Reflection on ‘Recordkeeping theory, models & strategies and today’s workplace’ March 2021

By Barbara Reed

Our recent Recordkeeping Roundtable event was inspired by James Lappin’s recent article, Rival records management models in an era of partial automation.

This was a welcome contribution, partly because so much of the current records discussion is being focussed down on how to implement records controls into an environment that is actively hostile to implementing our professional standards and practices. The advent of the Microsoft 365 juggernaut has thrown recordkeeping practice into something of a spin. Our carefully crafted records controls are all but impossible to implement in any sustainable way. Practitioners are struggling with the pre-defined way that the application forces operations when alternative methods are preferable. In that environment it is almost compulsory to question our methods and to work out what can be jettisoned as no longer relevant.  

Yes, the juggernaut technologies can be configured for individual work places, but such configurations are fragile. The ever-greening philosophy of ‘as a service’ software continually breaks such individually crafted configurations. Information structures embedded in the technology are inherently based on organisational structure  – and as recordkeeping people we know how subject to change these are.  Documents are typically treated as one off, rather than presented in threads or connected trails.  Add on products, which move records out of the native production environment are available, but are these any more sustainable in the long term than through constant ever greening? Many promising approaches embodied in add on applications that do recordkeeping, have already fallen by the wayside. 

Microsoft, and indeed Google, are products largely coming out of the American workplace. There is an argument to be run that the US approach to recordkeeping is largely post-hoc, after the event, leaving a large amount of individual discretion to the individual to document their work, only imposing control after the business has ceased to be active. That model does not suit the recordkeeping approaches of all cultures. Yet, we are all stuck with this approach because of the market-power of Microsoft, Google and other technological giants. Efforts are underway in some jurisdictions (notably the UK), to connect with Microsoft particularly in order to seek some modifications – but really, why would Microsoft bother with small niche players like recordkeepers if organisations generally are not that bothered.

Clearly, we need to think about how recordkeeping is done now and into the future. If we cannot apply our crafted management techniques, what options are available, and how relevant are our current theories and strategies in the current work environment. It was this that spurred the Recordkeeping Roundtable event. Where are the great new ideas on how to manage records in this intrinsically un-record friendly environment? And do our principles and strategies still have relevance?

While there are no conclusions available, I was left with the following directional musings:

  • The recordkeeping principles defined over the past decades largely hold true and will act as guiding principles into the future
  • business systems as the locus of operational work should be encouraged, and our efforts should be focussed on those systems operating on the risk intensive processes over time
  • high risk, highly regulated or highly monitored environments will follow the Chris Hurley’s adage (following Sue McKemmish) that human beings are intrinsically record creating animals.
  • Recordkeeping is not stand-alone, but exists in close collaboration with other professional colleagues (IT, data managers, privacy managers, risk managers etc), perhaps collectively grouped as information governance practitioners
  • if all we can do is gather the whole and then sift using artificial intelligence/machine learning techniques, well, this is where we are at the moment (this is a problematic, post hoc answer bringing with it the need for attention to algorithmic accountability, bias and scalability issues. And by the way, our skills in functional analysis will be critical here, too)
  • our skills in strategic functional analysis are critical to determine a risk based approach working out where to place operational emphasis
  • reinvigorate digital archiving and digital preservation skills for the enterprise
  • enterprise wide digital repositories (not bound by location) may be one way forward to assist with sustainability issues (different, less responsive, more post hoc, but potentially viable)

Clearly the recordkeeping community continues to strive for ways to manage in this new environment. The environment will continue to shift. Some technologies may be more inviting than others. But concentrating our collective endeavour on building edifices on shifting sands may not be the strategically intelligent thing to do. While we spin our wheels doing this, there is a whole other set of huge conversations going on that we need to attend to. 

We need to liberate ourselves from the words. As recordkeepers we bring a way of thinking about the world that continues to be vital. That is focussed on documenting the context of creation (the work), but also on sustainability of reliable information beyond the immediate business environment for longer term corporate and social accountability. Regardless of whether the words ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘information resource’ are used, the recordkeeping sensibility applies to all. That recordkeeping sensibility is informed by well established and continuingly relevant principles, analysis techniques and implementation flexibility. If you want to keep ‘it’, understand ‘it’ and reuse ‘it’, you need to apply a recordkeeping sensibility regardless of whatever word you use to categorise the resource.

My short (non exclusive) list of things to pay attention to is here:

  • Empowering individuals to assert their rights to records previously regarded as organisational record
  • Data sharing protocols between organisations
  • Data sovereignty movements
  • Data provenance (called data lineage)
  • Algorithmic accountability

The Recordkeeping Roundtable is committed to rethinking the present and enabling a vibrant future. Let us know your thoughts!

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Reflection on ‘Recordkeeping theory, models & strategies and today’s workplace’ March 2021

  1. I agree with this statement: ‘concentrating our collective endeavour on building edifices on shifting sands may not be the strategically intelligent thing to do’. Also, in relation to this statement ‘Efforts are underway in some jurisdictions (notably the UK), to connect with Microsoft particularly in order to seek some modifications’. The IRMS established a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) with Microsoft Compliance area (the area primarily responsible for making changes to recordkeeping functionality). The CAB includes representatives from the UK National Archives (TNA), NARA, the Victorian PRO and many other archival institutions. The CAB has identified several very specific changes that could be made and is working with Microsoft to address these.

  2. Pingback: GLAM Blog Club May – Snap – newCardigan

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