The future of records management and the implications for RM education – a personal view

The following was published in Informaa Quarterly, the official magazine of the Records Management Association of Australasia (RMAA), November 2010

Recent debate about the most appropriate name for the RMAA has underlined a fundamental shift in the way some members of the profession sees themselves and wish to be seen by others.  It has highlighted an apparent gap between records managers and information managers, a gap that may reflect emerging differences in the type of knowledge and skills of those who lay claim to either description.

Despite the name, the records management profession continues to evolve, in some cases struggling to find relevance or acceptance in the face of the digital information universe. Records managers must learn new skills to survive, skills that will require more knowledge and understanding of technology than ever before.

In 2004, the authors of the book The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works concluded that American employees needed to improve their skills for the 21st century.  One of the most frequently cited extracts from the book was that ‘the top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004’.

Whether that statement has come to pass or not may never be tested.  Nevertheless, it is probably true that records management jobs, just like many others, have undergone change with the impact of new technology over the past two decades.

Many professions that were once paper based now work almost entirely with computers. Their knowledge and skills are programmed into the applications they use, the information they need to do their jobs is accessible on their screens whenever they need it.

Some jobs have either vanished or morphed iteratively into new ones. Secretaries and typists have largely disappeared in western countries, replaced largely by executive assistants.  The records management profession has undergone similar changes.

The old registry premise, based on physical objects (files), still exists but is giving way to digital-only methods of managing information.  Most records managers have adapted, evolved, and learned new IT skills, some even taking on the name information managers.

Are the skills being taught now to records managers suitable to sustain the profession into a future digital world?  Are records managers really learning skills suitable for this future?

Will the professional be overtaken by a new profession, the name of which has yet to emerge, populated by individuals who are, currently, still in primary school?

Let’s consider the possible nature of work in 15 years from now and the skills that I believe will be needed by records managers.

The working environment of 2025 will be different.  Born digital records will be the primary form of a record, and paper versions will be the exception, printed only for reference. Digital readers will be commonplace.

The meaning of a record will change.  This change will include a shift from the concept of a digital record as a single binary object with (separately stored) associated metadata, to structured data probably using a form of XML much like we find in the docx we see today.

Records will cease to be something ‘different’ from other forms of information, or needing to be ‘declared’.  They will instead be all types of information created, received or stored by an organisation that is not personal information.

Information will no longer be stored or presented in pre-defined collections or aggregations based on the legacy classification structures of the old physical world of records, but viewable dynamically, ‘on the fly’, fitted to a user’s profile and interests.

We will witness a change in the way organisations communicate, both internally and with the external world.  Communications will be almost entirely conducted via mobile devices and with real-time interactions between clients.  While some older forms of technology such as word processing, spreadsheets or email may still exist, mobile computing applications will be the primary method of working and communicating.

New forms of search will find and present information depending on who we are, where we work, and what access we are granted, as well as our professional and private interests.

Data visualisations will help us to make sense of the zetabytes of data, to interpret and understand it, and possibly to help us decide if and when to destroy it.

In this new world, the skills required by records managers (or whatever their future name may be) will be increasingly focussed on the ability to understand and manage structured data rather than unstructured digital objects with associated metadata.

Records managers will use search, data mining and reporting tools, apply logical rules, and ensure that information is truly destroyed from all locations when no longer required.

The legacy, digital ‘black hole’ from the 1980’s through to the 2010’s will become an area of historical interest, mined and accessed through tools that will be developed from discovery and forensic methods used in the early part of the century.

Digital preservation will become a specialist new profession, one that will emerge as a much sought after role, drawing on the old email archiving and storage platforms of earlier decades.  In this new world, where records managers are focussed on digital records, the job of managing any remaining paper records that are not sent to archives will become a new specialist role, more in line with the current archivist role.

This will be similar to the role that some librarians will have in the future managing the old physical books, compared with the new age librarians managing digital content on mobile devices. Digital records, in the broader and more encompassing definition, will be managed by records and information managers who will have stronger IT knowledge and training than today’s records managers.

They will occupy the space currently located between the records management and information management professionals who manage EDRM systems and the IT staff such as database administrators who manage the organisation’s applications.

These new “records and information managers” will need new skills to develop governance policies and procedures for all types of information.

They will drive paradigm shifts to the meaning of a record, and the way records are managed, in a fully digital world. These new roles don’t yet exist.  The individuals who will fill these roles don’t know it themselves either.

They are still in primary school, the children of the age of social networking.  They have grown up in all digital classrooms where USB-based memory ‘sticks’ are the only way they know how to submit an assignment, where laptop computers and other portable devices are a given.

In 15 years time, when they appear in the workplace, Facebook and Twitter will be forgotten remnants of the digital past, as distant a memory as Usenet is to the present generation.

The records and information managers of the future will not only understand how to manage and use digital information, they will expect nothing else, leaving paper to older records manager and archivists who failed to keep up and were left behind in the digital explosion of the early 21st century.

Reference: Robert Jones, Kathryn Scanland & Steve Gunderson.  The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works. (2004).


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