Technology and the Transformation of the Workplace: Lessons Learned Traveling Down the Garden Path

                                                                 Richard E. Barry

                                                         Principal, Barry Associates


[NB: This paper originally appeared as lead chapter in Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives, Bruce Dearstyne, Ed. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2002. It is published here with the kind permission of the editor and publisher. View the Table of Contents and Editor’s Preface and American Archivist REVIEW (Vol. 65, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2002).]

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss relationships between technology and workplace patterns that govern how records are created and to demonstrate the impact of these relationships on an organization’s recordkeeping risks and practices.  It reflects on more than forty years of personal work experience in information management and technology and the impact of changing technology and work patterns on recordkeeping.  So far, technology hasn’t changed what it means for something to be a “record” but it has certainly changed how records must be managed to minimize organizational risks.  This chapter’s premise is that changing work patterns produce new technologies; that the reverse is also true; that these changes govern how records are produced; and this, in turn, determines to a large extent how records must be managed.

Writing is a Technology

As used in the context of this discussion, the term technology is used in the broadest sense, including writing itself.  Walter J. Ong, S.J., says:

Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.  Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness…The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.[1]

Ong reminds us that while Homo sapiens has been on earth for some 50,000 years, the earliest writing system we know about was developed only about 3500 BC. It changed the way humans thought and how they communicated, remembered and preserved their thoughts. It was technology that ultimately made modern recordkeeping possible and legitimate. Before advances in printing, typically only first-person oral testimony and some forms of physical evidence were regarded as trustworthy evidence in courts. This advance in writing technology and the great cultural changes that it brought about in literacy changed all that forever.  Western legal systems changed to permit the use of evidence that was not produced in person by human witnesses, but rather in trustworthy written forms. The ‘exception to hearsay’ rule is still the basis for extending recordkeeping to the court system.

That workpattern changes produce new technologies and vice versa is nothing new. The above examples are not limited to the 20th Century or even the industrial revolution. M.T. Clanchy describes an earlier technology in which “tally sticks” used the medium of wood to create the “hard copy” record of business transactions, and also as a copying technology. Appropriate notches were placed on a wooden rod to indicate numbers representing a cash transaction. The rod could then be split down the middle to create a receipt.     Similarly, Clanchy tells us:

The most important equipment to the twelfth-century writer who composed for himself or wrote from dictation, as distinct from the copyist, was not the parchment book depicted in conventional portraits of scribes, but the writing tablets on which he noted from his drafts. The tablets were ordinarily made of wood, overlaid with coloured wax, and often folded into a diptych which could be worn on a belt. When something needed noting down, the diptych was opened, thus exposing the waxed surfaces, which were written on with a stylus. [2]

Might we envision the tablet as an early-day version of the hand held computer, without sustainable memory?  Why not? Clanchy goes on to say that “It seems to have been common practice for monastic authors to write on wax and then have a fair copy made on parchment.”[3] Is it such a reach to see today’s professional as a latter-day reincarnation of the 12th Century writer with her electronic “tablet” in hand, stylus at work changing a calendar or contact database that will be beamed up to her desktop computer later on?

Technology: No Proselytizing or Whining

Microsoft is about to put a trademark on a new form of tablet. Its “Tablet PC” team is busily working toward a 2002 product designed to use with all kinds of multimedia objects and conceivably become a replacement of, rather than – like current hand-held appliances – augmentation to, one’s notebook and desktop computers. Writing on the Tablet PC, Steven Levy says this is really the fruition of an early Xerox Palo Alto Research Center “Dynabook” vision.

The dream of a great tablet-based computer predates the PC itself. In 1971—when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still taking high-school classes and “portable computer” meant “get the forklift”—Alan Kay of the fabled Xerox PARC research lab sketched out Dynabook. It would be a light, intimate, keyboardless device that ran software based on his innovative Smalltalk language (a precursor of our now ubiquitous mouse-and-point systems)…[I]n 1972 PARC engineers…asked Kay if they could take a stab at building his “little machine.” Considering the state of technology then, it was amazing that they produced the Alto, a desktop computer whose screen looked like, well, a piece of paper. (The Alto was itself the inspiration for 1984’s Macintosh, which Kay grudgingly called “the first personal computer good enough to criticize.”) Since the idea was to make something not much bigger than a legal pad, the PARC people called the Alto an “interim Dynabook.”[4]

It is not my purpose here to proselytize technology or to suggest that it doesn’t sometimes bring with it unintended and undesirable human or social consequences[5]. I have sometimes challenged my archives and records management (ARM)[6] colleagues around the world to “stop whining about technology,” even though it gives them so much ‘heartburn’ in their difficult jobs of identifying, organizing for, preserving and otherwise managing the capture and disposition of organizational records. They are not in charge of workplace patterns or systems or the uptake of new IT in their organizations.  Even Chief Information Officers (CIOs) sometimes experience the same frustration with sudden spread of a new unapproved or unsupported software package around the organization that some early-adopter employee obtained for personal use and concluded that it could really make life easier in the office; it did and the word got around like a hot, new non-prescription remedy. The fact is that organizations and workplaces are like biological organisms. They grow and adapt, and we don’t always have full control over the ways they do. And that isn’t all bad considering that much adaptation is to make it work better.

