“Yes, I Was Burned but I Call It a Lesson Learned”*

By Mimi Dionne posted 08-25-2010 03:25


    Each morning, I open two tabs in my browser window that refresh all day: The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.  I find the FT more compelling and informative than TWSJ, but reading both helps me cut through bias. The career advice from FT is significantly better, more experienced and real. I like all of the management columnists, but a passage from a recent article by Luke Johnson, published June 1, 2010 entitled, “Risk-takers rarely fit corporate culture” stays with me.

Big companies have cultures that punish failure more than they reward success.They can become so consumed by office politics that there is no energy or optimism left for genuine experimentation. Their hierarchical, centralising tendencies mean originality and initiative are stifled as a matter of course. Many new endeavours can appear dangerous or foolish at first sight and are easy to undermine within a bureaucracy. So the default position becomes inertia.

Just because it reads like a horror story doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If the excerpt attests to the cold, strict ultimatums of failure versus success seen through the eyes of corporate policy, how does this inertia affect one of its more important intellectual assets: the Records and Information Management program?

     Unwittingly, I chatted about the practical implications of this question with a dear friend of mine earlier today.  Her words echoed spookily the tenor of Johnson’s opinion. Scheherazade narrated:

This week I was in a room with several other people, negotiating an electronic records initiative. As their digital repository presentation concluded, they said that Records Management would own the back end—I could design as needed, but the objects in the electronic repository would be copies only. I thought for a moment about the records implications of move versus copy—how copying undermines the very foundations of good records management practices. What happens to the objects in their original locations? I asked. Oh, they stay where they are, the group replied. What about storage costs? I said. Deleting the clutter and the risk? Are we supposed to compare images from the repository to their original locations, one by one, to designate the final version? We’ll get to that later, they replied.

The more questions she posed, the more anxious the presenters grew. Scheherazade found herself unable to resolve her hesitancies with the group.  She tried to conclude the meeting as the only dissenting opinion in the room. Here’s where it gets interesting: the group wasn’t willing to conclude the meeting unless she agreed to their terms.  She thought carefully and realized that the average tenure of the employees in the meeting was at least fifteen years. Compared to her two, for the first time in her career she debated internally: how much is this level of effort to change their minds worth to me in this moment, this double-dip recession? I can go back and clean it up later, with more staff and more tenure in the next few years. 

     In other words, how does our Records friend show progress, byte by byte, and keep her job?

     Once upon a time I would counter Scheherazade with, “through the use of allies” or similar. Thanks to Johnson, I’m beginning to question my preconceived notions. For example, what is the real percentage of attorneys who rail, “thanks to that crazy Judge Scheindlin NOW we have to keep everything?” versus those who understand and respect the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure?  What about the mystique of the CIO? Is it gone? Are these good folks actually Directors of Technology or are they managing information? Consider the movie-of-this-week drama between HP and Dell over their would-be girlfriend 3Par. She’s the cutest girl in the room because she accessorizes with data storage. Predictions of the paperless office be damned.  Storage is serious business.  Is the microcosmic example of the counterbid indicative of the macrosmic outcome of a failed electronic records management program?

     Before I put my hairshirt on, I assert that we are all basically very nice people in an individual setting.  None of us—no one—willingly places their boss in a tenuous position (if you do, stop it: that’s irresponsible, callous, and rude and you should know better. You were Raised Right.).  But occasionally the little accident happens or the wicked herd mentality does take over, as evidenced by our friend’s story above.  The true dilemma is the nature of the work: on the one hand, Records colleagues enforce retention rules, but on the other we must appreciate and move with the culture to implement a program successfully.  We garner this experience through lessons learned over time.  I will always maintain that this is one of the most delicate balancing acts in a company today. As we wrapped up our call, I pointed out the article to her.  “Send me the link,” she said. “Better yet, just send me your blog entry—you’re going to write about this, I just know you will.”

     For our friend, Scheherazade. If it’s any consolation, none of us—no one—is alone in the struggle.

*Lessons Learned, Ms. Alicia Keys, ©2007.

#FederalRulesofCivilProcedure #3Par #electronic records management #HP #ElectronicRecordsManagement #Dell