Establishing Records Management at Brandeis—The First Eighteen Months

May 28th, 2015


George Despres, University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

What a year and a half it has been! The Brandeis University Records Management (URM) program has much in front of it, but some solid foundational accomplishments behind it. As we know, developing and growing a records program is challenging:

  • most people don’t get our objectives despite the fact that records, their mismanagement, and associated risks are ubiquitous—witness the daily news.
  • “volume, velocity, and variety,” along with fast and fluid enabling technologies, make electronic records control or IG increasingly difficult—let’s be honest, we are reduced to mitigation (realist, not defeatist).
  • the many fronts that records touch within the organization make us feel like we need an army to even chip away at solutions. And of course, we’re all fully staffed, right?

While the inaugural eighteen months for the URM program here have not been perfect, a broad retracing of them may be helpful to others planning or beginning to execute programs at their institutions.

Learn the Institution

It begins with fact-finding: gathering information, learning the institution, meeting with stakeholders from various functions. We held over fifty stakeholder meetings between October of 2013 and April of 2015. These ranged from one-on-ones to a surprise fifty-person audience of administrators for an entire school (my meeting invitation indicated eight people attending, and I walked into a function hall—should have cased the joint). We were proactive with offers to present on the program at any venue. We made early acquaintances with Legal and Information Security leaders. Socializing the program, covered in an earlier piece, consisted of walking through stakeholder needs and processes and offering helpful services, so that our stakeholders were initially treated like clients, not delinquents. First impressions are everything and best made by offering assistance. Another point to consider is stakeholder busy seasons—I learned the hard way that it was unwise to request information from our registrar before commencement, when he is slammed verifying student credentials. An equivalent would be asking Procurement people to collaborate at the end of the fiscal year.

The institutional intranet is gold: manuals walk through key functions and records transactions; departmental service pages enable you to prepare for stakeholder meetings in advance and hit the ground running with targeted questions; organization charts tell you who is where and under/above whom while bunching institutional functions for the schedule; online forms enable you to begin compiling the document type inventory and to determine what paper forms can be replaced by electronic ones; policies and procedures trace processes, roles, governance, and how things should be done; and institutional mission and values help you to align the communication themes of your program. Books on institutional functions, like finance, law, student records, HR, advancement, etc., in higher education (substitute your vertical market) were invaluable not only in getting up to speed with the industry, but also in empathizing with various university functions and their professionals. It’s about points of view.

Services and Stakeholders

Our initial client service engagements—managed offsite storage and retrieval, secure document shredding, digitization, and, recently, electronic redaction—began in March of 2014. Since then, we grew to over forty-five service engagements with departments and people from across university functions, academic and administrative. Most of these engagements were outcomes of the initial stakeholder meetings, but several came to us by word of mouth. Many are ongoing. We’ve placed over 1,000 boxes in managed offsite storage, and we’ve sited twenty secure, sensitive-document shredding bins across campus, emphasizing the difference between these and open recycle bins. January customer satisfaction survey results, though modest in size (twelve respondents), showed that 100% would recommend our services to others in the university. Yes, my management chain is aware of this.

Supporting and maintaining these services has been clumsy at times. Visiting vendor drivers don’t know the Byzantine campus layout. I’ve frequently compensated by shoving boxes into my car and shuttling them to and from client buildings within the labyrinth (and losing my precious parking space). Substitute drivers from our shredding vendor (which, oh, by the way, just merged not seamlessly with another vendor) need to be manually escorted to all of the secure shredding stations on campus, since the directions couldn’t possibly be written or verbally communicated (“go by the big oak tree and kind of bear right… well, it looks like one building but there are really two named buildings within one….” etc.). In one case, we had an oversized vendor truck get stuck between a building, a ledge, and a tree for about twenty-five minutes. Another challenge has been queuing up boxes for vendor services—some of our clients have asked for services but lacked the resources to prepare their own records for storage or scanning services. We enlisted student assistant labor to address some of these instances, but there have been “we’re too-busy” bottlenecks delaying opportunities to get boxes out the door and to the vendors.

