By Vanessa L Platt, on 8 June 2015
‘Welcome to the Wild Wild West of Wales’ was the theme of the opening evening of the Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) Conference 2015, held from 17th – 19th May.
As well as reflecting the new Welsh location of the Conference for 2015, at the rather spectacular Celtic Manor Resort – a change of scene from the Conference’s usual residence at the Hilton Metropole Brighton – this (rather tongue-in-cheek) theme of the opening night resonated with the broader purpose of the Conference: to explore the reality that information professionals are working at the frontiers of cutting-edge new advances of understanding around the uses of information, records and data. The emphasis was on dialogue, learning and discovery around what this means for our sector, our society, our world – even human progress at large.
I was lucky enough to attend the full conference courtesy of the Society, being this year’s recipient of the Alison North Award for New Professionals. The prize – full conference attendance and the opportunity for mentoring time with RM author, consultant and award sponsor Alison North – is awarded annually for the best essay submitted by someone in the first 3 years of their career in the sector, based on a reflection on their information and records management experience.
Before I began my Archives and Records Management MA with UCL, I spent some time working in public sector records management, in a large professional team with an advanced electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) in place. This RM programme, like countless others, makes heavy use of a network of 250+ non-professional office staff, trained to assist their colleagues with information management matters and to administer their local area of the EDRMS. This arrangement struck me as less than ideal, especially as this additional role was not voluntary, not salaried, and on top of an employee’s daily work (as is invariably the case elsewhere), and my entry to the Award was a critique of this element of so many business-as-usual RM programmes. I feel that there are better ways of encouraging end-user buy-in and take-up that keeps records management systems as a help, rather than a hindrance, for all users.
Consistent with the intrepid theme of that first evening, and indeed of the entire event, this conference was a new experience for me. Such an opportunity to meet, network and engage with experienced professional colleagues is truly irreplaceable, and I learnt a great deal not only about the enormous value (in every sense of the word, including fiscal) that can be ascribed to the information we create, receive, manage and use, and to our professional endeavour, but also of the huge potential that there is in this sector for interdisciplinary, cross-profession collaboration, dialogue and learning: I heard talks by experts in digital preservation, information architecture, system, software and storage developers, international business, asset management and information compliance, as well as from the Deputy Director of the US Department of Navy’s division for records management – a speaker who generated a lot of audience interest.
The official theme of the conference was ‘Information: the new currency’, and this bold statement elicited strong responses in disagreement as well as in agreement – as I am sure it was intended to. In the breakout sessions I attended, there were memorable arguments both for and against, from both practical and theoretical perspectives. Jon Garde from RSD (an international Information Governance solutions developer) proposed information as actual currency, something to which we ascribe value as a medium of exchange, with a fluctuating market value in business, using ideas from Infonomics (Information + Economics). He closed by suggesting that the Information Managers of the future will be the ‘Information Accountants’ of businesses.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of information value, Alan Bell from Information Compliance at Dundee University posited that information today is so ubiquitous, it is not a currency at all, but rather a commodity. He drew on the thinking of UCL’s own Geoffrey Yeo in exploring the nature of recorded information, as well as managing to weave Elvis and Fifty Shades of Grey (or was it Records Management…?) into his talk.
I took away from these contrasting viewpoints that ‘information’ today remains malleable and context-bound in nature and value, as well as in form, and that this malleability poses questions as well as opportunities for all of us. Does information decrease in value to us because there is more of it, or does it rather increase in value? For me, it is the very volatility information’s value today that presents us with the greatest opportunities in human history, as well as, arguably, the greatest risks.
The IRMS Conference 2015 was altogether a superb experience, and will remain a landmark in my career. My thanks must go to the fantastic IRMS Exec, who made me so welcome and the event so memorable. I also thank the Archives and Records Management programme staff here, who brought the award to my attention and whose excellent guidance and teaching over the last year has encouraged me to see that a new professional such as myself can – and should – share my thoughts with the wider profession. Everyone has something to offer, perhaps now more than ever. It is a challenging but certainly exciting time to be an Information and Records Management professional.
I should also say that the Wild West-themed opening evening did not disappoint: a rooftop garden barbeque was accompanied by highly appropriate entertainment – I will always bear in mind that a Bucking Bronco acts as an excellent ice-breaker!