Innovations In Work Patterns or Technology: Which Comes First?

Core organizational purposes should govern organizational aims and objectives and they should be the basis for the creation of business processes, which, in turn, should drive information (including records) and information management needs and information management architectures. These should drive information technology architectures and decisions. According to Ian Wilson, National Archivist of Canada, “An IM vision cannot exist without a business vision. In fact it is the business vision which should drive the IM vision and both, in turn, should drive the technology vision - or at least that’s the way it should work.” [7] That’s how I was raised.

This more traditional approach likely will result in the application of fairly well proven technologies. Technology introduced this way, at the end of the food chain is more likely to gain broad staff acceptance, because it is easier to develop a persuasive rationale for its introduction. Until recent years, we would rarely, if ever, hear anyone admit that it should ever be the other way around – that the organization should adapt to information technology products. Yet, the manufacturing industry has been doing it for years. Consider the automotive industry and what has changed in the way products are tooled and assembled today using robots in contrast to even 1980 – around the time that the PC was about to jump out of the box. Consider the PC industry now versus 1980. How differently they are put into the box using automated packaging.

Is technology still the endpoint? My observations and experience in recent years tell me that some long-standing principles are shifting under my feet and a new kind of math is now at work.  There is a greater symbiosis between work and technology. People do sometimes put the technology cart in front of the organizational horse, intentionally or otherwise, and at times with very good results. Sometimes creative or insightful people can see in a new technology the potential for positively changing established business requirements in a way that some broad business aim can be better realized or some supporting process can be better performed. 

Business-Driven Technological Innovation

As an example involving broader business aim, an organization might see the possibility of using modern database integration technology to provide a wholly different way of shaping the organization’s relationships with its customers.  This might be done by making otherwise disparate information on past client purchases or interactions more readily accessible to the organization’s customer call center staff in a manner that makes the customer interaction shorter and more to the point for both the client and the serving organization. This example could apply equally well to: a company providing customer technical support for software products or personal computers; a government agency providing social services; a church responding to calls from its homebound members; or an academic institution providing research grant information. 

As an example at the process level, an organization might see the potential applicability of workflow technology in streamlining its “order fulfillment” process that covers the life cycle of transactions necessary to move individual orders from how and when they come into the organization to how and when they are actually received by the customers. Again, even if not recognized as an order fulfillment process as such, this example could apply to organizations in the private or public sectors, academia, non-profit organizations, etc.  It happens when people are thinking in terms of what the organization is all about, and how it can do better doing what it is all about. Such discoveries may be made by the executive concerned about business aim fulfillment, by a thoughtful person who is responsible for a particular business line, or by specialists in information management, including records management, or information technology. In some cases, the idea may originate with client complaints about current practices.

Technology-Driven Business Innovation

Such innovations may also be born in companies that develop technology. For example, IBM, Xerox and Dragon Systems have carried out extensive computational linguistics research for several years in the belief that it would open up new markets.  Among the results of that research have been software systems that to some level of success:  convert the spoken word into text; convert text from one language to another; create abstracts of long documents; automatically classify text documents into established categories (business processes, file schemes, records series, etc.) In true basic research, such as the kind that the old Bell Labs did that created countless tremendously important inventions and discoveries, no particular product drove the research. In applied research, which is increasingly the way that today’s fast-payoff research is being carried out, a particular product or market typically governs the direction of product development. Yet, along the way, other products not earlier contemplated may be developed even accidentally. When they are, the company thinks of ways in which such a technology might be spun off to create a market that wasn’t there before. When that works, and organizations see a real opportunity to leap frog ahead of the competition, whether in the private sector for market share or the public and non-profit sectors for budget share. Where organizations become early adapters of such technology, it can be said that the technology is driving workplace patterns rather than the reverse.

Changing work patterns brought about by technological innovations are becoming much more common than ever in ways that are making many of us from the old school wonder if this approach will overtake the traditional sequence whereby workplace change drives technology as described above. This isn’t totally accidental.  It has come about as the natural succession of events, in my opinion, beginning with near contemporaneous political and technological events – the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 often associated as the first domino in the fall of the Cold War (some would even say it was the final act of World War I); advances in telecommunications technologies; the dramatic rise in the use of the Internet; and the creation of the World Wide Web and browser technology, including Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) in the early 1990s. These events came together to make it possible for a global economy to take off like wildfire.  Old enemies became new trade partners, old allies competitors. 

