The Strategic, the Tactical, and Agile Records Management

May 20th, 2016


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.)

I’ve been asked in the past to provide budget estimates for five years into the future. My response is internal laughter, and tears. Understood, this is a typical practice, but the provision of a high-quality estimate for five years out, unless you are a quant evaluating special, massaged, projection data (and even then…), is a bit of a stretch at best. Ask yourself to accurately describe your records program in 2021, presuming that we all operate in variable environments and then see how sure you feel about it. Look back on some best-intentioned estimates and strategies of the past.

There’s a treacherous point in the pre-execution phase of projects and programs when a team can freeze and spiral into ongoing chatter without action. I’ve lived through several such examples. Anyone who actually proposes a “plan of the plan” in these instances must be regarded with suspicion. “We need to continue this conversation” is another loose and indefinite statement, popular in academia, that can lead down the same endless hole. Conceptual frameworks can be foundational and highly valuable (e.g. EDRM and OAIS), and they can also be overkill, hollow, and worst, unrealized after great effort.

The Strategic

RIM/IG is very much an art form, and we shortchange ourselves if we aren’t open to chunking our work, switching gears midstream, and sometimes “just doing it.” In most organizations, furthermore, RIM/IG trenches don’t always provide us with a neat, pretty state within which to operate. Strategic thinking, even with risk management, is often forced to assume a relatively even state of ongoing operations. But some deft chaos tolerance is required in reality. It’s ugly at ground level, waiting on non-responsive stakeholders to weigh in on retention schedule updates, waiting for software versions to align like the stars, dealing with sudden leadership or organizational changes, etc. And strategic prescriptions get dated: witness the well-intentioned but long-broken DOD5015.2 software requirement set that is still sitting out there. Look at the unwieldiness of big, last-generation ECM and ERM solutions (that 5015 was designed for) in the cloud era. We are experiencing such fast and fundamental shifts in the record generation, stewardship, and threat environments that strictly long-term eyeglasses, rather than bifocals, can harvest tomorrow’s stale and musty failures.

Disclaimer: of course, we need some strategy and long-term thinking in order to evolve and execute balanced and successful programs. Goals over objectives over actions is a necessary exercise for anyone serious about developing a program-level endeavor. I’m not touting a pure “shoot from the hip” approach. Rather, a proportion of tactical, opportunistic, and real-time point solutions must be a part of any result-oriented records program. The info pro must be agile enough in the now to shift direction and create program movement that may not have been in the planning book even months ago. And we sell ourselves short if we think ourselves incapable of doing what psychologists would call “thin-slicing.”

The Tactical

I’ve heard “tactical’ being derided as a junior or short-sighted approach to program management. This is unfortunate, because the pace and churn of our digital records environments are happening at a chaotic speed. Perhaps an understandable fear of whack-a-mole problem-solving is tied to the notion of uninformed, quick and dirty execution. But correctly taming chaos with tactical solutions is a necessity.

There’s much to be said for leveraging existing resources or advantageous opportunities and then running with them, taking the shortest distance between two points. Opportunities occasionally present themselves that enable us to detour and execute beneficially, as long as we are operating within the mission. Mission and improvisation can coexist. They must. In institutions much larger and more complex than my own, I’d imagine that impromptu, tactical possibilities are exponentially greater. In-transit revisions for the better are not a bad thing.

But it’s is not to say that we should hurry into every effort and just slam square pegs into round holes. The trick is to identify those opportunities for unscripted success, even if incremental, to be realized discretely in the relatively short term, minus the blah, blah baggage. These small-scale opportunities should be seized with vigor. We might substitute “agile” for “tactical” to illustrate with a few examples.

Agile Records Management

For several years, the IT world has embraced agile scrums and sprints as a common practice. Larger objectives are broken into pieces, and the pieces are each addressed within a relatively short period of time, rather than years. Some efforts may be set aside in the process while more achievable ones are executed. Change is accommodated. Bottom line is something gets done. This model is broadly transferable to the information management world. So, what are some of the places where it can apply?

Retention schedule development takes time. Identifying and publishing relatively straightforward record categories (e.g. 7-year financials, permanent archival records) is a good and possibly quick place to start. Running with collaboration-friendly departments in developing or updating uncomplicated series of the retention schedule can also get things done.

We’re undertaking a massive scanning project with one of our departments. Initially defined as a “document management” project, we refined the scope to step one—convert 85 four-drawer file cabinets of records into PDFs and get them into a searchable, safe, file share. Get it digitized, period. Our simple Box cloud environment is already saving our client many hours of time while providing novel research connections that weren’t available with the file cabinets. We can extend this environment with supporting apps down the road, rather than spending a year drawing up a bulky, requirements-heavy, enterprise DM/CM solution that we can’t afford in the near term.

Speaking of “can’t afford,” timing is not always covered by strategy—we have a new Brandeis president joining us in July, which leaves major initiatives awaiting his direction. Here, again, agility is indispensable—what can we do during a transition with small money bags? How can we add value in a constrained environment? Any 2014 strategy didn’t foresee the resignation of our former president in 2015. Substitute M&A and divestitures for leadership churn and you get the drift. Under such conditions, scaled-down, under-the-radar, “pilot” projects are an alternative to big-bang, heavily mapped-out, cross-institutional rollouts (ocean boiling).

Digital preservation solutions, increasingly a RIM/IG concern, are another example of where small and quick is replacing big and slow. Brandeis is assessing products that provide what the POWRR group would call “good enough” preservation. There have emerged some relatively affordable and turnkey solutions in this formerly exclusive area, for those of us short on budgets and staffing. Dig pres has become a commodity. Traditional project management 101 would have us assembling a tome of requirements first, right? Well, we inverted the classic model of requirements first and moved directly to free vendor solution demos, to inform us on the end-state offerings to which we would aspire, from where we are now. With some internal collection prioritizing, sizing, and metadata design, we expect to select and pilot a digital preservation solution before the end of the calendar year.

Recovery, or corrective agility, is an important part of agile records management. For example, our secure, sensitive records destruction bin footprint quickly and “successfully” grew to over 25 bins across a geographically complex campus, impossible to navigate and find by visiting vendor drivers seeking to empty them. We responded with a clustering approach, internally collecting and consolidating contents from campus regions into fewer pickup locations. This wasn’t in the original plans, nor is it rocket science, but it’s a necessary and improvisational reaction to ensure smoother services.

Industry agility is another necessary form of navigation. The blockchain technology buzz reminds us that we need to be agile not only in terms of daily operations and opportunities, but also in terms of the industry spaces that we do, don’t, may cease to, and might possibly occupy. As we likely see blockchain-type encryption, algorithms, and AI taking over some of our digital gatekeeping functions someday, this agility will be necessary for finding the sweet spots where our evolving expertise applies, and long-term strategy may not predict where this will actually be until we get there.

Strategic planning has its place. Tactical ain’t so bad. And agile RIM/IG is a necessary component of any modern records program.

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