Electronic Stuff and Leadership Buy-in

I understand that all of this talk about boxed physical records will make many twenty-first-century records professionals cringe. So: with document scanning services, we were digitizing for clients, but then in some cases being asked what to do with the digital files. Alongside legacy Google Drive and Dropbox environments, Brandeis has established a Box environment as a competitively secure, yeoman’s, cloud-based file sharing and collaboration option, with some lightweight “document management” capabilities and architecture, like task assignment, open APIs, a growing app plug-in environment and a promising roadmap with respect to information lifecycle management.  ILM was absent from, false, or shabby in many last-generation electronic document and records management products.  And we communicate directly with Box product reps who will responsively speak with you even if you’re not part of a Fortune 500 company (no, I’m not on Box’s payroll, and much remains to be seen from them). Again, it’s mitigation, if not a 100% elegant solution.

In terms of program growth, a key turning point for us was a records program briefing to our senior leadership arranged by my CIO last June. We are very fortunate to be developing the program at a time when many changes are happening and are relatively well received by key decision-makers.  One highlight of the leadership briefing was a picture slide that showed a 1994 student paper headline about confidential records found in an open recycle bin. Next to this image was a photo of tumbled boxes from one of many basements we are surveying after fifty years of boxed records drop offs. The images won a collective gasp from the leadership team.

Any institution with decades of minimal records management will have similar photo ops, and no sane and responsible person wants to be associated with or dismiss these images. Pictures are powerful, and the outcomes were significant. Deans of the colleges were especially receptive—we initially thought that the independent academic units in a distributed institutional culture would be tougher to engage on the subject of records control—but I was almost immediately put in touch with people who gave me audiences in all of our schools, which now constitute half if not most of our service engagements. To be fair, some luck and right-place-at-the-right-time has assisted us in advancing the program. Full support from my management and a reasonable operational budget have also been key. We can’t assume that these pieces are in place at other institutions.

Communication Tools and Policy

Underlying communication tools were leveraged early in the game to support the program: a “LibGuide” (Library Guide) reference page with an overview of the program and guidelines, an email service account, a listserv, to which I push a highly selective and small subset of records management news kindly brought to us by Peter Kurilecz and many others, a more formal intranet presence, under construction, and this blog. All of these get the URM word out in one way or another. Others, like brief and bang-bang, YouTube-style training videos, are planned.

Our retention schedule is one area in which I am disappointed with our progress. We’ve populated a few items, but other program activities have occupied the bulk of our time expenditure, and some collaborators have, with reason, delayed the process. We will be focusing on filling it out over the next phase of our work, as retention policy and getting people to follow it is core to the program. Collaborating with stakeholders to build their respective departments’ policies will help to ensure compliance, since they sign off before final legal review, and our services have already established bonds with many of them. The bottom line is that we can’t do everything, especially when our dedicated staff consists of one part-time student assistant and me. But retention policy is one area to catch up in order to keep the evolving program balanced.

The Way Forward, and a Challenge to Colleagues

Other next steps include forms management, especially eradicating paper forms; knowledge management guidance; TAR/text mining to cluster legacy content for disposition; Gmail curation; and developing needs assessments, requirements, and use cases for electronic document and records management systems, piloting with our Advancement department (vendors: please hold off for now). Our approach is obviously to plan but to also look for relatively quick, point-to-point wins that don’t require lots of posturing, hot air meetings, rabbit holes, plans of the plans, and 100% perfect conceptual frameworks that are never realized.  This approach has served us well to date.

So, that’s where we are. I hope that some of this will resonate with, if not help, colleagues fighting the same battles. I believe that we need less generic “Big Data!” “BYOD!” “ROI!” sales-type and corporate-heavy rhetoric and more institutional case studies and stories in the open RM literature (and outside of the expensive RM conferences). We need more tales from the trenches that can scale or be adapted to other institutions, including modest ones. What are we doing now, on the ground? Where are YOU at?

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