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Historically, records management was the responsibility of a small number of specialist staff members within an organisation.
With the shift towards electronic records (including documents and e-mails), efforts have instead turned to rolling out an electronic records management system (RMS) across the entire organisation.
The challenge then becomes ensuring that staff throughout the organisation adopt the use of the system, and take on the added responsibilities involved.
Up to this point, many organisations have attempted this ‘enterprise’ implementation of records management, but few (if any) have succeeded.
This article explores, from a new perspective, the challenges involved in rolling out a records management system, identifying three critical success factors for widespread adoption.
For a long period of time, records management was a fully centralised activity, with a small team of specialist records managers handling the needs of the entire organisation.
The discipline of records management grew up around this model, leading to the creation of applications and classification schemes designed for specialist users.
The growth of electronic records has, however, had a dramatic impact on this approach to records management.
No longer practical to managed via a fully-centralised model, records management has instead been decentralised throughout the entire organisation. This has led to rollout of records management systems to be used by general business staff, and not just specialist records managers.
The fundamental challenge of rolling out a records management system is that for it to be successful, it requires the active involvement of all staff.
If staff choose not to file documents in the system, or don’t use it to search for existing documents, the system (and the project as a whole) has failed.
This introduces a tremendous change management challenge, one that involves a widespread transformation of business processes and practices.
It is this challenge that is explored in this article: how to get staff to use the records management system.
What this article doesn’t cover
We have worked extensively in organisations to improve the effectiveness and usage of corporate intranets, particularly in the public sector.
As part of the intranet reviews conducted, issues relating to records management have inevitably arisen. This article draws together the observations gained as part of these projects.
This article is therefore written from the perspective of ensuring the adoption of a software solution (and associated business processes and practices), rather than specifically on the practice of records management.
We don’t claim to present any records management wisdom. This is not an article that covers retention, disposal, or other specialist issues. For guidance in these areas, seek the advice of a recordkeeping professional.
Instead, this article explores how to ensure that staff will actually use a records management system.
Three critical success factors
From observations of many different records management system rollouts through organisations (most of which haven’t been successful), we have identified three areas that must be addressed:
- SoftwareThe design and usability of the records management software, with a particular focus on ease of use for general business users.
- Classification schemeEnsuring the classification scheme is designed to ensure general business users store records in the correct location, and to help them find records again at a later date.
- MessageThe ‘message’ that drives the internal communications and change management efforts, beyond simply ‘you must use the software’.
Each of these critical success factors is explored in the following sections.
All three critical success factors must be addressed
Records management systems were designed to be used, and used very efficiently, by experts.
With a centralised user base of specialist records managers, these systems were developed to provide powerful tools to speed the day-in, day-out work of these staff.
As a result, most records management systems are hugely complex. In most systems, simply filing a document presents the user with a huge dialog box with dozens of drop-down lists, buttons and options.
While the design of these systems has served the records community well for some time, they are now out of step with the needs of the new users of records management systems: general staff throughout organisations.
For these staff, using records management systems, as they are currently designed, can be a terrifying prospect.
The need for simplicity
Users are overwhelmed by the complexity of most records management systems. In fact, it is fair to say that the very poor usability of these systems is one of the single greatest barriers to project success.
Beyond this, it can be argued that unless the usability issues can be addressed, enterprise-wide records management projects will never be successful.
What is needed is a simple interface that is at least as easy as other mechanisms staff use for filing records (formally or informally).
A number of approaches have already been taken in records management projects:
- centralising the creation of new files
- limiting the areas of the software that most users have to interact with
- providing training, ‘cheat sheets’ and other support tools
While these have been valuable, none have tackled the fundamental design problems of most records management systems.
Instead, organisations should plan to usability test any records management system being implemented, with the expectation of having to address a range of issues and problems.
While in the short-term, this will end up being the responsibility of organisations implementing records solutions, pressure will inevitably be applied on the vendors themselves to improve product usability.
There are many competing platforms for storing information
There are many different competing platforms that users can make use of when saving records:
- e-mail inbox (or other e-mail folders)
- Outlook public folders
- local drive
- network drive
- collaboration tools and team workspaces
- Lotus notes
- paper (personal files, notes pinned to walls, etc)
Some organisations have attempted to eliminate these other mechanisms for storing information, with the aim of forcing staff to use the records management system.
For example, access to local drives or network drives is restricted, thereby removing one of the most common locations for saving documents.
While this may have some positive impact on staff usage, the frustration generated will invariably increase the resistance to change within the organisation.
Unless there is a strong culture of record keeping (such as in a legal firm), staff will find new (and creative) ways of ‘passively resisting’ the rollout of the system.
In many cases, they will continue to use their existing filing methods (however ad-hoc), or find new (and simpler) alternatives to the records management system.
Fundamentally, staff will (and should) use the solution that is easiest and most effective for them. The challenge therefore becomes to ensure that the records management system is very easy to use, on par with other options available to staff.