Competition became the byword and this caused a growing number of organizations to become early adopters of new technologies, even when it meant changing work patterns and organizational arrangements to make fast use of technological innovations. Some very large corporations have quietly adopted a policy of changing their organizations however may be required to adapt to software changes in their ERP systems, even if it means reorganizing around the system, changing organizational makeup or eliminating organizational units. This allows them to adopt ERP innovations as soon as they are introduced by the developers and thus to gain even a short-lived competitive advantage in the marketplace until the next such opportunity comes along or is made. CIOs and IT specialists often jump at such opportunities because it places IT in the forefront as a major stakeholder in organizational change and also helps to significantly reduce their ‘total cost of operations’ or ‘TCO’, the CIO’s ever crucial benchmark for budgeting IT support.[8] When organizations have to write APIs to adapt new technology or upgrades to the existing organization, there is a direct and continuing addition to TCO to maintain such software. When APIs are not necessary or can be minimized, TCO is kept to a minimum and that is good for IT budgets. Does minimizing TCO equate to more effective business systems? Not necessarily. It may in the eyes of the CIO but may not in the eyes of the manager responsible for the business process(es), or BPs, being supported by the technology. However, competitive pressures are causing business managers to take the same perspective in many organizations now. Either way, this is why it is so important that so-called “technological” decisions be made with the involvement of all of the stakeholders – affected business manager, records manager, general counsel, auditor and, of course, CIO or those responsible for information management and information technology – even CEOs for mission-critical systems.

For the Record

These changes obviously influence the manner in which records are produced and may even mean that records that used to be produced no longer are. As noted above, actions and transactions are carried out by such systems and communicated among systems; but they may not be recorded along the way or not in ways that can be viewed by humans in the future – in ways that would qualify them as trustworthy recordkeeping systems.

The rise in use of information technology systems is creating volumes of records that exceed those of the past by orders of magnitude. This issue requires more depth of treatment than dismissal on the grounds that digital storage is becoming cheaper by the year.  What value is there to organizations and society to keeping so much for long periods of time? How will we find relevant information in a timely manner in the future? Unfortunately, information navigation aids historically have not kept up with advances in storage technology. Nor do they get cheaper by the year, neither in terms of direct costs or TCO. The more appropriate question is: what is at risk if we don’t keep all or most of that information – all of those records?

Archivists, other records management professionals, organizational executives and in some cases society at large will have to revisit established rules and practices and ask: what really constitutes essential records for mid-term or long-term preservation for different kinds of organizations and organizational business? How can we continue to meet legitimate requirements for operational continuity, corporate memory, future research and changing organizational needs such as knowledge and content management requirements that may be at odds with other recordkeeping requirements – in short, recordkeeping and information usage needs – without becoming inundated with trivial data? Do our concepts of how we place value on information (what archivists call appraisal and what for better or worse is a very subjective process) need to be changed to reflect the realities of the information age? Should we sharpen our understandings of how we judge the recordworthiness of information and what constitutes trivial versus essential data? A suggestion to this effect was raised in Pittsburgh in 1997[9] at a small gathering of leading professionals who specialize in electronic records management. It was greeted with the great sound of silence. Recent discussions on the Australian archivists discussion list of “re-appraisal” an the possible need to rethink what constitutes records of continuing value have been met not with the sound of silence but with the sound of considerable professional difference of opinion.

Who is Steering the Ship?

Most ordinary workers in the workplace don't cry for workplace innovations they don’t bring about themselves. On the contrary, technological innovations may be seen as threats to job security or to the “time honored” and well understood ways of doing things.  Such concerns are often well founded as the streamlining of workplace patterns frequently involves the automation of functions earlier carried out all or in part by humans. All of us have been on the wrong side of technological innovations gone wrong or at least experiencing significant start-up problems: “Sorry but we just went on a new computer system.” We sometimes get the impression that humans aren’t responsible for poor system design, omissions or mistakes their systems make. Paradoxically, people tend to assume that it must be right if it is in the computer, until we learn about such incidences as the mistaken ‘smart bombing’ of an embassy that was supposed to have been a military installation of another country – because of outdated satellite mapping information where a current tourist map would have been more accurate.[10]

Records managers are required to do what needs to be done to properly preserve and otherwise manage record whether they like the new technologies that produce them or not. Complex documents and records that include combinations of text, graphics and spreadsheets are already in universal use. Dynamic documents and records are becoming equally pervasive to carry more relevant, up-to-date and compelling content by using combinations of text, spreadsheets that contain object linking and embedding, hyperlinks to other records, video clips, etc.

Perhaps the most common current usage of complex and dynamic documents is in the form of MS PowerPoint ™ or other presentations. Dynamic websites, to the extent that they are not fully reflected in underlying records, is another example. Growing use of these technologies, hardly any longer experimental, may be a precursor of things to come in other forms of multimedia documentation. Recent versions of presentation systems provide for embedded objects including video clips, animation and special textual effects and those facilities are already in common use. Already some of the most important documents in today’s organizations are in the form of such presentations. Sometimes these constitute the only real documentation of options and recommendations presented to management in support of particular decisions. In some cases, such presentations in the form of electronic files constitute the key deliverable of a consulting contract. Yet, very few organizations manage such presentations files as records. 

