There is a sense of frustration in the records management profession. An informal show of hands in a session on professional education at the recent ARMA conference showed that most of the attendees had college or university degrees in library sciences or archival studies. Few had degrees in business or technology.

The problem? Records management in the 21st century is all about business and technology. Over the last generation a disconnect has developed between the skills developed and the skills needed to be a successful, strategic manager of corporate records. The self-described “control freaks” of the content management world are finding it difficult to flourish in the social, mobile, collaborative business of 2011.

Brian Hill, Principal Analyst with Forrester Research Inc., has recently completed a survey in conjunction with ARMA International. The results are eye-opening. Today's records manager often has little input or visibility into strategic planning. 43% of the records managers had no idea what their technology budgets are for next year, despite the fact that 53% of them expected to deploy RM software in 2012.

Perhaps even more worrisome is that over the last two years, the participation of records managers in IT strategic planning has declined, according to Hill's survey.

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It's the Soft Skills, Stupid...

The good news is that records managers understand that their voices need to be heard, and recognize that they have work to do. Professor Victoria Lemieux of University of British Columbia delivered a workshop on the future of library, archival and information studies programs in higher education. Attendees were very vocal on what skills need to be developed early in a records management career: project management, communication and leadership skills, technical expertise and methodologies for continuous process improvement.

The records management profession has historically attracted the librarians, the cataloguers, the filers. In the paraphrased words of one workshop participant, “We gravitated to this line of work because we like the quiet of the back-office.” Years of advice to be more strategic, market yourself, evangelize the value of records, sell the importance of the department does not seem to have its intended result. Perhaps because it's not easy to convert an introvert into an extrovert.

How Do We Fix This?

Records managers need to develop these soft skills in order to be heard and get to the right budget and planning meetings. The excuses of no time, resources or training budget won't help: Nothing will change until the individuals inside the profession get this done.

  • Cultivate good presentation and public speaking skills. Prepare to make a positive impression during meetings and workshops. Do your homework, know your subject, develop simple, clear slide decks as talking points. Dress for the boardroom, not the file room. Conquer the fear of public speaking by volunteering to do training sessions, presenting at local chapter meetings or joining a Toastmasters club.
  • Embrace social media instead of just warning against its risks. Share your expertise. Start a blog, exploring the themes you know best. Be cognizant of any corporate social media policies and ensure you're not disclosing anything confidential. The records management world is always hungry for practical tips, lessons learned and “how-to” from real practitioners. Join relevant groups on LinkedIn or other professional sites and keep your profile up-to-date. Start a Twitter account and follow industry thinkers, favorite vendors, consultants, analysts and practitioner peers. Share links to the article or blog posts you like, or have written yourself.
  • Figure out how to find your own Cognitive Surplus. What act of consumption can you replace with an act of creativity? Can you give up one hour of TV to spend one reading a book on marketing, business planning or project management? Can you use a lunch break to bookmark or download audio or video tutorials on improving spreadsheet or XML skills? Can you cut back on routine dull meetings and do more with collaboration, wiki or internal social media tools?
  • Learn the lingo of your audience. Understanding if your IT department uses a waterfall or agile project approach helps you figure out how to plan your time and participation. Learning their processes means being seen as a helpful resource. Figuring out the pressures faced by business managers during product or program launches helps you set deadlines and deliverables that won't conflict with the way they are measured and rewarded.

Risk is a Four-Letter Word

But it doesn't have to be. Risk management and mitigation is a fundamental goal of a records and information strategy. Records managers who want to deepen their involvement in the business and technology planning activities for their organization need to understand that some risk is necessary. The rise of the web, of mobile and social technologies, of new business models all under the specter of economic uncertainty means change is inevitable. Innovation cannot happen without risk.

In the words of Julie Colgan, Certified Records Manager and Director of Information Governance, Client Advisory Services at Merrill Corp., records managers need to “let go of ‘perfect’ and get really comfortable with ‘good enough.’ The business world almost never wants to invest in perfect. Perfect has only occurred in the basement.” Understanding the strategic compromises that can be made to deliver better, faster services to the business without compromising compliance mandates is the core diplomacy 21st century records managers need to learn.

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