Consider making the records system invisible
While ensuring the usability of records management systems is vital, some have argued that a necessary step is to make the systems entirely invisible.
In this model, records management systems are seamlessly integrated with core business systems, whether e-mail, customer management systems or front-line applications.
When records are filed from these systems, the context of the users current activities are used to pre-fill most (or all) of the details required by the records management system.
In this way, the system becomes little more than a menu item and a simple dialog box. There are already systems in the market (particularly in the field of document management) that are exploring this concept.
Whatever the approach, effort must be taken to reduce the barriers that are currently making it too difficult for staff to file records, even when they are self-motivated to do so.
Two: Classification scheme
The classification scheme within the records management system serves three main goals:
- helping staff to determine where to file records
- assisting them to find (retrieve) records
- meeting statutory requirements
At present, the strongest emphasis within most projects is on the last of these goals.
Particularly within the public sector, the adoption of records management systems is being driven by the demands of the Archives Act. This typically leads to the adoption of a ‘functional classification scheme’ (such as Keyword AAA or a variation of it).
These schemes work from general concepts down to the most specific, and are primarily designed to assist in meeting the legislated requirements relating to archiving and disposal.
Staff must understand how to file and retrieve records
Finding and storing records
While meeting statutory requirements is important, widespread usage of the records management system primarily rests upon meeting the first two goals (filing and retrieving records).
In this era of enterprise-wide rollouts of records management systems, the users of the classification scheme have changed dramatically.
While historically the classification was only really used by the centralised records management staff, it will now be used by staff throughout the organisation.
In order to meet these needs, the classification scheme must be understandable by general business staff.
It is clear that:
- If staff are unable to easily determine where to file records, the records management system will become littered with mis-filed documents.
- If staff cannot easily find documents at a later date, then they will simply abandon use of the records management system entirely.
For these reasons, the effective design of the classification scheme becomes an imperative.
Caloundra City Council case study
An earlier article presented the findings of a usability review of the classification scheme proposed for Caloundra City Council.
In this project, the Council planned to implement the Keywords for Councils classification scheme (a derivative of Keyword AAA), but had identified that the success of the project as a whole would rest on the appropriateness of this scheme.
A small-scale usability test was therefore conducted of the classification scheme. This identified a number of important issues:
- success rates in using the classification scheme were highly variable, across both users and tasks
- staff had considerable difficulty understanding the top level of the classification scheme (functions)
- most staff think at the most specific level
- experience with the records management system or classification scheme did not improve levels of success
(For the full details on the case study, see the article Evaluating Caloundra City Council’s EDMS classification.)
Design the classification scheme for the majority of users
Design for the greatest audience
In light of these findings, it is apparent that the classification schemes typically used may not be appropriate for general staff within an organisation.
While training and support may assist to some degree, they will not eliminate the problems generated by an inappropriate classification scheme. Reliance on such approaches will also burden organisations with a never-ending requirement to continue this training and support.
The alternative is to implement a classification scheme that is designed for the greatest audience: general staff throughout the organisation. Taking this path not only reduces the need for training, but also directly addresses one of the greatest causes of frustration with current records management projects.
There have already been a number of organisations that have moved away from the functional classification scheme for some (or all) of their staff.
Instead, records are classified in line with the core business processes in the organisation. For example:
- legal firms file documents according to client and matter
- councils file according to customer or area of land
- project managers file according to project
- customer service staff file according to client (for example, in CRM systems)
While these examples do not provide a complete solution, they do demonstrate the value of exploring other approaches to the classification scheme.
Use practical usability testing and IA techniques
Practical testing techniques
Thankfully it is not necessary to rely on a philosophical approach to determine the most effective classification scheme.
Instead, organisations can use a range of practical testing techniques to assess (or design) a classification scheme. Taking this approach will ensure that the end result will be useful for staff throughout the organisation.
The Caloundra City Council case study presents one simple and cost-effective approach to usability testing a records classification scheme. This was completed in only two days, and gave sufficient information to suggest an overall approach (more research would have been required to rework the classification scheme).
Tree testing provides another mechanism to directly assess how well staff can understand and use a classification scheme (whether for a records system, or for an intranet).
For more information on this technique, see our earlier article Tree testing for effective navigation.
Beyond these two techniques are a range of approaches that can be drawn from the fields of usability and information architecture.
Implement two schemes?
While we have focused on techniques and approaches for implementing a scheme designed for general users, the statutory requirements must still be met.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to propose a total solution to these two potentially conflicting needs, one approach is to implement two classification schemes.
The first scheme is staff-facing, structured along business lines. The second scheme is a functional classification scheme (such as Keyword AAA, expanded to include core business functions).
A mapping is then maintained between the two schemes. General business staff only ever see the first scheme, while records managers use the second scheme to manage retention and disposal.
A number of document management systems in the marketplace have already implemented this approach, demonstrating its feasibility.
Of course, considerable work is required to maintain these mappings, but at least this is restricted to the staff best able to manage it (recordkeeping professionals).
