Saturday, March 11, 2006

The future of RM debate

In a previous post I mentioned that my article "ECM is Dead" provoked a lot of discussion. Some of that is still ongoing but basically there were three main threads to the debate:

  • Lite ECM
  • The future of RM
  • Alan's status as a 'pretender and idiot'

As anyone who knows me, the last point really got my back up :-)

I will come back to the lite ECM debate at a later point - and have been asked by another magazine to write a more substantial piece on how to select such products, so will pick that debate up then.

The future of RM as a standalone discipline though is the one on top of my mind. And what follows is in edited form the key themes and thoughts that ran through this debate, not my own thoughts as such. First though its important to say that I was genuinely suprised at how this debate developed. Though some contributors fell into the third camp of 'Alan doesn't know what he is talking about' most took my suggestion that RM needs to look again at how it moves forward in good spirit. Two major elements discussed were:-

  • The professional status of RM professionals
  • Broader classification categories for 'records'

To take the first point up, there seems to be a lot of concern that RM professionals are not taken very seriously in the business, and that maybe more training and certification is required. Although more training is generally always a good thing, I am not sure that this truly addresses the problem. In my own field (fingers crossed) I hope to be employing a number of high quality strategic advisors for our clients - covering the topics of ECM/RM/WCM etc. People who truly understand the business concerns, the technical dimensions and limitations - and can quickly assess a complex situation and advise the client on how to move forward. But where the heck am I to find such people? There is a need for professionals to come through - with an understanding of Information Architecture, Record Management, Document Management and Business Dynamics. But people I interview today are either technologists or just bright generalists who may over time pick up the skills. Can CRM's grow into that role? I don't know...but bottom line is there currently is a major skills gap - and in my opinion we need to start training people who understand the lifecycle of information from creation to destruction. RM is an element of that - and dedicated RM specialists are also an element of that - but that is just not enough. RM needs to get more strategic, have a bigger and more ambitious vision, and is need of a makeover.

The second topic that generated a lot of discussion and more directly referenced my article was on the need to look again at RM methods of record classifications. In particular the need to become less dogmatic and to develop bigger classification buckets for content, that accept that the huge volumesof information now being generated will grow not decrease, and that the 'cubbyhole' mentality to borrow a phrase is no longer practical. The phrase "Pragmatic RM" really seemed to resonate.

I think this debate though is not just about RM, its about managing information and we have few information management specialists. I am one of those who has in past lives built genuine compound/virtual documents. And anyone (and I mean Anyone!) who has done this knows just how quickly one comes to regret such an exercise. The tools (Documentum or whatever) are superb and do a great job of supplying usable functionality to build and maintain such things. But they quickly fall into disuse and the level of fractionality that one can sensibly develop is extremely limited. To take a book analogy, one can manage chapters in a compound document, but even though the functionality is there to take it to paragraph level or less - it simply stops making sense after a while. To look at it from a different perspective most RM departments that manage paper records do so superbly. Things are where they should be and can be found immediately. Converting much of that paper to electronic media is pointless. As the volume of paper - though it may seem large is actually in manageable
proportions. Whereas the volume of electronic documents is so huge as to be virtually impossible to manage in the same way, using the same categories and methods.

I will pick this post up at a later point, but as I will be in Finland on monday and tuesday - London wednesday - Las Vegas thursday & friday I may be doing more sleeping than typing!

In conclusion - RM needs a major rehaul of its current practices. What is being done now is good and I have great respect for RM professionals (it is my own background too - but the RM community has been slow to respond in terms of practical and pragmatic new methodologies to manage todays electronic needs. In parallel the growth of DM and ECM without a concurrent growth in business professionals means we have quite a chasm to cross.

RM - WCM - ECM is about Information Organization, the barriers between each are valid at a technology level to some degree, but in a usage manner are artificial. In short we all need to work together to figure out how to remove some barriers, respect others and to develop a new empowered and professional workforce that can step up to the task.


David Gillespie said...

"Whereas the volume of electronic documents is so huge as to be virtually impossible to manage in the same way, using the same categories and methods."

Its worth remembering that electronic systems have a significant advantage that was simply never available to a paper system - search. When you can search you don't really need categories. When you cant search (as with paper) you need really good categories and lots of them. Perhaps that fundamental difference is a leap that some in the profession are struggling with? Are some folks stuck in 1996 when the only way to 'search' the internet was to use Yahoo's hand build categories?

alan pelz-sharpe said...

You are absolutely right David - but I have effectively manage large volumes of documents (and helped clients do same) without search engine help.

I guess my take is that if the structures are logical and simple enough, things get put where they belong.

The issue at present (I think) is the volume one, but its also the fact that information 'architecture' is so under-rated or poorly done, that the volume plus the poorly structured folder environment equals chaos.

I guess I am a bit of a fundamentalist at heart. If its properly filed, you don't need a search engine. Or rather you only need one to find 'miss-filed stuff':-)

Wm Creamer said...

A thought provoking post but I can't agree. In the legal field we've been dealing with hundreds of thousands of pages, both electronic and paper based, for a long time. We find a combination of search tools and classification methods to be essential to good retrieval rates. I don't understand how you can "effectively manage large volumes of documents without search engine help", if you are also not categorizing them, but I would be interested in hearing how you do that. Thanks.

alan pelz-sharpe said...

Apologies, had not meant to suggest no categorization. Simply that too many rely on search for structure.
The structure, through 'useable' and enforced categrorization and lifecycle management of content - should be easily navigable.
Hope that clarifies rather than confuses further :-)

David Gillespie said...

hmmm ... I guess my point was that in a physical world (where search is not an option), the next best thing (massively accurate categorisation) had to be created and enforced or no-one would ever find anything.

In an electronic world there are more options available than intense manual categorisation. One of the problems we see every day is RM projects being stalled at the 'defining the categories' stage because what is being attempted is a mass categorisation definition ala paper records.

In other words I am violently agreeing with you. What is needed is a combination of (many) fewer buckets (categories) AND technology (like search engines) to have any chance of coping with the kind of (email driven) volume expected by compliance officers today.

This is where I very much like your term 'pragmatic RM' it is RM driven by pervasive compliance needs and is only loosely associated with RM in the sense it understood by most people today.

alan pelz-sharpe said...

We do agree - my point (as is yours I think) is that the near perfection of a paper based system - 99% of docs found where they should be, and the 1% not, found within approx 4 steps. Should be replicable in an electronic environment.
Currently of course the electronic environment finds 80% or less - and completetly loses the 1-3% that was very poorly filed.
Its getting the balance right between technology and human intervention. Search tools play a role, but my key point (if I still have one) is that well structured and well filed content - be it paper or electronic - will always be the ideal.
This whole area is something I am currently really struggling with. What is essential, what is overkill???