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KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT: The Archivist's and Records Manager's Perspective.



* How records professionals can compete with other "information collecting centers" in organizations.

* What it means for records professionals to focus more on outcomes rather than outputs

* Why knowledge management is not enough; the desired outcome is organizational learning

Concepts such as knowledge management (KM), intellectual capital, and digital asset management abound in today's organizations. Records management professionals, however, are seldom associated with these terms. This lack of connection is further complicated in the post-custodial environment, where records are distributed (rather than centrally housed in records centers and archives), and the responsibility for electronic records is dispersed as well. In this world of knowledge workers and knowledge-creating organizations, records managers and archivists cannot afford to be perceived solely as information providers and curators of data.

Archivists and records managers have long been knowledge managers. The challenge is to move beyond this. Specifically, records management professionals need to recognize the intellectual capital they control and to capitalize on opportunities for knowledge creation and the enhancement of organizational learning. This means that archivists and records managers must rethink traditional identity markers, such as the records center, as the sole domain, physical records as the object of work, and records management or archives as the core area of administrative and service responsibility. In accepting this alteration of the all-too-comfortable and traditional paradigm, archivists and records managers must view records and records issues globally, think about physical -- as well as virtual -- records throughout the organization as sources of knowledge, and participate in enterprise-wide organizational learning.

From Information Collecting Centers to Centers of Knowledge Creation

In organizations, information is critical for reducing uncertainty and guiding decisions. However, it is distributed unevenly and is often inaccessible because it is located in geographically dispersed locations. There is often a lack of knowledge concerning what information even exists. "Recordkeeping is at the heart of ... `data cultures,' and effective data management is essential to their success" (Davenport and Prusak 1998). Effective data management is difficult, and the elements that constitute an effective data management program can be disputed.

Davenport and Prusak relate the following story in Working Knowledge. During a research project on new approaches to information management, they asked 25 client companies, including American Airlines, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and AT&T, "what they most needed to know that they didn't currently know, and how we [Davenport and Prusak] could best help them know it." Almost all of the executives replied that they had no idea how to manage value-added information and knowledge. Surely there is a role for records professionals here, though it may differ from their more traditional roles.

Records managers and archivists are not alone in trying to fill this void. Organizations develop multiple and overlapping structures to spot trends and filter data from the environment. These structures operate throughout organizations with different reasons for collecting information and establish diverse filtering rules for the information that they collect (Stinchcombe 1990). Records centers and archives have long acted as one of these information-collecting centers, focusing on non-current information that has been created and compiled by the parent organization in carrying out its functions.

Records professionals must be able to identify and acknowledge the competition in their organizations in order to influence the corporate information ecology. In the college and university environment, for example, multiple offices are in direct competition with records managers in providing information (i.e., libraries, academic departments, intranets). In fact, Brown and Yakel (1996) maintain that the records center may not be the first choice for information seekers. After identifying the competition, records professionals must determine which services they are in the best position to provide in an exemplary manner and how to better target the clients most in need of those services.

From Physical Records to Knowledge Management

As noted earlier, archives and records centers are only one of many information-collecting centers in organizations, often working independently of one another. Organizational knowledge, then, is usually as divided as the organizational structure. Furthermore, there are cultural, intellectual, and structural barriers that impede knowledge from crossing organizational boundaries. These barriers cannot always be spanned by technology, such as intranets (Brown and Duguid 1998).

According to Davenport and Prusak (1998), "What we must remember is that this new information technology is only the pipeline and storage system for knowledge creation. It does not create knowledge and cannot guarantee or even promote knowledge generation or knowledge sharing." Knowledge sharing within organizations is less dependent on technical capability than on organizational cultures that encourage knowledge sharing and communication.

Another means of looking at the different information-collecting centers is to view them as environments or information ecologies. Information ecologies are systems of people, practices, technologies, and values. The heartening news for records management professionals is that ecologies and the relationships among the parts of an information ecology are designed, not organic (Nardi and O'Day 1999). Information ecologies also evolve so that they include external environment, internal structure and practices, and technology change. They also begin to adapt to one another.

Traditionally, archivists and records managers have focused on maintaining "old" knowledge. This focus includes both physically tracking records as well as ensuring that the context of the records remains intact and the chain of custody is secure. Archival and records management have been very records oriented and site specific. As a result, the records themselves, as well as their authenticity, have been preserved.

Maintaining records involves the creation of transfer lists, inventories, records schedules, finding aids, and guides. The purpose of these activities is the maintenance of records and information. There are computer programs that manage electronic records. Software exists to manage services related to the records, such as location in the records center or archives facility, requests for records, delivery, and destruction at the end of the records' retention periods. The focus of the activities is on the outputs rather than outcomes, such as new products and services. Creating new knowledge and facilitating organizational learning requires a different mindset, one that focuses on outcomes.

To engender a more outcome-based focus, records management professionals need to form partnerships with different parts of their organization and share responsibility for managing records, particularly those in electronic form. In doing this, the records professional acts as an auditor and establishes control over records, not from the creation of inventory lists and records schedules but through a more strategic, policy-centered tactic. Records and information managers can also take an analytical approach to understanding how the design and implementation of a given recordkeeping system supports authentic and reliable records as well as the knowledge needs of the organization.

