Records Management and Information Culture – Tackling the People Problem

How do you deal with the «people aspect» of the problem with non-compliance with records management programs? This is the question that the fairly new book «Records Management and Information Culture – Tackling the People Problem» by Gillian Oliver and Fiorella Foscarini, tries to answer. Not a small endeavour, indeed, and, after having read the book from cover to cover, I still believe that the «soft» approach, which the book advocates, is not the best route to go.

In the introduction, the writers state that the purpose of the book is twofold. One is to add a «people centered» view on records management and all its challenges, the other is to provide a concrete framework to aid in solving the issues at hand. They go on to describe how «information culture» is an integral part of a new conceptualization of records management – recordkeeping informatics – and explain that

    [t]he notion that records are static objects that can be inventoried is completely at odds with our world of complex and emerging digital technologies and systems. Records are evidence of business transactions, thus they are inextricably linked with actions, with doing something. Identifying and listing the outputs of activities that continue to take place as the organization carries out its functions is a time-wasting and ultimately profitless endeavour. Identifying and understanding the processes of the business, however, and making sure that knowledge reflects ongoing developments within the organization, will provide insight into the records that need to be created and managed.

I doubt that anybody disagrees with that. What there might be disagreement about, however, is how to get to the point where the evidence of the business transactions is adequately preserved, and, of course, what the word «adequately» entails in this context.

I’m not going to quote much more from the book (although I could – it is very «quotable»). Anyone who wants to read it, can get it from Amazon or Tanum (Norway)). I’m not going to offer any warm recommendations though. I think the book is too indecisive as to what it wants to achieve and say, and I think it mostly states what most records managers (should) already know. The sections where concrete advice are given on how to go about tackling the people problem, comes off as more arbitrary and simplistic than useful and innovative.

One thing I found very interesting though, was the descriptions of cultural dimensions, defined as power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, pragmatism and indulgence, developed by cultural theorist Geert Hofstede, and the possible application of these dimensions to our understanding of the records management realm. Individualism, power distance and uncertainty avoidance might be the most relevant to records management. I have never really reflected on how the lack of understanding the need to comply with common records management rules or the need to document our actions in general might be rooted in cultural aspects of my own society, and that my attempts to change the way my colleagues prefer to do things might very well be hindred by a lot more than my ability (or lack thereof) to persuade and win people over. Further descriptions of the Hofstede dimensions, and the very interesting country comparison tool is available online, here.

I still remember my first records management «teaching» experience, more than a decade ago now (WOW…). I was co-instructing a course in the EDRMS that was being implemented where I worked, and I was explaining to one of the course participants how to do something (I don’t remember what it was, but that’s not important). I was completely taken aback by how fast this man was clicking everywhere. It was mesmerizing to watch, he was moving the pointer and clicking and shifting images so fast that I was unable to follow what he was doing. I eventually had to take over and show him.

This incident has stayed with me, not because it was particularly profound in the greater scheme of things, but because it demonstrated so clearly that no matter what tools we have, or how they work or are supposed to work, people will use them in different ways. What is displayed on screen does not look the same to me as it looks to you, and I will deal with it in my way not matter how I’ve been taught (or not taught) to deal with it. And I truly believe that the challenges this poses cannot be handled in a good way by talking to, interviewing and trying to persuade people to do things the «RM way».

We need to get to a place where the systems and the technology support what we want to accomplish, regardless of people’s preferences. When we get there, we will have truly tackled the people problem.

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