Dastardly Digital Dilemmas: 2) Shaping our tools

We're often faced with issues of missing context

I consider myself to be a sane and rational human being. Friends and colleagues may disagree. However, like most of us, I am a follower of the path of least resistance. I do not seek to make life more difficult for me than it needs to be.

For those of you asking what that has to do with managing records, the answer is ‘everything’.

In the good old days you collected related papers in a file and wrote the description on the outside. You gathered related files into folders, folders into boxes and wrote on the outside of them. As long as your containers were in the right order with the writing facing out, you knew what you had and could find it pretty easily. And you often had a kindly member of staff doing it for you.

Hang around with records managers long enough and you’ll soon have a conversation about the merits of maintaining good metadata. All metadata is is the writing on the papers, files, folders and boxes. It’s the stuff that tells us what everything is, what it’s for and why we had it in the first place; and it’s the information we search against when we try to find it.

Now, let’s go back a moment to our essential digital dilemma. With paper: the words, the ink, the paper are all part of a self-contained unit. With digital they are not. The words, ink and ‘paper’ and the files, folders and boxes they are stored in all exist and are managed separately from one another by one or more systems. And these systems require us, the user, to build the boxes, add the content, maintain the relationships between it all and add the metadata.

The cheek of it! I’m busy. I have work to do. I, like everyone, suffer from information overload. A constant flow of email and documents streaming my way and everything I create going the other. In this wonderful digital world our species has grasped the opportunity to create increasingly vast streams of information with exorbitant relish. Do I really have the time or desire to spend that extra minute or ten marking up everything I do, finding the right place for it to go, wondering why I need to add this field or that? Surely this digital world offers me the path of least resistance by having the systems I use do everything I need them to. I know I am not alone.

So apologies to the purists but here it is: if you want increasingly perplexed workers to manage all this electronic information, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. And that means making them do as little as possible. This is an irrefutable argument based upon talking to anyone. If a system isn’t easy to use I’m not going to want to use it. If that happens to be my records management system then something’s going to go missing sooner or later. And to be honest, there’s no excuse for a shoddy user interface any more, or poor usability. Sloppy design went out the window the day Google put a small box on a blank page.


Drag and drop usability and auto-complete do not manage records. That context we need to understand and find our records is much broader than just titles and authors. It’s also about access controls, business value, risk, provenance, audit of changes, personal data, sensitivity, disposal schedule, and relations between files in numerous formats, (take a deep breath) and all of this has to travel with the digital objects through software upgrades, system migrations, transferred or shared ownership between organisations as organisations ebb and flow with the world’s business and economic tide. (Phew)

All of this does not happen in a nice, shiny interface. It happens under the hood. It happens in implementations and configurations. It happens through APIs and code bases. It happens because we ask for them to happen when we procure our tools and install them. It happens because we have to remind ourselves that these things have to happen whilst we still have to focus on keeping the workers happy. Records and information management is still about metadata. But in the digital world it should be about ensuring that, for the user, it’s not.

Marshall McLuhan once said that as “we shape our tools so our tools shape us”. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way digital technology has changed the way we work.  Those of us who curate and care for our digital information need to think beyond the (physical) box. We need to ensure and assure that we have the tools and processes that will enable us to find and understand our records over time. And that these are built into the engines of our systems and not let slip at the expense of the bells and whistles. As records and information managers we need to understand the ways these systems work and how they manage audit trails, provenance and relationship and context management, and the business reasons for having them.

In short, as we must allow our tools to shape us, we must not forget to shape our tools.


  1. Matt Palmer says:

    Some interesting thoughts there Mark – I like the idea of our tools shaping us, and shaping our tools. It reminds me of a good article by Martin Fowler, on the difference between utility and strategic projects (something I think we discussed in our time in digital continuity…):


  2. Mark Merifield says:

    Hey Matt, great to hear from you and glad you’re still keeping an eye on us! We had many conversations along these lines and I think the idea that “this is not a separation of IT by the nature of the technology, but into what technology does for the host business” is a really important one. So the nature of ensuring we shape our tools is I think one that covers the grey area Martin talks about where strategic projects become utility! Hope all’s well.

  3. Mark Merifield says:

    Actually, perhaps this is the approach we should be taking:


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