This process has been referred to as a knowledge inventory. The knowledge inventory should encompass explicit and tacit knowledge and "cover the capabilities and expertise of specific organizational units and of individuals within those units" (Saffady 1998).

From Information Needs to Knowledge Needs

Creating new knowledge requires records management professionals to think of their functional role more broadly than merely in terms of managing the records center or archives according to professional standards. It requires records management professionals to embrace their parent organization's mission and to understand the key organizational functions that must be supported. The knowledge inventory is a first step. This inventory can enable records managers to employ a strategy to enhance KM by contextualizing the knowledge that they have documented. This is an important step because the information needs of users are also contextualized.

Records have long been seen as a source of organizational memory. To some extent this is true; however, organizational memory is also embedded in routines, stories, rituals, and gossip, among other aspects of organizational life. Davenport and Prusak (1998) raise the question of where this leaves records and information professionals as managers of documentary evidence when two-thirds of all information used by managers comes in face-to-face meetings or in telephone conversations (not with archivists or records managers).

Records management professionals must therefore become more aware of how and when records are used -- and could be used -- rather than merely managing them. For example, in media richness theories, methods of communication (i.e., face-to-face, telephone, memorandum) are selected according to the ambiguity of the decision being addressed or the type of knowledge needed. More ambiguous information is likely to be conveyed in a face-to-face encounter where body language, tone of voice, and other contextual clues provide meaning, reduce ambiguity, and/or provide an interpretative frame for the recipient. According to Daft and Lengel (1984), less ambiguous and routine questions are more readily answered using documentary sources. This supports other important and earlier research indicating that 75 percent of managerial work is conducted face-to-face or over the telephone (Mintzberg 1973), although the impact of electronic mail as a means of informal information-sharing must be considered. These studies also found that the content of those conversations is often surrounded by an oral evaluation of information from documentary sources as filtered and contextualized by subordinates.

In fact, a large amount of managerial time is spent in search of information. "In a recent informal study done at Hughes Aerosearch ... (we) estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of managerial time is spent specifically in knowledge search and responding to requests for knowledge" (Davenport and Prusak 1998). For records and management professionals, reliance on verbal communication remains a problem. The real challenge, however, has always been for records managers to insinuate themselves into such conversations.

Knowledge needs do not occur in a vacuum. In addition to the question of finding the right information, administrators as well as other types of users operate under constraints, such as limited time and the availability of other resources required to filter large amounts of information. For managers, information is usually required within a given time frame. Anecdotally, at professional meetings, records managers and archivists hear horror stories of calls from college or corporate vice-presidents' offices in search of information needed now, if not an hour ago. Another timing issue concerns what type of information is sought during different stages of an information-seeking process. For example, research suggests that internal information sources are used most heavily in the problem-identification and definition stages (Saunders and Jones 1990).

It also seems inarguable that information is the essential precursor required for knowledge development. Knowledge needs, therefore, are best satisfied when the right information, in the right amount, and in the right package, is provided at the right time. Records management professionals need to be aware of the context and the constraints under which their colleagues in other offices work.

As implied before, knowledge provision may be a question of having the resources (time, money, and personnel) to sift through large amounts of data. In the past, the assumption made by records management professionals was that users wanted all the possible information relating to their question. It is now recognized that knowledge needs are contextual, depending on the problem's dimensions and related timing issues. Simply throwing more information at someone will not result in increased knowledge creation. "Firms pile up data because it is factual and therefore creates an illusion of scientific accuracy. Gather enough data, the argument goes, and objectively correct decisions will automatically suggest themselves" (Davenport and Prusak 1998).

The downside is information overload and an inability to identify which information matters most. Archivists and records managers, however, often do a version of the same thing -- providing clients with many options of records that may contain data or may have some bearing on the research question or information need. In a knowledge creation process, the records management professional would work with the individual client -- rather than a department -- to set parameters around the information need and to agree on the most appropriate package or presentation form for that specific client.

Joanne Marshall's study (1993) of the roles of corporate libraries in decision-making found that managers cited corporate libraries as supplying new knowledge in decision-making situations and that information provided by corporate libraries increased the managers' confidence level in the decisions they made. From the standpoint of records management professionals, however, the significant finding from this study was that the managers rated their own files as "the most important" information source and ranked other types of internal memoranda, reports, and databases as being of only "some importance" (Marshall 1993).

By focusing on information provision and behind-the-scenes information management activities, records professionals have focused on outputs that generate little visibility or, consequently, appreciation. Organizational co-workers are largely unaware of the invisible role played by records management professionals along with the activities and inherent responsibilities involved in managing and providing information, particularly in a networked environment. Thus, clients may see the role of the records professional as essentially preserving the data or perhaps managing the information but not as having anything to do with knowledge creation.