It isn’t always easy to discern what led to workplace changes.  Is the use of multimedia documents a response to a perceived problem, such as the need to get complicated issues across in simpler, more easily understood than the old-fashioned textual ways? Or is multimedia a solution in search of a problem? It doesn’t matter if it really takes off. Perhaps it is more realistic to see work and technology as parts of a continuous feedback loop where work needs spawn technological requirements that may be only partly satisfied by technological innovation that is then reacted to in the workplace and refined in later innovations; and sometimes technology results in unexpected or unintended innovations in work patterns and the cycle begins again.

What does matter is that ARM professionals recognize sometime subtle sea changes in technology or the workplace and deal with them, beyond debate.  In an exchange on a professional discussion list on the recordness of databases, one Records Officer said:

Good idea, bad idea: we are not being asked. Soon we will be haggling in the parking lot as the cars drive away. Many don't like what's happening. The reality is that we are not making the decisions that drive business and our influence in this area is waning. People are asking for answers that we should be able to provide, and I think that if we were truly willing to break out of our hidebound ways we could provide timely and constructive advice on managing records in today's business environment.



Fast Backward: Lessons From the Garden Path

In the following sections, I will illustrate some of the earlier points with a few personal experiences and observations over the past 40+ years. During that period, I was fortunate to have been an observer of information technology and how it has changed work and recordkeeping.[11] 

1960s: Early Command and Control System Project. Information technology in the 1960s was largely confined to centralized, mainframe computer systems with highly structured data-centric applications. Most of these applications were transaction-oriented and mostly in the financial sector -- accounting systems, payroll systems, etc. There was a certain likeness between the statuses of management information systems in the sixties and electronic records systems in the early nineties -- they were very much topics of discussion and debate at professional conferences, but there was little by way of well-implemented, operational, systems. It was my good fortune, as a young naval aviator in 1960, to be assigned to a newly created  “Command, Control, and Communications” (“C3”) group to integrate Armed Forces readiness information as part of the implementation of the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958.  The project created a messaging system that would be used by all U.S. Armed Forces, overcoming previous independent and inconsistent readiness reporting schemes of the different services.  The Joint Operational Reporting (JOPREP) System – still operational today – was fully digitized so that the system for reporting the readiness of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces worldwide was fully automated.  It provided the basis for a daily briefing for the Joint Chiefs and, as required, for the Commander in Chief. The experience reinforced the idea that if one focuses on the operational needs first, rather than the technology, results are more likely to be successful and enduring.  It was the defining experience for me in the use of information management and technology tools to address business needs and was instrumental in my decision to leave the service and make a career in this field.

Paper printouts were regarded as the residue of the JOPREP system. Computer tapes were kept purely for backup reasons, not because anyone thought of them as "the record". As is the case today, they would not have been very useful as a trustworthy records repository or information stores for selectively retrieving or presenting the component messages or summary reports. No military archivist, records manager or historian showed up, and we didn't know enough to ask. Yet records like these were crucial to military historians whose job it was to reconstruct crisis situations retrospectively to learn lessons for the future -- a classical example of where records were needed for institutional memory purposes and used as knowledge resources. However, recordkeeping requirements were simply not known about in the C3 community, and it was plainly a case in which the two communities of interest didn't conceive that they had important common interests. Thus, it was also an early example of ARM and IM&T organizations missing each other's boat at the system design stage. This thinking during the emergence of digital systems in the fifties and sixties created a mind set, especially in the IT community, that continues today in many quarters that all records resulting from all electronic systems are the ones maintained in paper form, not the ones in digital form. Senior military officers and managers often view even so-called mission critical information systems projects as computer projects or information technology projects. They are too often seen as technical matters for handling by technical staff in the IT department and not as projects that support strategic aims and not as projects that manage valuable organizational assets in the form of information. This is the first slip on a slippery slope, which has resulted in improper identification of stakeholders and the inadequate involvement of business and records management interests in system design.  

1970s: Distributed Office System Participative Design Project. Word processing was first invented as a mainframe computer application in the 1950s but didn't begin to catch on in a big way until the late 1970s when dedicated electronic word processing equipment came into wide usage to create documents on dedicated mini-computers or stand-alone equipment rather than typewriters at the same time that secretarial costs were on the rise. The central ‘word-processing pool’ served the whole organization working in what would today be regarded as an electronic sweatshop. In 1979, while serving in an operational position of an international financial institution, I led a study of an organization of several departments that serviced projects in about 20 countries. Since it was clear that document creation and preparation were tasks that were subject to differing individual work preferences, we undertook this study in a participative manner involving team managers and related economic and financial analysts, specialists of various disciplines and support staff. The conclusion was that office technology should be fully decentralized to the unit level.  Within a couple of years, the centralized WP unit was disbanded.