Identify a message that will drive adoption of the solution
Too many records management implementations are driven by a single message to staff: “you must use it!”. This is generally supported by highlighting the importance of records management, and the organisation’s legislative responsibilities.
The problem is that most staff are fundamentally disinterested in the concept of records management, and there is no easy way of generating the required enthusiasm.
While records management is extremely important for the organisation as a whole, and for those responsible for information management, simply highlighting this to staff will have little effect.
In most organisations, the net result of this approach is to generate small pockets of effective record-keeping (where staff can see for themselves the relevance and value of records management), while the rest of staff essentially ignore the rollout.
Can’t be enforced
The biggest challenge for records management staff in rolling out a new system is that staff can’t be forced to use it.
While the establishment of suitable policies and guidelines is certainly required, these alone will have little impact on uptake throughout the organisation.
Furthermore, few (if any) staff directly report to the records team. Even when the message is driven down from senior management, staff have many ways of ‘passively resisting’ the rollout.
While a ‘carrot and stick’ approach is often recommended for these types of projects, in practice, the ‘stick’ is generally not practical or possible.
Instead, the records management project must encourage uptake amongst staff, by identifying one or more messages that will engage staff.
Look for the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor
‘What’s in it for me’ factor
What is generally missing from change management and internal communications activities conducted for records management projects it the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor.
While the benefits to the organisation as a whole are clearly articulated, the more immediate benefits for individual staff are not highlighted.
For records management projects to be successful, these individual benefits must be determined and then clearly communicated.
Aligning with business activities
One approach for determining the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor is to strongly align the records management system with core business activities.
For example, project teams have a clear need for an effective way of storing, tracking and communicating project documents. By promoting the solution as a ‘project management solution’ (instead of a records management solution), interest and usage can be generated.
Those involved in customer service or client relations have a similarly clear need, as do staff in legal or contracts sections.
In all of these cases, the needs of the individual teams are determined, and the records management system is designed and promoted accordingly.
This model of records management rollout is an incremental one, with uptake being ensured on a team-by-team basis. While it is much slower than a single enterprise-wide rollout, it is much more likely to generate sustained usage.
Align the records solution to key business processes and needs
A more general message
While the approach outlined above can be very effective, it is best suited to those sections of the business that have clearly defined processes and needs. For the rest of the organisation, a more general message will be needed.
This message can be determined from the observation that most staff are clearly aware of the inadequacies of their current ‘personal information management’ practices.
Staff are flooded with information every day that they have a desire to keep, and they struggle with a variety of methods, none very effective:
- retaining messages in the e-mail system, until forced to delete them by IT
- storing documents on a shared drive, where the lack of consistent structure rapidly makes it hard to find documents, and generates many duplicates
- printing documents, and stacking them up in piles or pinning them to partition walls
Staff struggle with these approaches because no better solution has been provided to them.
If a better solution, in the form of the records management solution is made available, this will naturally lead to adoption.
The message then becomes:
“Storing your documents in the records management system is the single easiest way of ensuring you can quickly find them again when you need them in six months or a years time.”
This is the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor: a simpler way of meeting personal needs for storing and retrieving information.
Of course, this message will only succeed if it is actually true:
- the records management system must be quick and easy to use (the first critical success factor)
- the classification scheme must be designed so that staff can actually find documents again at a
later date (the second critical success factor)
If the records management system is genuinely designed to meet the needs of staff, then communicating this fact will inevitably lead to sustained use.
Internal promotion will only succeed if the system works well
While this article has focused on three specific issues relating to records management adoption (system, classification scheme and message), these are obviously not the only aspects that need to be addressed during the project.
Other issues to consider include:
- implementation of hardware and other necessary infrastructure
- deployment of the software
- migration of records
- records management policies and guidelines
- management of both paper and electronic records
- appropriate security measures
- ongoing resource levels
- integration with other systems (including customer management systems and the intranet)
- plus much more
While this article has not covered any of these issues, the focus on the three specific areas is deliberate, as they will have the greatest impact upon project success.
While all aspects of the project must be explored, failure to address the three critical factors will almost certainly lead to project failure.
Documents, not just records
As a final note, it is worth highlighting that while this article has focused on records management systems, it is equally applicable to document management systems.
In many cases, the two systems are now considered aspects of the one solution, referred to as an electronic documents and records management system (EDRMS).
Even when being deployed separately, documents management systems face the same challenges as their records management counterparts, and focusing on the same three aspects will have the greatest impact upon project success.
Projects planning to roll out records management systems across an entire organisation face considerable challenges, not least of which is that they require the active participation of all staff to be successful.
To achieve this level of cultural change, three critical success factors have been identified:
- Ensuring that records management systems are sufficiently usable for general staff throughout the organisation.
- Implementing classification schemes that are matched to the needs and working practices of all staff.
- Identifying a clear message that will resonate with users and drive real adoption of the records management system.
While there are many other aspects to be managed within a records management project, these three factors will have the greatest impact upon the