The Magic Touch: balancing autonomy and automation November 25, 2016

school children performing balancing exercises in 1913

One of the persistent challenges of digital records management is the creation and capture of appropriate records of our business. In our current digital environment, records creation and capture is largely decentralised. There is no longer a cardiganed records manager creating and filing records on everyone’s behalf. Instead, users are responsible for creating and capturing records themselves. One of the risks of this approach is that important business information can be lost when users are too busy or for other reasons fail to create and capture records of their work.

For decentralised records creation and capture to succeed, we need users to do the right thing. Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, once told boy wizard Harry Potter that ‘we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy’. In digital records management we don’t want people to face that choice at all. We would rather give them the option of doing what is both right and easy.

How do we make this possible? With the rise of user-centred design, we have been pursuing seamless user experiences. When properly executed, this would have users rightly focused on doing the work they are there to do, whether it is managing payroll, investigating a child abuse case, or policy formulation. Good authoritative records, lush with relevant metadata, would be created as a by-product without any conscious input from the user.

To achieve this, both content creators and records managers need to be consulted at the design stage. Here are some of the factors we need to consider.

Business process is different to recordkeeping process

The business process is the process you work through to achieve the objectives of your business unit. The recordkeeping process is the process needed to make trustworthy and authoritative records of your work. These two processes can overlap significantly. However, one tends to focus on the business rather than recordkeeping. Targets, deliverables and KPIs for a business unit are linked to business outcomes, not recordkeeping outcomes.

When the processes overlap, it is simpler to create seamless recordkeeping workflows. For example, a business system that calculates and manages payments might require the user to enter data and figures into the system. When the user enters that data, she or he recognises it as being necessary for their work. The fact that that information is captured into a record as a result of that work is incidental to the user.

When the recordkeeping process does not overlap, this can interrupt workflows and create blips in the user experience. For example, you might have to manually save your emails into your corporate recordkeeping system because they aren’t automatically captured into it. This requires a relatively small action from you every time an email needs to be captured. We recognise that this seemingly simple task, when ignored often enough, can create significant risks for business.

We all need to take responsibility for accountability

We often hear feedback that users think of these tasks as bureaucratic busywork – that recordkeeping is only important for compliance or accountability. It is easy to agree in an abstract sense that compliance and accountability are good things, but users can readily rationalise them as organisational responsibilities in order to absolve themselves of any call to action.

There will be many instances where technology can smooth over these recordkeeping blips, but equally we must recognise that there will be instances where a user’s thoughtful input into a recordkeeping decision is preferable. The challenge is to strike the right balance between using technology to automate recordkeeping processes and giving users autonomy in their decision making.

Choose the right systems for automated recordkeeping processes

There are many recordkeeping processes that can be automated, including capturing records into the corporate recordkeeping system, titling, and classification. The fewer the functions a system performs, the less configuration it requires. Conversely, a system that manages a broad range of functions and has many possible recordkeeping outcomes needs much more careful configuration to ensure that the records and metadata it captures meet your organisation’s needs.

A system that indiscriminately captures information, records and metadata without attention to your business needs can be problematic. You can easily find yourself overloaded with information that is uncategorised, difficult to search and has little or no value to your business.

Business systems and processes that are streamlined and highly transactional are good candidates for recordkeeping automation. When a user completes a form while providing a service to a client, it is easy for them to link that action to the outcome of their business unit. In instances like these, the business process and the recordkeeping process align very well and the user experience of recordkeeping can be seamless.

Sometimes you just want a bit of autonomy

Users are likely to respond better to greater recordkeeping autonomy for the types of work that engender a sense of ownership, such as research papers, policy formulation or other records that involve iterative drafting.

There is always some risk to information capture when users have a high level of recordkeeping autonomy. In these instances, there are two conditions for capturing full and accurate records. First, the user must have the correct knowledge of how to create and capture the required records. Secondly, the user must be conscientious in performing these recordkeeping actions. If the user does not give recordkeeping enough priority, important information can be lost. This can happen for many reasons, from trying to cover up wrongdoing, to people simply putting off their filing because they are too busy.

Given these issues, what is the benefit of giving users recordkeeping autonomy? One argument is that it is a concession to persistent user behaviours. Users can be very resourceful at finding work-arounds to restrictive work practices, particularly where the restrictions are seen to be uncritically driven by compliance. For example, we often hear of situations where locking down network drives has led to records being saved into increasingly obscure locations including personal drives or removal media. Users can see this as an unwarranted inconvenience because they want somewhere to save their drafts and working papers until they are ready to share them.

The risk of taking an all or nothing approach is that sometimes you end up with nothing. In these instances, you would need to consider whether it is better to have business information stored in loosely controlled environments, such as network drive, or in hidden or uncontrolled environments that you cannot access at all. Neither is desirable and it will depend on your circumstances which of these options is the least risky.

A way forward

It is easy to be critical of scenarios where ‘ICT drives the business’. We should be equally wary of falling into a trap of ‘records management driving business’. We are always looking for technological innovations to improve efficiency and accountability, and to enable us to better leverage Government data. Amidst the alluring opportunities of the burgeoning digital industry, we often find ourselves trying to apply technological solutions to behavioural problems. Experience shows us that this can work when the business process and recordkeeping process are closely aligned, but it isn’t a magic bullet. We must continue to consider the human factor as we try to find the balance between recordkeeping autonomy and automation.


Image credit: SRNSW: NRS15051/1/4, [197]

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