The subsequent and more dramatic changes brought about by the invention of the personal computer or ‘PC’ that began to become ubiquitous in the early and mid-1980s changed the way computing power was distributed to and within organizations, and the ways in which information was created and used by individuals in carrying out their jobs – almost overnight. The use of word processors and spreadsheet packages made it possible for professional staff to create their own reports and statistical analyses without having to go to a central typing pool or computer center, and ultimately to do so without the assistance of the traditional secretary.  Ratios of secretarial support staff to principals/professionals changed. Whereas knowledge-based or professional services organizations earlier might have had secretary-to-principal ratios of 1:1 or 1:2, the trend soon changed toward much lower ratios. Moreover, the nature of secretarial positions for many of the survivors, except perhaps executive secretaries, changed in ways in which they had much less to do with document creation and production (typing, filing, copying, couriering to recipients, etc.) and more to do with other kinds of administrative duties where they had, or were able to pick up, the skills needed (budgeting, research, spreadsheet management, etc.)  Changes in position descriptions and titles to “administrative assistant,” “research assistant,” “budget assistant,” etc., reflected changing work patterns.

These shifts had important recordkeeping implications. The secretary who previously had taken handwritten copy or dictation as the raw documentation, and typed final versions of documents on rainbow carbon copies saw to it that the original went to the recipient, the blue copy to the circulation folder and the yellow copy to the central file center. This person was also the gatekeeper for recordkeeping.  The secretary knew where a document stood in the production process, sometimes almost invisibly, made the essential connection between the document/record creator and the central recordkeeping system, kept the white carbon copy, marked it with a file designation and placed it in the appropriate unit file cabinet. In a broader sense, the same people were also the monitors of the work processes that the documents and records were all about and knew where the records points were. Where these support staff were replaced at all, for reception duties, it was often by use of contingent staff not there long enough to learn or care about recordkeeping policies or procedures, no matter how up to date or well written they might be; nor was recordkeeping in their job descriptions. By default, recordkeeping and work process monitoring fell to the document creator. The conscientious among them would mark a copy of those that were printed (not usually including email) for central files, but few creators understood or fully took on the gatekeeper function or realized that they were now the only link between the record and the recordkeeping system.  They were, as before, recordmakers but not necessarily recordkeepers. The collective personal files of these staff became more complete than the unit files but, alas, were not generally accessible.

1980s: A Workplace Scenario for 10 Years Hence. In another workplace project beginning in 1984, I proposed and was asked to prepare a paper that would project ten years ahead what the organization’s workplace might be like in 1995. Its purpose was to highlight linkages among services, ensure needed integration in policy making and planning for human, facility and information services, and to provide a basis for individual service unit policymaking and detailed mid- and long-term planning. The paper, “A Scenario for 1995,” was prepared in consultation with service managers and operational sources and used a dozen mega-trends that were emerging in the mid-1980s as a point of departure. The paper noted that:

·                    incoming mail would be converted to digital form and combined with related internally generated information to form complete operational records;

·                    all internal documents would be accessible in electronic form, although paper records would have to be maintained because of the organization’s requirement to be able to go to court if necessary in over 150 other countries with different rules for evidence;

·                    directives contained in various manuals would be issued and accessed electronically; 

·                    greater integration of library and records management services and systems;

·                    important portions of the archives and records management services would be decentralized to operational units along with other administrative services (not policy making and operation of the archives;

·                    there would be integration of data, text, image, audio and video information processing, printing, library and records management services.

Remarkably, with a couple of recordkeeping exceptions, most of the Scenario came to pass by around 1995.  Two years later in 1987, I became chief of information services that included the ARM functions and took measures to bring the separate library and ARM units closer together by inviting library staff to participate in joint meetings and training and by fostering of cross hiring. This did not work out because of differences in grade levels between librarians and recordkeeping positions brought about largely by persistent disparities in job description educational requirements and actual educational levels of employees. Common library/ARM information retrieval software was not adopted because IR needs differed. While some ARM functions were decentralized, others became (wisely in retrospect) more centralized. While the projections that were made were generally on target, there were equally or more important projections that weren’t made that had enormous impact on patterns of work and recordkeeping that are still thorns in our sides, chiefly the failure to project the incredible change that electronic communications in the form of distributed facsimiles and email would bring to the workplace. Even as late as 1988, in a survey of IT managers in UN organizations, the expectation was that facsimile usage (still thinking of a central system in the communications department) would likely increase a small amount over the next few years and email usage would perhaps increase 3x or 4x. A follow-up survey in 1991 revealed that, because of the rapid decentralization of facsimiles to the unit level, usage increased over 400%. Email usage had increase over 1000%.[12] Enormous usage has since been made of email for carrying out substantive work. Facsimile (incoming) and email continue to be the bane of most ARM professionals. We can anticipate similar problems, only worse, as business uptake instant messaging technology.

