How Malcolm Gladwell can help you to develop better recordkeeping systems July 1, 2011

Happily Graduated
Creative Commons License photo credit: mikecogh

I’ve just finished Outliers, a brilliant book by one of Cassie and my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. (He also wrote The Tipping Point and Blink).

Outliers, it says on the cover, is ‘the story of success’. Through the book Gladwell tells the stories of many ‘outliers’, people like Bill Gates, The Beatles and lots of others, each of whom has been incredibly successful in their chosen field. Using detailed research, Gladwell teases out the stories behind their success. And the results are absolutely fascinating.

Gladwell’s central thesis is that true genius is not enough. You can be brilliant but this is no guarantee of success. He uses dozens and dozens of absorbing case studies to identify the critical factors that are required to support genius and enable it to flourish.

Now it’s just the way that my mind works, and full apologies to my hero Mr Gladwell, but reading his wonderful book made me think, ‘There are lessons we could apply to records management here!’ If you are in NSW government you are possibly very aware that at the moment, we at State Records are really concerned with the development of strong, capable digital recordkeeping systems in government. The compliance requirements for our Standard on digital recordkeeping are coming into effect and we are really trying to promote different ways and means of building good recordkeeping capacities into the diverse digital systems that government is using to transact its business.

So, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, here are some tips that I think we as recordkeeping professionals can take from his study of success to help us develop robust and successful recordkeeping systems.

1. Timing is everything

Success in so many of the scenarios Gladwell examines comes down to timing. Being ready and being in the right place at the right time. To look at how this could apply to recordkeeping system design, are there changes on the horizon you could utilise or take advantage of? Is an old system or process due for renewal? How old is your software – will an upgrade be scheduled in the next year or so? To coin another Gladwellism, is a tipping point imminent in your business environment? Can you anticipate requirements and develop a system that will succeed through being in the right place at the right time?

The need to define the records your organisation needs to make and keep about its high risk business functions that State Records is promoting at the moment is integrally related to this notion of timing. You want to proactively ensure that you have the records you need to sustain your key business operations, rather than find out too late that the records you need were not created in the first place. In these types of situations, timing is indeed everything.

2. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect

Gladwell uses dozens of examples to show that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time put into an endeavour and success, and between effort and reward. It’s not always possible in tight budget cycles and immediate business demands, but if you are developing a recordkeeping system, see if you can take the time to scope and rescope your project. Take time to talk to people, to read relevant legislation and requirements statements, to assess the risks you need to mitigate, to define the records you need to create, to establish exactly how they will be controlled and managed and to test and retest your solutions. If possible, build time into your development plans. A longer lead time with more extensive consultation and development could have significant pay-offs in terms of better system design and capacity and overall system success.

3. Never underestimate the importance of corporate culture and people’s attitudes

Gladwell’s book includes a range of incredible stories that show the very powerful impact of environment and culture on success. So, as was always emphasised in State Records’ Manual for the Design and Implementation of Recordkeeping Systems (the DIRKS Manual), keep your organisation’s corporate culture and business needs at the centre of your recordkeeping system design strategies. To successfully implement a system, you do need to acknowledge and utilise prevailing attitudes and ways of doing business. You can use this awareness in different ways – to successfully work within existing corporate cultures or to ease people and processes out of current negative cultures – but to achieve a successful outcome, a system needs to be designed and implemented with a full awareness of the environment where it is going to have to work and the people who are going to have to use it.

This point was also made in the research findings of Northumbria University’s excellent project, Accelerating Positive Change in Electronic Records Management (see The project identified that people-related issues are fundamental and need to be understood as critical to the implementation of any successful recordkeeping system.

4. Be alert and notice the details

Major threats to success don’t happen like they do in the movies, Gladwell argues. Usually there is no dramatic explosion or sudden catastrophic shut down. Just about every system failure is most likely to be the result of a number of small and quite trivial things going wrong, not one cataclysmic event.

So be alert to details. Think about the little things. Respond to what you may see as trivial or minor complaints. What you think of as minor grievances may be enough to completely derail your system implementation.

Think strategically and consider all points of view, including possible future scenarios. For example, in the short term, when you need to implement a system in a hurry, you may think that excluding record disposal tools and processes from your system scope is a justifiable decision. But in a couple of years time when there are significant volumes of records in your system, the cost of system remediation to retrospectively incorporate disposal or the cost of all that data migration will likely be much higher than the initial disposal development costs.

5. Prepare for success

Gladwell argues that success doesn’t just happen. It needs to be cultivated. To translate this into a recordkeeping framework and to cite lessons from the DIRKS Manual again, a system will never just work on its own. You need to cultivate your business environment and lay the groundwork for the successful implementation of a recordkeeping system. You can do this by talking to people, identifying the problems they have with business processes and establishing how improved recordkeeping can help to rectify these. Empower people, give them the confidence to know what to do when a new system is implemented. Explain the benefits that can be achieved and their role in obtaining them.

Give people and your systems every opportunity for success. Provide all the training you can, all the integration you can, assess all the risks that you can, facilitate all the business needs that you can. Communicate your message in as many different ways as you can, to as many people as you can.

Apologies for the massive simplification of Gladwell’s messages and of the system design process but you never know: If you provide every opportunity for success and you might just achieve it!

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