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Tragedies, controversies, and opportunities: redefining RIM's role in a turbulent time: given recent issues and critical developments, the central importance of information to the operation and progress of organizations and institutions is even more apparent.

At the Core

This article

* discusses recent examples where information has played a critical role

* defines future RIM challenges and issues

Systematic management of information, an area where records and information management (RIM) professionals naturally excel, is gradually gaining recognition as being central to the success of business and other institutions. While information as an abstract term may mean little to many, specific examples of information's critical role in institutions are dramatic and instructive. Evidence mounts every day in the media, but some selection and interpretation is needed to identify and appreciate the significance of information for the RIM field. Critical incidents and issues where information plays a central role are instructive for RIM and non-RIM professionals alike. There are several recent examples.

Using Information to Catch Killers

At the end of October 2002, Maryland police arrested two men for a month-long murder spree. Good police work deserves credit, but creative use of information was also essential. Early in the investigation, uncoordinated systems, outdated computers, and information overload threatened to overwhelm the investigation whose "tip line" at one point logged some 400 calls per hour--much faster than the information could be sorted and processed. More than a dozen local, state, and federal police agencies in two states and the District of Columbia formed a task force to coordinate their efforts, which included pooling and sharing information. According to U.S. News & World Report, "A dizzying array of law enforcement databases" frustrated police at first. In the end, however, "databases ... were the key to catching the snipers--and they offer the best chance to protect us against terror in the future."

Computerized fingerprinting was the stellar information technology that enabled a print found on a gun magazine to be matched to an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) database and put authorities on the investigatory trail that quickly led to the killers' arrest. At the same time, according to a Newsweek report by Jonathan Alter, the case illustrated the need for better information sharing, (tracking a pattern of the snipers' traffic stops and violations in the first few days of their crime spree might have sped up their arrest), the potential of misinformation to mislead and confuse, (police and the public mistakenly believed the killers were using a white van), and led to a discussion of even more effective (but controversial) use of technology, (e.g., a "ballistic fingerprinting" database made up from the rifling "signature" of each gun taken by manufacturers before sale). This case is certain to give rise to further discussion of how to use information to prevent crime and apprehend criminals more quickly.

Cabinet Officers in Contempt

In September 2002, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton was cited for contempt of court for her failure to reform a trust fund for Native Americans that was established in 1887 and administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The problems are longstanding and billions of dollars are potentially at stake. Norton's predecessor and a former secretary of the treasury also were cited for contempt in the same case some years ago. The judge indicated that the Interior Department's administration of the Individual Indian Money trust has been "the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government for over a century."

This case, which was in the courts for several years, is an outstanding example of the essential role of systematically created and efficiently managed records as the basis for accounting, determining entitlements, and evaluating overall administration. "Document management is the single biggest issue that must be comprehensively addressed if plaintiffs are to be assured [sic] any practical prospective assurance that their trustees [Department of the Interior] will be able to give them an accurate accounting ... the records are the base for the entire trust operation," the court noted in Cobell vs. Babbitt, et al. in 1999. The case is replete with reprimands from the judge for missing records, destroyed documents, electronic systems that in his view did not retain and make available all pertinent recorded information, and remissness in enforcing records management policies.

Interior officials responded by attempting to improve records management and developing automated systems. But many records have been lost already, and assembling documents dating back to 1887 has proved an immense challenge. An Interior Department report revealed that in the summer of 2002 the secretary reported to Congress that "to build historical accounts for each account holder and to perform the historical accounting, records and documents must be located, scanned, imaged, indexed, and linked. The task of managing these records will be daunting. By one estimate, there are an estimated 240 million pages."

In September, the judge ruled in Cobell vs. Norton et al. that the department's efforts had fallen short of reasonable expectations and it had misled the court through, among other things, overly optimistic reports about the accuracy and security of a new information/accounting system.

This story is far from complete, and records and information are sure to play into the continuing development and final outcome.

Information in Retrospect: Anticipating 9/11

In Leading on the Edge of Chaos, authors Emmett C. Murphy and Mark A. Murphy assert that the September 11, 2001 (9/11), terrorist attacks revealed what was "perhaps the greatest knowledge management failure in history." The terrorist attacks and the resulting war on terrorism offer fascinating insights into the value and use of information. For instance, media reports and congressional investigations have documented the difficulty of sifting real evidence from "noise" the need to share information--for example, between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency--and the challenge of piecing together disparate pieces of information to see patterns.

The hearings and reports of the joint House/Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry in fall 2002 provide powerful insights into the role of information. One all-too-common RIM problem confronted intelligence agencies prior to the attacks and the congressional investigators afterward: combing through high volumes of information. The Washington Post reported that congressional staff sorted through nearly 400,000 pages of documents and zeroed in on almost 7,000 pages as a basis for a number of reports about the information and clues that were available before the 9/11 attacks. One congressional report, "Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part I," reviewed specific evidence about Osama bin Laden's intentions and concluded that there was "a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence information indicating the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the United States," but that its significance was lost in the maze of additional evidence pointing toward probable attacks on U.S. interests abroad or discounted because the reliability of some of the sources could not be verified.