1980s-1990s: Business Systems Analysis and Macro-Appraisal. The 80s marked some other sea changes in orientation that would become much more pronounced in the 1990s in the form of increasing use of business systems analysis and information engineering tools. Business systems analysis (BSA) involves identifying broad organizational purposes and goals, supporting business areas and processes, BP definition and decomposition to sub-processes where necessary, and the development of improved processes and information architectures. (A processes is "a set of activities that, taken together, produce a result of value to a customer”[13] – i.e., internal or external ‘customer’.) It helps to rationally link all these things and to drive systems development of supporting information technology architectures. Through the use of BSA, it is possible to link any asset, including records, to organizational goals.  Moreover, it makes great recordkeeping sense to ensure that core and support BPs do in fact produce the necessary records to give evidence to their having been carried out in a manner that can be faithfully and intelligently reproduced in the future. As greater portions of organizational records assets are maintained in digital form, BSA also offers a great tool for implementing computer-assisted macro-appraisal of records – i.e., the processes by which the value of whole groups of records related by virtue of the BPs that produce them are assessed and the corresponding schedules for their temporary or continuing retention are assigned.

A BSA project is not something to be undertaken lightly or without executive air cover. However, if even one process-oriented system can be identified that creates records of such a nature as to make macro-appraisal at the process or system level feasible, it can be a much simpler task and will be a good way to gain experience in computer-assisted macro-appraisal. One of the great advantages of such a top-down functional or process-level macro-appraisal approach[14], is that BPs and sub-processes are usually much more stable than organizations. The human resources department may be reorganized three or four times in a decade. The underlying processes that HR departments support, however, often with the involvement of other organizations, tend to remain constant despite such reorganizations: recruit employees; hire employees; place employees; train employees; terminate employees; establish benefits plans; formulate/issue policy, etc. Moreover, appraising at the BP level provides the basis for identifying and assessing records up front, even before creation, not after-the-fact when they arrive in the archives often years after creation, when we don’t even know whether we have the really valuable records or not.[15] Thus, appraising by process/sub-process both gives us a more stable information, records and other asset management platform and offers an opportunity to put technology to work in support of recordkeeping functions. There are process-related and technological limitations to how much an organization can employ automated disposition management with its records; but for that portion of its records that are amenable to this approach, it can offer a very effective tool in the recordkeeping arsenal.

During the 80s and early 90s, the author had the good fortune to lead or serve on three BSA project teams at various organizational levels, including the whole-organization level. The methodologies used were precursors to the business process reengineering (BPR) methodologies and computer-based tools widely used today to substantially change how work is done.  Information management (IM) skills, with information engineering and data administration tools, were used to create information architectures related to BPs to promote optimal information sharing and usage. IM, as distinct from IT, involves designing and implementing enterprise information directories that rationalize and make it easy for users to discover, access and use divergent multimedia information stores. The design of corporate filing schemes is one of the oldest forms of IM. As part of these projects, corporate BP definitions were developed. Later we made use of the updated definitions to create a ‘provenance database’ that was used for macro-appraisal purposes. The experience demonstrated that records could be linked to business aims in a related provenance database through BPs, and be appraised before and upon their creation.

Lessons Learned Traveling Down the Garden Path

·                     Writing is a technology for producing records that we have learned to deal with, but this doesn’t mean we should confine recordkeeping practices to traditional writing technology.

·                     The introduction of electronic records does not appear to have changed, in fundamental ways the underlying meaning of "recordness," at least not yet; however, the field of documentation that is recordworthy is becoming much richer and more challenging with emerging multimedia and hypermedia "documents". The ways in which records are manifested are changing dramatically, largely due to a seemingly ever-increasing number and variety of recordmaking technologies that are not recordkeeping technologies and the transformation of the workplace and work patterns. These changes will govern how organizations will have to conduct recordkeeping.

·                     Macro-level forces such as great historical events and lesser-noticed legislation can have enormous trickle-down impact on local work patterns, technology and organizational behavior. They may provide early warning to changes in the ways information and records will be created and used. Current examples of U. S. legislation include: the state-level Uniform Electronic Transaction Act (UETA) that legitimizes electronic records and Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) that governs licensing of software and information services; Federal E-Sign legislation that legitimizes electronic signatures; the Federal Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) that directs Federal agencies to position themselves to conduct key direct citizen electronic interactions by 2003; and similar ‘literary warrants’[16] at state and local levels. Similar warrants have been or are being undertaken in other countries, e.g., Australia, Canada, U. K and EU. We can anticipate that these and other such laws that may be at odds with one another will govern international transactions. In the absence of any concerted effort on the parts of national professional associations, lawyers who may have little or no background in recordkeeping are writing these laws. In the case of UETA, attorneys created a definition for “record” that I doubt is acceptable to many ARM professionals.

