As the experience of ARMA 2014 fades in our rearview mirrors, it’s peculiar to think that hindsight becomes paradoxically sharper. The time elapsed following an event allows one to better reflect and integrate the experience, and for me personally, this has meant several realizations about the evolution of the records management space. So before I speed off towards the sunset and next year’s event, I thought I would share some of my findings.
Not too long ago, discussions with records professionals were NOT always easy. I harken back to ARMA Expos of yore, as memories of 2013 dance in my head. In one particular instance, I remember speaking with a records manager from a large company who had stopped at our booth. She had all the standard questions about what ZL does in the records space. As I explained that we’re much broader than most exhibiting solutions – we archive multiple data types and leverage those for multiple business needs – she demanded that I narrow it down.
“You handle email and all files. You’re an archive, you’re definitely not an ECM,” she said. I began to dip my proverbial foot into the muddy waters of what makes a record discussion, explaining, “not all emails are records, but sometimes emails BECOME records…” and I was quickly cut off.
“Lunch emails are not records,” she exclaimed with a slight degree of exasperation. I replied, “Of course, but that data still requires a retention policy.” Before walking away, she sternly said, “Well, retention is my job too. Retention AND records. And I know emails aren’t records.”
This dialogue has been commonplace in the records space until very recently – and this notion of proprietary content between different business groups within an enterprise has been standard as well. Legal teams – as it would seem -- would rather walk on hot coals than be responsible for anything that is not entirely their own. But this year, at ARMA 2014 in San Diego, I felt a noticeable shift in this thinking.
In past years, it’s been a sort of tug-of-war where discussions could begin civilly and quickly turn violently defensive if a certain practitioner felt your discussion implied an over-stepping of bounds, or obsolescence of “traditional” records management principles. But this year, there was little of that. A quiet, understated changing of the guard had occurred… or at least had begun. With initial explosion of electronic communication data, there was an instinctual aversion to taking on the responsibility of managing that data. I’m not sure if the stubbornness has worn off, or if we’ve just become more familiar: older and wiser. Perhaps the enormous legal repercussions of mismanaging and ignoring electronic content had become evident enough in itself. Either way, there was general acknowledgement that records management was just one piece of the information governance puzzle, and that records managers themselves were stepping into the bigger shoes of information management.
The glacial advance toward acceptance is one example of the several tectonic shifts occurring in the records space, and it’s probably why ARMA – an association that identifies inherently with records – is expanding its own scope. Adapt and evolve, or be rendered obsolete. Five years ago, records managers cared only about contracts, HR /personnel files, or really anything whose hard copy had once belonged in a filing cabinet. Stuck in a world of skeuomorphs where analog imagery such as floppy disks and paper folders continue to represent much more abstract digital functions, it’s understandable that there would be some resistance to an abruptly-shifted paradigm. The human grasp of the physical world is far too deeply engrained to shake off overnight, and the records space was just enduring the cognitive growing pains that any organization would have experienced in that situation. Change for an individual is hard. But change for a large, multifaceted hierarchy such as records management is even harder.
At this year’s ARMA show, I spoke with records professionals who played integral roles within many other departments of their companies – compliance, HR, legal, etc. – and their biggest concern revolved around managing a higher volume of data for which they were previously not responsible. The scope of the colloquially-defined “record” has finally expanded. There was widespread acceptance at ARMA that a record isn’t as it always as it seems. All unstructured data, by default, needs to be thought of as having “record” potential. And as I interacted with more attendees, it was clear that this was the prevailing mindset, regardless of how each company or individual was attempting to tackle the issue technologically.
Perhaps this shift will mirror what ZL has been preaching for years. Data is created to serve an immediate need: emails drafted and sent for communication, documents created and delivered to send necessary information. But the business need for that document is anything but immediate. With production being a possibility at any point, data management must always be considered. It has been the norm for companies to separate their internal groups, creating environments in which data is copied and sent to different applications. Perhaps the shift in mindset seen at ARMA will result in a more management-focused approach in which data is centrally managed, and the applications go to the data for business needs like RIM and eDiscovery.
In the past, it has been tough articulating the newer technical terms to established professionals, let alone those from different backgrounds. And it was even harder to show that new practices like automatic classification of email for records and predictive coding for legal teams are based on the exact same technology. But the recent acceptance of information governance seen at ARMA gives me hope.
I had many conversations at ARMA 2014 this year. In one of them, I was again explaining how we handle emails for records, and how we can automatically classify according to user, content, labeling, and more. Yet I was cut off – “Wait, emails as records?” the woman asked. Here we go again, I thought. After a pause, she spoke up, “I actually don’t work with emails for records purposes, but I’m with our legal department. And what you’re doing with email sounds a lot like the predictive coding stuff I’m looking for.”
It’ll be some time before everyone in the loosely-defined Information Governance space is on board with governing ALL data for multiple business needs, but I’m happy with baby steps for now. Language is gradually converging. It’s clear that records dialect has subtlety changed, reflecting the concurrent underlying shifts in culture over the last several years in which the records space has realized the massive scope of both “records” and the records managers’ immense role in its governance.