13 April 2010

Ten Years After: RIM Standards Evolve Slowly

Ten years ago, the tech world was still exhaling in relief and self-congratulations on dodging the Y2K bullet. Leading-edge records managers joined the techies, smiling that their fledgling stock of electronic records were largely intact; disaster recovery tactics went unused.

In this heady environment, a group of RIM luminaries adapted Australia’s DIRKS (Design and Implementation of Recordkeeping System) to worldwide applicability. In 2001, ISO published a records management standard, 15489, that remains an important reference and guide for measuring RIM success today.

Eight years later, ARMA International published its Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP), which owes much to ISO 15489. To call it derivative is not quite accurate. Think of it more as a re-interpretation that reflects the changes, the evolution of RIM over a ten-year period.

That GARP and 15489 have much in common is not surprising. The discipline of Records Management, dating back, at least, to the 4th Century BCE, evolves slowly, befitting its heritage and longevity. Unlike practices based on ephemeral developments, RIM wears technology like a runway model at a fashion show: She shows dress after dress, but the walk never changes. Records’ value is in the content, not the visible format or medium. The best practices of records management evolve with the needs of the records users, and those morph slowly over the years. Records managers rarely say, “Gee whiz!” to mercurial novelty.

(It is possible that the current buzz words -- Cloud Computing, Web 2.0, and others that rapidly multiply the entry-points and touch-points for records -- may accelerate the evolution of RIM, but that is conjecture at this point.)

Ten years offer only a narrow perspective of changes in RIM practices. Nonetheless, there is value in noting the differences between ISO 15489 and GARP. The Delta helps us see how the role of the records management professional has changed.

There is considerable, basic congruence between ARMA’s GARP and ISO’s 15489. Both encourage improvement, not perfection. Every records program, not matter how good or bad, can get better

Six basic areas overlap: Availability, Retention, Disposition, Protection, Compliance, and Integrity. While the wording varies a bit, ARMA and ISO agree on these, basically.

However, the ISO standard lacks GARP’s first two principles. Accountability and Transparency describe RIM’s governance and explicitly stated organization; policies; and strategies. This is analogous to metadata. It is not about the mechanics of keeping records, but, rather, the structure, politics, budget, and administration of organizing and sustaining records’ usefulness within an organization

GARP’s addition of Accountability and Transparency to the canon reflects the different roles records management filled in organizations in 2000 (when 15489 coalesced) and GARP’s natal year, 2009. At the millennium, records management was a disciplined service. It was largely paper-based, and its roots in library science were apparent. By 2009, it was Records & Information Management, a tech hybrid, striving for recognition as a full-fledged profession, parallel to legal and finance.

On the other hand, ISO 15489 offers guidance in two areas that GARP largely ignores.

First, ISO 15489 articulates the use of records management to measure and reduce organization’s risk. GARP, and its derivative Maturity Model, imply that as recordkeeping practices improve, that is, become more mature, the organization will inherently lower its records risk. But it offers no guidance for the kinds of decisions that records managers make regularly, balancing needs and costs to find an acceptable level of risk.

Similarly, ISO 15489 gives considerable attention to the role of records management in organizations’ operations. It requires records management to continually contribute to the improvement of business processes. This tends to cost-justify a records program based on improved efficiency. GARP alludes to improved operations in its Availability principle, but the Maturity Model mentions return-on-investment only at the highest, or Transformational, level. Making the case that implementing GARP makes good economic sense requires inserting a couple of extra steps that borrow from 15489.

In a decade, the discipline of records management “rose from the basement to boardroom”, to quote ARMA workshops. While still a business service, today’s records leaders carry consultative and strategic responsibilities as well. Part of GARP’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to give new “Chief Records Officers” a tool, language, and model easily understood by other management professionals. Intentionally, GARP derives from the financial world’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. It is both content and packaging. In 2000, such a need was only a glimmer.

ISO 15489 are complementary – different but without contradiction. Both serve records managers well. In 2010, records programs need to meet internationally-accepted standards more than ever. Simultaneously, records managers can try to make their programs, as GARP puts it, transformational.

The RIM program that subscribes to both GARP and ISO 15489 will 1) be full-featured and 2) function effectively. Aspiring and progressing toward both appears to be a path toward a successful program.

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