·                     Rightly or wrongly, ARM professionals, in their understandable interest in solving recordkeeping issues before technology is introduced, often come across as anti-technology, anti-progress, pro-paper forces. This has not helped essential integration of recordkeeping with information management and technology developments. ARM professionals should become positive agents of change by ensuring that these developments preserve sound recordkeeping practices; but they should not attempt, or be seen to attempt, to govern the type or uptake of technological innovation.

·                     Business systems modeling can provide an excellent basis for developing provenance databases and for implementing up-front macro-appraisal of records.

·                     We should be careful to take account of differences in national heritage and culture and not simply to be swept up by what is regarded as success somewhere else. Variances between the Canadian 'total archives' approach as contrasted with the 'public archives' approach of other countries are illustrative of this point. The use of IT is even more subject to human factors and cultural issues. Having noted the importance of cultural differences, there should also be no reluctance to seriously consider practices of other organizations, localities, states, provinces or countries in advancing the aims of good recordkeeping and international standards. Individual theorists and practitioners and the national archives in many countries – especially but not only America, Australia and Canada – have contributed much that has been adopted or adapted for use in other countries. Much collaboration has been done at the international level including such efforts as the United Nations study, Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines, (1990) and the recent and ongoing ISO-sponsored development of an international standard for recordkeeping (ISO 15489) that was based on a standard developed in Australia (AS 4390). ISO15489 is an excellent standard for recordkeeping practices; but is at too high a level of abstraction to certify trustworthy recordkeeping EDMS and other software applications. The U.S. DoD 5015.2 Records Management Application standard[17], approved by the Archivist of the U.S. for use throughout the Federal Government, and widely used voluntarily at state and local levels and in the private sector and academia, can and is being used to certify such applications. A similar international standard at this level is badly needed to gain the needed support of software developers. This is more important than ever. We need the collaboration of software developers to make it happen.

·                    There is much to be gained by keeping a weather eye on worldwide research in areas not always apparently of potential interest or application to the ARM field. Especially research and development in new writing technologies and natural language processing have significant potential recordkeeping implications. Innovations may seem trivial when first revealed. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not, or they are simply years ahead of the times and will become widely used when the time is right. It may be difficult to always sort out correctly which is which. We shouldn’t dismiss possible futures but give thought to how we might accommodate them if they do materialize.

Fast Forwarding the Future

We could talk more about relatively short-term projections for emerging technologies fairly safely – wireless appliances, natural language interfaces, tablet computers, agent technology, new kinds of non-digital computers, etc. – all of which have important potential recordkeeping implications. Experience has taught me that projecting such advances much beyond the next few years is not likely to be very useful.[18]  Let me cite as an example a 1985 prediction by Paul Strassman about the information world in 2000:

There will be a lot of paper in use in the year 2000. There will be more of it, per capita, than at present because there will be so many more originals from which copies can be made. The information workforce will be more than twice the present size...The quality of electronic printing -- incorporating color, graphic designs, and pictures -- will make this means of communication attractive to use. The "intelligence” of printing and composing machines will be of a sufficiently high order to cope with the enormous variety of electronic forms in which originals will be represented. All of this assumes that the present sociopolitical hurdles preventing the exchange of electronically communicated text will be resolved through international standards...we should expect to see the same progress...which now permits home-to-home dialing around the globe. Paper will not be used for archival storage of routine business records. [Emphasis supplied.] Optical recording... provides a much better means for the filing of information. Paper will be used for reading, due to its greater human compatibility. [19]

Although most of Strassman’s predictions materialized, obviously the one on archival storage has a long way to go. This is not because of any failed prediction on the technology side, but rather because most ARM organizations have either failed to make the business case for electronic records management or have not had the appetite to see in technology solutions beyond the problems. Either way it illustrates that forecasting can be complicated and risky. We had better design our information architectures, enterprise networks and electronic document and records management systems to recognize and facilitate future change, e.g., through the use of such strategies as open systems architectures, object oriented systems, portable document formats, and application-independent multimedia data bases and workable international standards for recordkeeping[20].  To perform our work in ways that will reduce overall organizational stress and minimize information management including recordkeeping costs, we must be sensitive observers of shifting workpatterns and technological innovation and skilled at spotting their potential recordkeeping implications. We would, nonetheless, be wise to design today’s systems to accommodate, or adapt to, unpredictable future changes in the way businesses, governments and academic institutions will operate and document their operations rather than try to figure out today what those changes will be.

Globalization creates demands and opportunities – and technology provides tools – to make it possible for vastly more use of archival assets worldwide, something every ARM professional and association should promote.  Especially in the rapidly developing global world of e-commerce, e-government and e-records, there are great new opportunities to foster human interaction within nations and among and between developed and developing countries to promote the protection of human rights, improved human and inter-governmental relationships and other important uses of archival assets. We should not squander those opportunities.

© 2002 Richard E. Barry

[1] W. J. Ong, S.J., Orality and Literacy,  (New York and London:  Routledge, 1982; Reprinted 1993), in a chapter on “Writing restructures consciousness,” pp. 82-83.