A similar dynamic occurs in libraries. Much of the work of librarians is invisible and therefore undervalued and unacknowledged, thus threatening the existence of librarians (Nardi and O'Day 1999). This could apply to records professionals as well, particularly those who refuse to move beyond the comfortable familiarity of the records center or archives. Mediating between sources and users and providing or preserving context are largely invisible activities that can easily be overlooked. Furthermore, users may confuse the roles and responsibilities of different information professionals.

According to Day (1997), "Traditionally, the information profession has been compartmentalized into groups of people called records managers, archivists, librarians, and IT specialists, each group having some distinctive knowledge and skills (and) offering some similar and other specialist information services. Information users, however, do not necessarily identify these different compartments when they need to find and access information, and it is unreasonable to expect them to know what to do."

From Knowledge Management to Organizational Learning

Insinuating records management professionals into the knowledge-seeking process will not be easy. However, records management professionals do have certain advantages in organizations because of their records-specific activities, such as inventories, which they must move beyond. They are in a unique position because they have a global or comprehensive view of an organization's knowledge base. Records managers should take full advantage of opportunities offered by records analyses and the analysis of recordkeeping systems routinely done in offices throughout their parent organizations. Records professionals have access to recordkeeping systems in offices that should form the basis for a greater knowledge orientation and a deeper understanding of organizational learning.

The records orientation is site specific (i.e., focused on records within the records center or archives). The records-oriented approach works well if physical information provision is the only goal. Data management activities can then focus on the creation of tools to control and locate records and information as long as it has continuing value. These tools include records schedules and finding aids. A knowledge orientation, however, requires more than location of records. It also requires the ability to capture and manage organizational learning as well.

"Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information," write Davenport and Prusak (1998). "It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organizations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms."

Creating new knowledge is a fluid process. According to Davenport and Prusak, KM is the administration of everything from framed experiences and values to selected documents recounting these things. This has several important implications for records management professionals. Their role must be linked not only to managing records (although knowing what data, information, and knowledge exist -- and where -- is a valuable service and a powerful position) but also to creating knowledge from those records. Robust information ecologies, like their biological counterparts, are characterized by a great deal of diversity (Nardi and O'Day 1999). Records management professionals must sustain such diversity in clientele, in their own methods, and in contextualizing primary resources.

Records professionals must also recognize that KM is not an end in and of itself. The desired outcome of KM is organizational learning. Dearstyne (1999) urged records professionals to begin "capitalizing on KM as an opportunity for learning and partnership." To do this, records professionals must recognize that "learning is a social process" in which they must actively participate (Brown and Duguid 2000). Learning takes place not only in formal and overt educational venues such as seminars and workshops, but also in less formal organizational settings. Learning occurs in chance meetings at water coolers as well as through various communities of practice that exist throughout the organization.

In communities of practice, learning is often tacit, embedded in socialization and the social and routine practices of the group rather than formalized in a record. In addition to being a community of practice with their own worldview and routines, records management professionals can observe other communities of practice in organizations. For example, a thorough records analysis, one that includes both interviewing as well as studying the recordkeeping systems in an office, should result in greater insight into how various communities of practice function and exchange information. This broader approach to records analysis would enable records managers to position themselves more strategically within the organization and to better understand not only the records in the offices but also the underlying mechanisms of recordkeeping systems, including the context for both records creation and use, throughout the organization.

Armed with this information, records managers could become boundary spanners who are better able to support communities of practice in identifying their knowledge needs. They will also be able to produce the type of evidence that best supports the localized mode of organizational learning that takes place in a particular office.


Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. "Organizing Knowledge." California Management Review 40, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 90-111.

--. The Social Life of Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

Brown, William E. and Elizabeth Yakel. "Redefining the Role of College and University Archives in the Information Age." American Archivist 59, no. 3 (Summer 1996): 272-287.

Daft, R. L. and R. H. Lengel. "Information Richness: A New Approach to Managerial Behavior and Organizational Design." Research in Organizational Behavior 6 (1984): 191-233.

Davenport, Thomas H. and Lawrence Prusak. Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1998.

Day, Ian. "The Role of Records Management in Business Information Services." Records Management Journal 7, no. 2 (August 1997): 91-99.

Marshall, Joanne G. The Impact of the Special Library on Corporate Decision-Making. Washington, D.C.: Special Libraries Association, 1993.

Mintzberg, Henry. The Nature of Managerial Work. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Nardi, Bonnie and Vicki O'Day. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Saffady, William. Knowledge Management: A Manager's Briefing. Prairie Village, KS: ARMA International 1998.

Saunders, Carol S. and J. Jones. "Temporal Sequences in Information Acquisition and Decision-making: A Focus on Source and Medium." Academy of Management Review 15, no. 1 (1990): 29-46.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. Information and Organizations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.

Elizabeth Yakel, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She has 19 years' experience in information management and specializes in electronic recordkeeping practices and computer-supported cooperative work. She is a member of ARMA International, the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). She is a Fellow of SAA. Her doctorate is from the University of Michigan. The author may be reached at 731-747-3576.
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Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Previous Article:Understanding Portals.

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