Q&A with Steve Bailey, Senior Adviser at Jisc infoNet

Get your questions answered by key people in the information management profession.

This time: Steve Bailey, Senior Adviser at Jisc infoNet

Q: How did you come to work in records and information management?

A: During my teens I was pretty sure that I wanted to work in an area directly associated with history (my favourite subject at school).  During my time reading History at university I briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing a career in academia but ultimately decided it probably wasn’t for me.  Researching my final year dissertation into 19th century rural social activities first exposed me to primary sources and to visiting archives.  The work of the archivist seemed exactly what I was looking for: a profession directly related to history, but with a clearer focus and more practical function than academic research.

I started to do a little background reading regarding the training required and entry routes etc and set out to get enough voluntary work after leaving university to give me a crack at obtaining a place on a Masters course.  And here is where the hand of fate intervened!  I had just finished an interview with the Archivist at the Kent Record Office when one of his staff, Richard Leonard, came up to me and told me about how the pharmaceutical company Pfizer ran paid year-long industrial placement schemes in their records management department for people in a similar position to myself.

At this stage I had never even heard of records management and it had never occurred to me that the large industrial plant (that I could just about see from my bedroom window at my parents’ house) would ever cross my professional path.  But to cut a long story short, I wrote a letter on spec which just happened (unbeknownst to me) to arrive the week they were processing the applications they had received for that years placement.  I got an interview and got the job.

The year I spent in the Records Management Unit at Pfizer completely changed my professional perceptions and goals.  I was exposed to some cutting edge developments in terms of the management and archiving of electronic records and became fascinated with some of the challenges involved in managing modern records in a corporate environment.  By the time I secured a place on the Archives and Records Management Masters at UCL I had become convinced that my future lay in records and information management, rather than historical archives.   It was rather fun being pretty much the only one on the course whose primary interest was on the records management side of things.

During my Masters a permanent job came up as Assistant Records Manager back at Pfizer which I took as soon as I completed the course and my professional direction was sealed!

Q: What part of your role at JISC do you enjoy the most?

A: The variety, and the different branches of information management in its broadest sense that it exposes me to.  I first joined Jisc in 2002 and moved to Jisc infoNet in 2007.  During that time I’ve been involved in projects and initiatives spanning what we might think of as ‘traditional records management’ through to business intelligence, research information management and web archiving.  Interestingly, despite the apparent breadth of this brief many of the underlying issues and challenges end up looking remarkably similar…[1]

I also enjoy the range of tasks the role involves: everything from running projects to writing articles and facilitating workshops to presenting at conferences.  There is never a dull moment and no two days are ever the same.  Because of Jisc’s remit working across the entire UK further and higher education sectors I have also had the privilege to work on some great collaborative projects with other national and international bodies over the years.

Q: How much of a Records Manager’s daily life involves communicating with the rest of the organisation?

A: I would hope the answer is ‘a very large proportion’.  It’s vital for any records professional to get out there and be integrated into the daily working life of the organisation.  Sitting in the basement counting boxes and waiting to receive whatever next happens to come your way is no way to serve your organisation, or your own self interests.  The Records Manager needs to know what is going on, what the issues are affecting the organisation and those who work within it with a view to then being able to tailor their ‘offer’ accordingly.  We must always remember that records management is a means to an end, not the end in itself.  In order to work out what that end (or ends) really are its essential that we speak to people, understand their needs and do our best to find ways of meeting them.

Q: What do you think the top five most important features of an EDRMS are?

A: Usability.  Usability.  Usability.  Usability and, yes, Usability.

We can insist on all the records management functionality and standards we like.  We can obsess about MOREQ compliance, metadata fields and records declaration until the cows come home, but the simple fact is that unless our users like it and see it as a useful tool to aid their daily working lives and EDRMS will fail – as far too many projects have found to their cost…

Q: Do you think it is possible to run a successful records management service without an EDRMS?

