Polar Opposites: The CRM Exams and Vendor Product Language

September 10th, 2015

 

Despres

George Despres
Program Director for University Records Management, Brandeis University

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

Two Cents on the CRM Experience

I’ve recently made the time (belatedly) to take the CRM exams. While CRM had been slipping on my to-do list for almost ten years, I’ve been busy doing RIM, though admittedly under a bit of an “impostor” self-image. The exam experience has been gratifying and humbling—gratifying to finally complete and pass, and humbling in the sense that I felt high pressure to pass as a several-year practitioner.

The components, processes, and details of records management are, of course, the focus of exam prep. Throughout parts I-VI, the candidate is immersed in the “what” and “how” of the discipline. This enables you to sniff out guano and contrasts starkly, as will be shown, with the way we are treated as an audience by many RIM software vendors. Let me acknowledge up front that there are good vendors. But anyone who has been in this business for a while knows that there are also some bad and ugly ones and that their overtures to us can be lacking at best. The difference between CRM prep and many solution vendors is the difference between precision and vagueness.

On-the-job experience most certainly helped me to navigate the exam challenge. Likewise, the ICRM exam preparation workshop—which I’d highly recommend to prospective candidates—gave me a bead on what subject areas to target, especially for the management part, which can come across at first glance as a pan-MBA undertaking. ARMA literature and William Saffady’s Managing Electronic Records (4th ed.) proved particularly valuable. Times have changed: I didn’t review the Robek and Brown “Energizer Bunny” book. Well, maybe I peeked. Multiple-choice testing tips on the ICRM site paid off. Certain topics in the test material like duplex-numeric and block-numeric filing conventions don’t always cross our desks in the trenches, but they do provide a good logical grounding for our vast discipline, and I feel fortified for studying them.

The ICRM has updated part V to challenge candidate proficiency in IT topics indispensable to the profession. Going forward, the Institute will need to maintain these updates aggressively to keep pace with our technical environment. Part VI, the written exam, essentially says, “You’ve been hired by Institution X, and their records situation is a train wreck. What do you do?” I’d imagine that many fellow CRMs found the weeks between taking part VI and hearing back on the results to be long ones. They were for me.

Ten people will likely have ten different opinions on the CRM experience. Mine has been a positive one, and I thank the ICRM for supporting the opportunity for measurable, professional validation.

Our Profession and its Tools

While the theme of this post has been brewing for several years, CRM preparation led me to reflect back on the things I’m working on at Brandeis, including early assessment of electronic content and records management solutions. An assistant and I have been working on a broad review of many information management software products, big and small, enterprise solutions and niche plug-in apps, with a focus on the lifecycle and control of records. While vague vendor Web language was nothing new to us, this immersive exercise left us astounded by just how hollow and unclear much of the vendor promotional language is. It’s almost ubiquitous. Getting to what some products actually do is like peeling an infinite onion. Contrary to their intentions of reeling in potential customers for follow-on conversations, the canned Web sites and some of their related demos and webinars should dissuade any logical and informed person from curiosity.

For example, I recently attended a webinar for a software product that most of us would recognize by name. The webinar was presented by a very senior member of the organization. At one point, I glanced down at my watch and was struck by the fact that, while thirty-two minutes had elapsed, I hadn’t heard one thing that I didn’t already know. I’m not bragging—anyone who’s worked in our industry for a year and paid some attention would come to the same conclusion. One would have thought the intended audience was completely ignorant of RIM, IG, and info management. Perhaps that was the case, but we are (I hope) normally decision-makers in such technology acquisitions, and vendors should know this.

Further confusing the vendor product landscape is what they provide today versus what they “plan” to provide “soon,” or even what they imply that they currently provide but don’t (vaporware): we are engaged as a client with a well-known and upcoming vendor promising an IG package that curiously keeps slipping (at least for us in higher ed). We’re now told that it’s coming “sometime next calendar year.” Yet they’ve recently sponsored an IG webinar as if they’re on top of it (!) Walk the walk.

Beta environments also confuse what is and isn’t ready for prime time. Broken and dated DoD5015.2 prescriptions and a tectonic shift from bolted-down, über-proprietary enterprise solutions to more open, lightweight, cloud-hosted ones muddies the waters and leads to a tough decision for the solution shopper: do we go with a last-generation, expensive, enterprise behemoth that doesn’t play well with other products and that slapped on a lame RM module as an afterthought? Or do we engage the frontier as bleeding-edge early adopters and cobble together and maintain a bunch of emerging plug-in apps, with fingers crossed for the future? This backdrop is no place for ambiguous product promotion.

The List of Condemned Phrases

Vendor websites, slide decks, and promos in general should be held more accountable for aimless language. Rehash of obvious facts appears again and again in the talking tracks. The syntax is shallow and imprecise. Understood: they want to mean many things to many people. But it wastes our time. It leads to vague or varied understanding and incorrect assumptions. Granted, some of their promises reflect what we need to communicate to stakeholders who have no idea about what we do or are trying to do. But the same old words patronize us and insult our intelligence when targeted at info managers. Furthermore, they are often addressed to a 1990-2005 audience, as if, for example, we don’t know that there is a thing called “social media” that can be tricky. We are all well beyond these statements, and the CRM experience, or simple reflection on our work, emphasizes why. The extent to which this vendor hocus-pocus pervades the language is significant.

So, I’ve created a list of hereby Condemned Phrases and statements, or their variations, which should no longer be addressed to the aware, capable, been-there-done-that information management professional. I hope that they are at least good for a chuckle. You are welcome to circulate (proliferate!) the Condemned Phrases among prospective RIM vendors, and to expand upon it. We must cease to be subjected to such patronizing jive as this:

“The amount of information that organizations must now manage has exploded and has become difficult to control.”

“While traditional paper records management has been fairly straightforward, digital records present many challenges to the organization.”

“We live in a digital world.” [Literally, from a major info solution CEO in August, 2015!!!]

“Knowledge empowers the enterprise.”

“Proper information retention policies are a critical aspect of your compliance strategy.”

“Organizations must account for mobile.”

“Information needs to be delivered to the right people in the right place at the right time.”

“Information is now user-centric. It’s all about the stakeholders.”

“BYOD can introduce threats to the security of your organization’s information.”

“Organizations need trusted cloud providers.”

“Our data-driven solutions provide for intelligent management of your organization’s information.”

“[Product X] will help you meet your customer needs, and it is highly scalable to your environment.”

“[Product X] allows you to reduce compliance risks.”

“[Product X] enables you to streamline LOB/B2B processes while realizing improved ROI.”

“Our open platform and APIs enable seamless integration with all products in the history of humankind.”

“Users expect a simple, straightforward experience.”

“Email presents a special challenge to the organization.”

“Organizations must implement a total/holistic content strategy.”

“We simplify your content lifecycle while enabling you to control, organize, and secure your data.”

As a profession, we can and should put pressure on solution providers to cut to the chase. We have a discipline that we work in, study, and master: don’t walk us through chapter one of Intro to RIM. Granted, there are some solid and promising products out there, backed by company people who really want to provide solutions. That said, we’re too smart for the same old jargon. Let us agitate against rhetorical product razzamatazz. Some may say, “Well, that’s just sales talk.” No! Let’s call vendors to the carpet. Let’s ask them exactly what they are offering, based on our knowledge of the discipline.


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