, rather than dictation.


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