Another report, "The Intelligence Community's Knowledge of the September 11 Hijackers Prior to September 11, 2001," reviewed all the data available to federal intelligence and law enforcement offices prior to 9/11; analyzed the impact of inadequate inter-agency information sharing; reviewed various laws, traditions, and practices regarding information gathering and sharing; and concluded that the agencies did not see "the potential collective significance of the information" until it was too late.

These reports and other evidence document the difficulty of integrating information from multiple sources on a rapid turnaround, making sense of it, discerning patterns, and using it to project and predict future developments. They help deepen our insights into the importance of areas such as knowledge management, competitive intelligence, and data mining.

Information Fuels Business

Modern business runs on digital information. Most recent business management books include what is becoming a more or less obligatory chapter on, or at least a discussion of, the value of knowledge/information to business practice. Effective deployment of information is acknowledged as being essential work for chief executive officers (CEO), as well as for chief information officers. Information has moved to center stage, and that is a significant development for records and information managers.

Business strategy "focuses on information flow ... provides companies with a fresh influx of ideas, constant updates, and the ability to stay abreast of and capitalize on change," notes Chuck Martin in Managing for the Short Term: The New Rules for Running a Business in a Day-to-Day World. "The successful CEOs need to have at their fingertips a multitude of information at all times ... They used to rely on staff and department heads, but now they need much more detailed information than traditionally." Top executives now are expected to produce impressive results quickly; such a shorter-term emphasis necessitates more detailed information and a free flow of information up and down the hierarchy. "Better information allows greater certainty" about customer demands and forms the basis for building relationships with suppliers.

In fact, progressive companies share information with their suppliers in several creative ways:

* Companies exchange information in such areas as demand forecasts, sales data, and customer preferences. These exchanges enable better planning for the company and its suppliers.

* Companies use information management to creatively manage inventories. Dell's suppliers, for instance, "can grab the information they need straight from Dell's systems and plug it directly into their own."

* Companies exchange knowledge. According to Francis Cairncross' The Company of the Future: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Management, when Wal-Mart ran out of mosquito repellant during a heat wave, the company discovered that a subsidiary of one of its suppliers tracked weather forecasts to spot fluctuations in demand. Sharing that knowledge electronically helped both companies better meet demands.

Information also must be captured, analyzed, sifted, and brought to bear on new projects. It is particularly important to capture the knowledge of people who move on and to glean insights from just-completed projects. Some recent business books raise that issue without offering a solution and seem unaware that records/information professionals have longstanding tools to help address the problem. Cairncross writes:
 A company's best hope here may be to save the accumulated
 unstructured information: e-mails, reports, hasty notes of
 Inevitably, this is less useful than storing such memories
 in the human brain. Searching ragbags of data is difficult,
 and yet transferring information into an appropriate form is
 time-consuming and can be wasteful.

According to author Peter Drucker, the real impact of the information revolution is e-commerce, a use of digital information that is radically transforming business. In his book Managing the Next Society, Drucker suggests that information is central to business management in other ways:
 We are rebuilding organizations around information. When
 CEOs talk of eliminating management levels, they begin to use
 information as a structural element. Many times, we discover
 that most management levels manage nothing. Instead, they
 merely amplify the faint signals emanating from the top and
 bottom of the corporate infrastructure ... I imagine that most
 CEOs have heard the first law of information theory: Every relay
 doubles the noise and cuts the message in half

A New Approach to Records Management

Only the uninformed would characterize the RIM world as unchallenging and unchanging. In fact, RIM professionals must react continuously to the need to manage constantly growing volumes of information and to rising expectations for efficiency, economy, and ease of access. Clearly, there is a gap between the sweeping assertions about the importance of information outlined above and the effectiveness of the tools at hand to manage electronic records and information in an acceptable manner.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the largest governmental records and archives program in the United States, dramatically faced those challenges as 2002 drew to a close. NARA's work in developing new records management tools holds promise for the entire RIM field. "Information Management: Challenges in Managing and Preserving Electronic Records," a 2002 General Accounting Office study, noted that federal agencies churn out millions of e-mail messages and other electronic records, most of which are soon destroyed and only a small percentage of which are saved in paper form. Most records are not inventoried, and most agencies give low or insufficient priority to records management. "Report on Current Recordkeeping Practices Within the Federal Government," a report written by SRA International and commissioned by NARA, concluded that, overall, "government employees do not know how to solve the problem of electronic records." It noted that most records are not scheduled, records management varies widely, and NARA's policies need reworking.

