Records management under the microscope

Image of a black and white poster depicting an illustration of a microscope

The Urban-Duncan Micro-Bioscope poster, 1903 (catalogue reference: COPY 1/208B (78))

Shiny new information management policy? Check.

Succinct and easy to follow guidance? Check.

Is anyone actually following any of it in reality?

For a Knowledge and Information Management (KIM) team, having a plan in place for ensuring good information management across an organisation is only half the battle. In practice, however brilliant the plan its success hinges on cultural aspects. Are staff keeping the right records, in the right place? Are they using the right systems, in the way intended?

The problem for many KIM teams is finding out what staff are really doing with their information in the deepest, darkest recesses of the business. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that:

  • KIM teams are often small
  • Organisations can be large
  • Organisations can be geographically dispersed, in some cases internationally

KIM teams, along with their IT colleagues, are likely to collect some kind of statistics on IT systems used for information management. These can range from the very basic, such as the amount of information kept within a certain system, to more sophisticated information on how many people have accessed a system or read or modified documents.

However, this will only get you so far in terms of understanding what is going on in practice and doesn’t give any qualitative insight. For example, there may well have been a large number of documents saved to your electronic records management system last month – but how much of this is information of real business value and how much is duplicate information, emails arranging lunch or out of office replies.

The Information Management Assessment programme at The National Archives has uncovered some innovative ways that government departments are measuring the impact of information and records management policy, guidance and training across the organisation. The points below have been drawn from the good practice we have seen in departments in this area.

Set up a regular monitoring process

This could be, for example, an annual benchmarking process where business areas answer a set of questions or rate themselves against some kind of performance framework. Where resource allows, KIM teams could individually assess business areas. However, self-assessment is generally the most common way of doing this, especially in large organisations, though KIM team involvement is important to provide challenge and ensure consistency of scoring. For example, business areas could assess their performance and then talk through this with the KIM team in a moderation meeting.

Join up with existing processes

This can help to allay people’s concerns about yet another reporting process distracting them from the day job. For example, information and records management monitoring could link with information assurance reporting. This could range from including questions about records management on the annual information assurance reporting form to just ensuring that the monitoring happens at the same time and linking up communications on this.

Get senior support

Invite a senior member of staff, preferably Board level, to endorse the monitoring process. This could range from speaking at related events to personally tackling poor performing business areas. Ensure that senior staff, Directors or Deputy Directors have responsibility for the monitoring process and for taking forward actions to improve performance.

Set out what good looks like

Consider developing a maturity model or performance framework which details the various levels of performance in information and records management from the very basic, through to advanced. It is important to keep it simple, not too many levels, and ensure that there is clear development path that business areas can rate themselves against.

Use local information and records management staff to gain greater insight

Many KIM teams, especially in larger organisations, rely on representatives outside their team to help them to implement information and records management. They are likely to have detailed knowledge of how their business areas manage their information and records. These staff can play a key role in monitoring, from to taking part in an annual monitoring process to spot checking and reporting on practice in their teams.

Introduce an element of competition

Teams are generally motivated by doing well and do not want to be seen as poor performers. Giving awards can help increase engagement and publishing results can – in many cases – encourage teams to try to improve.

Benefits of monitoring include not only a greater insight into how information and records are managed and improved performance but can also:

  • help the KIM team focus scarce resources on business areas most in need of assistance and
  • identify good practice that can be shared across the organisation

Which can’t be a bad thing – so get those microscopes out.


  1. David Matthew says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said, but we are still and will for some years have paper records to have dealt with but my experiences are that there are serious areas on sensitivity reviewing by some departments and for which lessons are not being learned. Having an action plan is of course only as good as the implementation and it doesn’t help when senior management leave having recently signed off the plans. I do wonder as to why we are still talking about keeping the right records after the message should have got through by now.

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