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Record-keeping strategies for the digital age

The explosion in digital information and accompanying technology experienced over the last two decades has transformed the job of record managers and archivists. Researchers at Northumbria University are among the UK’s leading experts on digital records management. Their research is helping to re-define professional practice and decision-making around the globe and has been adopted by the United Nation’s Secretariat’s Archives and Records Management Service (ARMS) in its service delivery and for strategic planning.

The vast volume of digital data that are generated challenge some of the key questions that lie at the heart of records management: what needs to be kept, how long for and how to protect it? Professor Julie McLeod led the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded AC+erm research project (Accelerating Positive Change in Electronic Records Management) from 2007 to 2010. The aim of the project was to better understand the issues surrounding digital records management and to develop practical approaches to support effective organisational strategies.

The research found overwhelmingly that people issues rather than systems or technologies are at the heart of the challenge, and that the possible solutions are complex and individual to each particular situation and organisation. To help practitioners make sense of this complexity the researchers developed a strategic framework. The framework helps to better understand, among other areas, people and systems issues. It supports the selection of the most appropriate approaches in particular circumstances, which may not necessarily be the most obvious solutions.

For example, the United Nations’ Archives and Records Management Service (ARMS) applied the AC+erm approach in its decision-making on how best to support a high-level, short-term panel investigating a politically sensitive incident. The outcome was that the proposed solution should be upgraded, despite a significant cost increase. Conversely, the same decision making process resulted in ARMS’ decision not to invest in a digital preservation system for records of a highly visible and historic UN commission. It instead recommended disposal of the dataset on its closure and preservation of duplicates in file-based applications and paper. This enabled ARMS to save approximately $300,000 US dollars. This proportionate risk-based approach was accepted because AC+erm’s risk philosophy was recognised as being positive and constructive, supporting strategic and appropriate levels of resource allocation.

Bridget Sisk, ARMS Chief, notes that: “This research jump-started our strategic planning, we’re using it now to flesh out an ERM roadmap. The research is evidence based and trustworthy and gives the stakeholder perspective we need. Quite simply an invaluable resource.”

Bridget completed a three-month sabbatical at Northumbria University during 2013 to further explore AC+erm.  As a result she is using AC+erm to inform plans for supporting the winding down of a UN Commission and develop strategies to address the transition to a digital organisation.

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