Book Review: Managing the Crowd - Rethinking Records Management for the Web 2.0 World
Managing the Crowd: Rethinking Records Management for the Web 2.0 World. By Steve Bailey, Facet Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1856046411, 224 pages.
I'd like to start with a disclaimer: I am not a records manager nor have I ever been a records manager. My only official qualification in the field of records management is that I took a module in it whilst studying for my MSc in Information Management many moons ago. That said, this is not a book just for records managers. The overlaps with those working in other fields such as information management, librarianship, IT services, Web management, teaching, research etc. are many. Neither is it just a book for those interested in Web 2.0 and the applications involved. It primarily appealed to me because it is a book for people interested in change and how within our working environments we take on the challenges presented by our continually changing technical climate. It is a book for both those who have made a decision to embrace change and for people who are keeping their heads down below the parapet. In which case I think that just about covers everyone!
The premise of Steve Bailey's book is that in our world of data-deluge records management is no longer sustainable. Records management is by its very nature a means to an end (the protection and support of one's organisation); Bailey argues that as those ends evolve, so should likewise the means. As such records management must adopt a fundamentally different approach if it is to play a part in managing the records of this changing environment.
The book is sensibly ordered into three parts: the first of which outlines our changing world and Web 2.0, which Bailey calls the third IT paradigm (the first being the increased use of personal computers and the second the integration of the World wide Web into our culture). The second part explains why records management as it currently stands is not fit to deal with this change. Finally the third section offers ten defining principles for Records Management 2.0, the phrase Bailey has coined for this change in approach.
Part 1: The Nature of the Changing World
In the first part of his text Bailey details the ways in which Web 2.0 and its concepts have affected the records management world. He highlights a number of different areas; the most important for him being the increasingly blurred boundaries between domestic and business use of IT systems and the boundless growth in storage capacity, which has led to a situation where people would rather search for than manage information. He points out that because Web 2.0 has allowed users to create, share and store information in any way they choose without the need for corporate systems the balance of power as regards information has been tilted away from organisations and towards the individual. For example, blogs have fundamentally changed the concept of a corporate record because they raise issues about ownership and management. Bringing these technologies in-house is no longer a feasible option, Users will now increasingly choose to store their information externally.
The final chapter in this section sees Bailey use a depiction of an office of the future to demonstrate the process by which an organisation might well end up with all corporate applications outsourced. The scenario is not that far removed from what happens now and the progression is cleverly drawn: it is often small logical steps that take us to a new situation, rather than radical changes in direction. One can almost feel the rug being pulled from under the records management community's feet.
Part 2: Is Records Management No Longer Fit for Purpose?
In the second part of the book Bailey seeks to demonstrate how the principles that currently underpin records management were formulated in another age and no longer operate. Concepts like 'regardless of format', appraisal, retention and destruction are picked apart to reveal outdated approaches that have become habit rather than effective future-proofing strategies.
Bailey explains how the Data Protection Act (1998) and Freedom of Information Act (2001), two of the most significant legislative acts of recent times for records managers, have been embraced by the community yet have had no discernible impact on the outdated concepts that comprise records management.
The discussion about records vs. information in which Bailey engages was of great interest to me since I had had the same discussion not long before with a number of records managers working with me on the JISC-PoWR Project. Within records management, records are seen as in scope while information is out of scope; this concept is something that is very dear to the heart of all records management preofessionals. Bailey argues that this is a distinction which has now lost its relevance. The Freedom of Information Act itself demonstrates that the distinction of an item being a record is irrelevant as every element of information can be requested; therefore all information is potentially necessary to protect and support one's organisation.
Thus for records managers the items within their scope has exploded. While officially the percentage of data that falls under the records management remit is falling, in reality the percentage of information that may play a role in protecting an organisation's legal interests may be considerably higher. Bailey argues that a records manager's role is not to avoid responsibility but to embrace it.
Part 3: Records Management 2.0 and the Future of Records Management
In part 3 Bailey nails his colours to the mast by describing what records management 2.0 could look like and defines his 10 principles of records management 2.0  Bailey suggests a future where the user community collectively describes the value and properties of a record; where records retention, description and purpose are determined in part by users within general boundaries defined by the records manager. He feels that harnessing the wisdom of the crowd may aid current scalability problems and represent a way forward for managing records.
Bailey's defining principles advocate investment in a comprehensive, scalable system that is independent of specific hardware, software and location. Such a system should use Web-based technologies but also be extensible (and future-proof), enjoyable to use and it should be able to be applied to all recorded information. Bailey states that 'all information is at least worthy of initial inclusion and assessment…information should be assumed to be of value until proven worthless.'
His idea is deliberately undefined, but could follow the lines of a browser-based tagging system (similar to del.icio.us ) that allows users to tag records and offer feedback on whether records were useful and should be retained, based on operational need, legal requirements and historical interest. He also advocates the need for a detailed, complex and fluid policy framework to support such a system. Alongside technological and policy-based solutions, Bailey is also adamant that for records management 2.0 to work, it needs to be driven by the records management community, a community that must be self-critical and willing to learn from other stakeholder groups. Although Bailey's suggestions are still rough around the edges, he does argue that, whatever it may be, records management 2.0 is better than nothing at all, the only other option on the table.
Bailey's book will not go without criticism. Many of his ideas are deliberately provocative. For example, he suggests that records managers embrace folksonomies rather than classification schemes and metadata schemas as the main means of resource discovery for unstructured data. This discussion is one that has been going on in the information management world for many years and has led to harsh words from some librarians. Yet throughout the book he also maintains that there is no need to abandon traditional records management techniques if they work well.
For Bailey the text is only the start of a dialogue between himself and his community; to engage it he wants to stimulate discussion. The ability to criticise ourselves (and the way we work) is a great skill and as Bailey says, 'there are no sacred cows'.
This book offers up much food for thought. Bailey wants to wake up and shake his community. He wants to make them see that all is not well in the records management world and that if they don't start moving with the times then they will be pushed out of the way. He contends there is a very real possibility that records management as we know it will cease to exist; it will be outsourced.
It seems to me that the records management community should actually be pleased that they have a forward-thinking person sitting on their team. With this book Steve Bailey is doing both the practical and sensible thing. He is encouraging a much-needed debate on what records management 2.0 should be from within his own community of records managers. Now that sounds like a plan!
Many of these ideas are further discussed on Steve Bailey's blog: Records management futurewatch .
- Steve Bailey's Blog: Records management future watch, The 10 (published) principles of Records Management 2.0, June 2008
- del.icio.us http://delicious.com/
- Steve Bailey's Blog: Records management future watch