[2] M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (London:  Blackwell, Oxford , 1993), 118.

[3] Ibid,  p. 119.

[4] Steven Levy, “Bill Gates Says, Take This Tablet,” Newsweek, April 30, 2001. <>

[5] The author encourages readers to personally engage themselves in professional or activist groups, beyond traditional archival and records management organizations, that concern themselves with the social impact of technology. Many professional organizations have working groups dedicated to this subject, including ACM <>,ALA<>, IEEE <> and SIM <>  to mention a few. Other non-profit advocacy organizations have been established specifically for this purpose, e.g., Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.  CPSR <> is a nonprofit, public interest organization that addresses benefits and risks to society resulting from the use of computers. It is financed mainly by dues from an increasingly international membership base of professionals in the information management and information technology field. Still others, such as EPIC <> are single-issue organizations, in this case privacy issue.

[6] ARM is used here as a generic term to embrace all of archives and records management. In some cultures, the terms ‘archivist’ and ‘records manager’ and their functions are seen as redundant because they are traditionally integrated. Despite fairly recent efforts to the contrary, in U.S and elsewhere, considerable distinctions are still maintained and are evident in the work experience, duties, professional association affiliations and educational levels of practitioners.

[7] Ian Wilson, “Toward a Vision of Information Management in the Federal Government,” Address presented at a Canadian Records Management Institute seminar, November, 10, 1999,  <>

[8] For further discussion of TCO and recordkeeping implications, see “Catching Up with the Last Technology Train at the Next Station” on the author’s website at <>

[9] <>

[10] CPSR, an group of computer professionals (see earlier footnote) has a great motto: “Question technology!”

[11] Obviously other personal experiences contributed to the assessments in this chapter than those related here. Other such experiences are reflected in other papers I have authored, many of which are accessible electronically at including “The Changing Workplace and the Nature of the Record,” the original paper on this subject that was presented at the Association of Canadian Archivists in Regina in 1995, and others are located in the Other Papers and Recent Papers sections of <> and in the writings of other authors in which projects I have led were used as case examples, e.g.: “Implementation of Imaging Technology for Recordkeeping at the World Bank,” by Clive D. Smith, Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, June/July 1997, p.25, including a summary of my study evaluation of the Bank’s Integrated Records and Information Services (IRIS) system against the University of Pittsburgh Functional Requirements for Evidence in Recordkeeping; "Real Problems, Real Solutions" by Bronwyn Friar in PC WORLD, September, 1993, pp. 35-39, article about work on human factors, environmental and facilities related information management projects; Silicon Jungle by David Rothman, Ballantine Books, New York, 1985, the “Hal Syndrome” chapter; Management of Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines, a report prepared by a UN Technical Panel on Electronic Records Management, under the chairmanship of R.E. Barry, World Bank, UN Sales Number GV.E.89.0.15, N.Y., 1990; Office Automation: Jekyll or Hyde? by Daniel Marschall and Judith Gregory, Working Women Education Fund, Cleveland OH, 1983, chapter on "Staff Participation in Office Systems: Two Case Studies at the World Bank".


[12] See discussion of this subject in Managing Organisations with Electronic Records,” by R. E. Barry at  <>.

[13] Hammer, Michael and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A manifesto for business revolution, Harper Business,  NY, 1993, p.3.

[14] I am reluctant to use the term ‘functional analysis’, because I still find ARM professionals who equate function directly to a single organization, whereas here we are speaking to processes that often involve multiple organizations. I believe that most professionals regard functional appraisal to mean the latter.

[15] As noted by Karl Lawrence, a key member the team that developed the BP-based, macro-appraisal approach, in a personal email dated 6/6/2001 1:47:31 PM EDT: “With limited resources at hand and understanding that records are not all of equal value, we felt that a new approach to appraisal was needed…to spend what few resources and time we had on the things that had truly ongoing value.  Thus, under the new approach, the appraisal of specific bodies of records held in individual offices became a second order activity.  The first order activity was determining the "importance" of each high level business processes that might produce records in multiple units throughout the organization.”

[16] The terms literary warrant and warrant are used here to generically designate various mandates for recordkeeping including legislation, regulation, professional best practices, etc. The concept was well developed as part of the University of Pittsburgh Function Requirements project. <> by Wendy Duff <>.

[17] See the standard, related functional requirements and certified software at <>.

[18] For those readers interested in long-term predictions about technology and its impact on society, see The Age of Spiritual Machines ,by Ray Kurzweil, Viking, N.Y., 1999, ISBN 0-670-88217-8, especially the “TimeLine” section pp. 261-280.

[19]  Strassmann, Paul A. Information Payoff:  The Transformation of work in the Electronic Age, The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, N. Y., 1985, pp. 176-7.

[20] “The Changing Workplace and the Nature of the Record,” presented at the Association of Canadian Archivists in Regina in 1995, accessible at <>