Just how challenging is the role of a records manager? Let’s count the ways!

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So what do you do here?

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend the ARMA Canada convention in Saskatoon. During one of the lunch breaks, I had a great conversation with a records manager who shared an anecdote from a recent meeting with her organization’s new president. During the conversation, the new president asked what she did for the company. Her response was as accurate as it was cheeky: “I make sure you stay out of jail.”

This conversation made me think of one of my favorite scenes in the comedy, Office Space, in which a hapless management consultant asks a nervous employee the question, “What would you say you do here?” in advance of a wave of company layoffs.

With so many myths and misperceptions surrounding records management, this is probably a question that hits close to home for many of us.

Why? It has echoes of the challenge that many records management professionals face trying to educate those within their company about the importance of RM. As we all know, there is a lot more to RM than many think, and its importance to organizations is often underestimated too. Overworked, underappreciated? Perhaps!

Just how tough is a records manager’s role?

With Office Space as our inspiration, we thought we would take a light-hearted look at just how challenging a role it can be – by imagining how the scene might have unfolded if the interviewee had been a records manager. Let’s rejoin the scene…

Records Manager: What would I say “I do here”? Well, in a nutshell, I ensure that the organization’s records are classified, retained, stored, accessible and disposed of in such a way as to enable greater productivity, ensure compliance and minimize risk.

Hapless Management Consultant: Excellent! That is an impressive scope. [Pauses.] Wait… what are “records”?

Records Manager: Well, that depends. One of my jobs is to establish what actually constitutes a record for different business functions.

Hapless Management Consultant: Hmm. So you are the manager of something that you yourself define. [Deducts one point from interview score.] Would you be talking about paperwork?

Records Manager: Yes, I’m talking about paperwork, but also electronic records, legal documents, storage media, the list goes on. Records come in many different formats and a wide variety of categories.

Hapless Management Consultant: That sounds like a lot of stuff to manage. [Thinks a bit, then furrows brow skeptically.] Let me ask a purely hypothetical question. Would it be possible that a records manager might exaggerate the scope of these records a little bit? You know, to make him-or-herself a bit more indispensable to the company? Hypothetically – of course.

Records Manager: I certainly cannot imagine that, no. Our organization is already so awash in records that no one wants to see the number grow a whole lot. Believe me, we’re having a heck of a time storing, accessing and generally managing the critical ones already.

Hapless Management Consultant: Right. Have you thought about implementing a policy of records cut-backs to lighten your load? You know, call it “records lean”, and just avoid or do away with as many as possible.

Records Manager: No, that wouldn’t work at all. Records are the lifeblood of business. We need to keep them accessible while they are in active use, and with most records, if we don’t keep them for a minimum amount of time we could end up on the wrong side of the law.

Hapless Management Consultant: Legal issues! I see. So do you just keep all records around indefinitely? [Thinks again.] I mean, if you do that then you’ll never get in trouble with the law, right? And, as a convenient side benefit, if you let the volume of records grow and grow, then as “The Manager of Records”, surely you’d become the most important person in the company!

Records Manager: [Patiently.] Er, again, I’d have to say no. We could also end up in legal trouble if we hang onto records too long.

Hapless Management Consultant: Really!?

Records Manager: Really.

Hapless Management Consultant: What kind of legal trouble?

Records Manager: If we don’t keep records long enough we could be hit with some pretty significant fines. Or jail. If we keep them too long and the company is sued, it could hurt us dearly in discovery costs and possibly result in a conviction.

Hapless Management Consultant: In-teresting. OK.

Records Manager: But it’s not just that, if we held on to everything our storage costs would really hurt the company’s bottom line.

Hapless Management Consultant: So, if I had to sum it up then…

  • You manage something that can be tricky to define.
  • You have too much of it, but you can’t get rid of it.
  • You can’t hang onto it forever either.
  • If you screw up it could cost the company a lot of money.
  • Oh, and someone could end up behind bars?

Records Manager: Yes, that sounds about right. And unfortunately, our programs still don’t receive the funding we’d like to manage all this.

Hapless Management Consultant: That is all. Thank you very much for your time. [Makes a note: “Responsibilities include performing an impossible balancing act. Team member carries out duty admirably and with a good attitude. Not sure you would find willing and able replacement. Recommendation: Keep!]

So what do you think? Good summary?

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