NARA has for some years been characterized by innovative leadership and effective use of strategic planning. With the recent "Proposal for a Redesign of Federal Records Management," it has proposed for comment (and, eventually, adoption and implementation), a fresh, new approach to its records management advisory responsibilities. The proposed approach includes a focus on

* areas and processes that represent the core functions of government

* records essential to ensuring government accountability, protection of rights, and documentation of the national experience

* developing guidance and training based on business needs for trustworthy records

* pressing the assertion that the level of records management depends on circumstances

* changing "scheduling and appraisal processes so that, except for records of continuing value, agencies can schedule records at any level of aggregation that meets their business needs"

The report clearly presages a changed relationship between the government's chief records/archives agency and the customers it serves, one based more on setting clear priorities, agencies taking more responsibility for their own records, and using the business value of records as an important factor in determining approaches. Exactly how the new approach will develop remains to be seen, but NARA's wide-ranging efforts are worthy of attention.

RIM Ironies and Challenges

Information, particularly digital information, is front and center in the operation of business and the functioning of society today. Several themes emerge from the examples cited above:

* What is often casually characterized as "information overload" or "information fatigue" has immense implications for the RIM field and is a phenomenon that needs more research and analysis. In many situations, our ability to create information has outdistanced our ability to sift through it and make sense of it.

* Expectations outdistance capacity. There is a rising--and often unwarranted--expectation that people will be able to easily access pertinent information when and where they want it and in a form that is appropriate to their needs. Our capacity as a professional field, even with the sophisticated computers and software at hand, cannot yet satisfy this expectation.

* People, rather than technology, are the central issue. Although it is continually being refined, reinvented, and superseded, in a sense there is enough sophisticated information technology. The real issue is that we have not learned how to make the best use of it to create, access, sift, retrieve, disseminate, and use information.

* Too often, the resource needing attention or warranting praise is described as "technology" or "information technology." Those terms have been used so often to mean so many things that their meaning has become diluted or obscured. The central asset is information rather than the tools and means of handling it.

* Courts are critical of inadequate records/information management. This has been demonstrated in several recent cases beyond the Bureau of Indian Affairs example. Cases involving Enron and Arthur Andersen, where illegal records destruction was a central issue, are other obvious illustrations.

* The opportunities for records and information managers have probably never been greater or more promising. As the central importance of strategic information grows, so also grows the need for professional RIM expertise. The definition of what it means to be an "information professional" also continues to evolve.

* Educating the next generation of RIM professionals is a key challenge. People with excellent professional skills and an understanding of technology are needed, but an ability to relate RIM to the broader management issues and goals of the institution will be necessary as well.


Alter, Jonathan. "Actually, the Database Is God." Newsweek. 4 November 2002.

Cairncross, Francis. The Company of the Future: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Cobell vs. Babbitt et al., Civil no. 96-1285 (12/21/99), 26. Available at (accessed 24 January 2003).

Cobell vs. Norton et al., Civil no. 96-1285 (RCL) (9/17/02). Available at (accessed 24 January 2003).

Drucker, Peter. Managing in the Next Society. New York: Truman Talley Books, 2002.

General Accounting Office (GAO). "Information Management: Challenges in Managing and Preserving Electronic Records." Washington, D.C.: GAO, June 2002.

Glasser, Jeff. "Lessons Learned." U.S. News & World Report. 4 November 2002.

"The Intelligence Community's Knowledge of the September 11 Hijackers Prior to September 11, 2001." 20 September 2002. Available at (accessed 9 January 2002).

"Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part I." 18 September 2002. Available at (accessed 9 January 2002).

Martin, Chuck. Managing For the Short Term: The New Rules for Running a Business in a Day-to-Day World. New York: Currency Doubleday, 2002.

Murphy, Emmett C. and Mark A. Murphy. Leading on the Edge of Chaos. New York: Prentice Hall, 2002.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). "Proposal for a Redesign of Federal Records Management (Draft)." Washington, D.C.: NARA, July 2002.

SRA International. "Report on Current Recordkeeping Practices Within the Federal Government." Arlington, VA: SRA International, 10 December 2001.

"Staff Director Emerges as Key to 9/11 Probe," Washington Post. 25 September 2002.

U.S. Department of the Interior. "Report to Congress on the Historical Accounting of Individual Indian Money Accounts" 2 July 2002. Available at (accessed 9 January 2003).


Horton Jr., Forest W. and Dennis Lewis. Great Information Disasters: Twelve Prime Examples of How Information Mismanagement Led to Human Misery, Political Misfortune, and Business Failure. London: Aslib, 1991.

Bruce W. Dearstyne, Ph.D., is a professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, where he teaches in the area of archives and records management. He has spent more than 25 years in the archives/records field. He may be contacted at
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Title Annotation:Records and information management
Author:Dearstyne, Bruce W.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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