A: Absolutely!  In fact I’m convinced that the view to the contrary has probably done more to hold back the records management in the UK over the past 15 years or so than anything.  By obsessing about EDRMS and falling into the trap of believing they were the answer to everything and that it was pointless to even try thinking beyond one we severely undermined our professional creativity and credibility.

EDRMS may work for certain types of organisation, but there are an awful lot more out there who, whether for reasons of size, ethos, culture or function they are just not a good fit for.  I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I have had over the years with people in organisations who have stalled or abandoned EDRMS implementations lurking in their organisations.

Records management is about finding solutions to problems.  These problems are inevitably specific to their particular context and require bespoke solutions that do not have to start from the premise: “so how can we make our EDRMS relevant here…”

Q: With the proliferation of electronic information do you expect to see any major shifts in how organisations manage their records over the next 30 years?

A: Lordy, that’s a tricky one!  With the current rate of technical change I think it’s difficult to predict the next 3 years, let along 30.  You only need to think back to how the world was in 1983 and how much has changed since to see the problem of thinking too far into the future!

But so as not to appear to be ducking the question altogether, I think it fairly safe to assume that the pervasiveness of technology and the volumes of information created are both only going to continue to increase into the future.  To my mind this tends to suggest an ever growing shift away from local information storage towards Cloud based provision: if only to take advantages of the economies of scale and the convenience of access on mobile devices.

I’ve written and spoken many times in recent years about the fundamental challenges to the archive and records management professions that this represents; taking away in a single swipe many of the pre-requisites that established records management is reliant upon.  There is a recording of a paper I gave at a European Digital Archiving conference a few years ago which covers many of these themes[2]

Q: How do you see records management practitioners having to develop their skill-sets in the future?

A: IT skills are an obvious area.  This brings up the age-old debate about whether we should try to teach records managers IT skills, or IT professionals records management skills.  Heresy as it probably sounds, I’m afraid I some time ago drew the conclusion that it was time for us to hand it over to IT.  I spelt out my reasoning for this in a presentation at the ARA conference last year (also repeated for an Australian conference via video so available for viewing via YouTube if anyone is interested).[3]

The other main areas are in business process analysis and user requirements gathering.  These both stem from the need already mentioned for records managers to produce solutions which are a precise fit for the organisations and the users they serve.  This inevitably requires a detailed understanding of both and the ability to capture them in sophisticated and nuanced ways.

Q: Where would you recommend new Records Managers look for CPD opportunities, and what sort of CPD opportunities would you suggest?

A: My basic advice would be to get it from the horses’ mouth.  So if you feel you do need training on business process analysis or example, go to an expert in that area – rather than looking for a ‘process analysis for records managers’ type of course.  The risk otherwise is that you are relying on someone else to determine what is relevant to you for your role.  It’s also less likely that you will receive the most up to date or authoritative training in the subject.

Q: You wrote some years ago about an ‘Amazon.com’ style records management system where records could be rated by usefulness and users would be directed to certain related/popular records, similar to Amazon’s ‘customer’s also viewed’ function. Have you been able to explore this idea any further since?

A: Sadly, no, though the potential of what has since become known as ‘analytics’ in other areas and for other purposes is growing hugely.  Universities, for example, are beginning to make use of student activity data automatically captured by their library systems and Virtual Learning Environments to identify students whose behaviour indicates that they are at risk of dropping out of a course (reduced library attendance, late submission of assignments etc).  This can be monitored automatically across the entire student cohort, with those at risk then being flagged when they meet pre-defined criteria thereby enabling course tutors to offer additional assistance etc.

This may seem a long way away from tracking user behaviour as a means of automatically managing records but the underlying logic and potential is exactly the same.  I still believe this is a concept that has the ability to transform the way in which we manage records – and possibly the only way which will enable us to keep pace with the volume of information now being created and requiring management.  It’s an area I am getting increasingly involved with through my business intelligence work within Jisc, but I’ve not yet managed to find away of joining this up with the records management agenda.  Watch this space!

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