Dastardly Digital Dilemmas: 7) Supermarkets

When, like me, you often find yourself having to explain the core concepts of information and records management to people, especially those who aren’t IRM professionals, you know how quickly they can lose interest – approximately 0.00001 seconds after you first use the word metadata. It’s a pretty dry subject which can get technically complex very quickly; not an easy sell.

Information, and in that I’m including official records, data, social media and anything else you can think of, is generally understood to be a vital asset to business. We spend our days creating and using little objects of digital content (occasionally we still use paper) yet information and records managers often seem at a loss as to why no-one understands what managing it all is about. A hint here, if you’re leaving everything in your email inbox you’re probably getting it very, very wrong.

Choice canned apricots (reference: COPY 1/149/302)

Choice canned apricots (reference: COPY 1/149/302

If the content you need isn’t there or isn’t in a form you can use then everything stops. What information and records managers do is prevent that from happening; hopefully working in close collaboration with their IT, security, and information assurance colleagues amongst others. But that doesn’t begin to describe the breadth of functions and activities information management professionals undertake to keep the information flow flowing.

It’s at times like these we turn to analogy; because often the only way to successfully describe the virtual is to make it physical. What did I turn to this time, where was my inspiration? It was the breakfast cereal aisle of my local supermarket. Supermarkets do information management really, really well.

  • Their primary role is to provide content to their customers; the content the customer wants and needs. Of course there’s always the specialised stuff that’s outside the general business model but no-one’s perfect. And they work to ensure it’s always there.
  • They’re easily accessible and in convenient locations. There are no walls to climb over to get in or obstacles to getting to the content, other than occasionally too many other customers being there at the same time. But even then there’s a level of bandwidth that keeps things moving. In other words the aisles are big.
  • There’s a great sense of consistency and standards as well. If you go to a supermarket in Surbiton and then to one from the same chain in Sheffield, they’re going to be very similar in look and feel and even the organisational structures will be familiar. It’s comforting to know that the own-brand beans will be the same in both places.
  • Content is organised in a logical manner at the highest useful level, for example, cleaning products. And it’s clearly signposted (high above the shelves) so we can quickly and easily find what we’re looking for; unlike, say, Bono.
  • Within those high level classifications similar content is kept together; so under tinned goods you have all the beans, then the tinned veg, then the tinned fruit…
  • When we get to the items they’re really well described so we know exactly what it is we’re getting and can make a decision as to whether or not it meets our requirements. There’s a clear and sensible description, a list of contents if applicable, and instructions for use including any specific system requirements (microwave only). That’s the contextual metadata we use to describe and understand digital information.
  • The content lifecycle is well understood. All the content has use by dates on and once the content is no longer has value to the customers or to the business it’s disposed of. Keeping things for longer than you need can create a bad smell and get you in to trouble.
  • Each item also has a clearly understood and defined value to the business; the price ticket. Really important and valuable content will often have extra security precautions like the tags they put on the good whisky. No one wants anyone wandering off with the good stuff and selling it on the cheap elsewhere.
  • Access restrictions are well managed. Where content shouldn’t be made available to certain customer types restrictions are put in place. So no-one ends up selling alcohol to minors.
  • There is an audit trail of the movement of content in and out of the store. Someone always knows what’s happening, where everything is and where it should be, especially when it isn’t. And the provenance details of all content is maintained, so if there’s a problem, if something’s corrupted or gone off then they can go back to the originator and get things fixed or replaced.
  • There is a clear understanding of the need to maintain an evidence base of key business activities and transactions for accounts, for auditors, for business planning. Capturing good business information is a key activity within the wider business model. That’s why there’s a copy of every receipt held on file and teams to analyse that data.
  • Lastly they’re keeping up with user demands for even greater accessibility. You can find what you need and buy it online, through a PC, laptop, tablet or phone, and have it delivered to exactly where you need it, even if that place is at the end of a dirt track at the edge of a cliff face. And everything is organised in exactly the same way as the store so you don’t get lost looking.

So next time you’re in your local supermarket enjoy the excellent information management experience and, if you’re ever stuck trying to explain what good information management means, just turn to tinned goods.


  1. Elizabeth Howard says:

    Managing information depends if the enquirer and the manager are on the same wavelength …..I have struggled and continue to struggle with the management of the new Discovery catalogue ………however this post is simply to ask if any one of the very clever and abstruse people working at TNA have heard the expression , “his mark is recorded by Ewing .” does anyone know who or what Ewing was ? the context is for a mid 16th C grocer of the Grocers, Mercers and Merchant Adventurers company . Anyone please with any ideas , all welcome .

  2. Mark Merifield says:

    Hi Elizabeth. We believe this refers to the work of William Creasy Ewing who prepared a list of the merchant marks of the merchants of Norwich for the Archeological Society in ‘Notices of the merchants’ marks in the City of Norwich’, printed in 1850. You can find a copy of the text of this manuscript here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AJQ4429.0001.001?view=toc

    With thanks to Nick in our Advice and Records and Knowledge team who found the answer.

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