By Sanders, Robert L.
Records Management Quarterly , Vol. 31, No. 3
We records managers have invested a great deal of time in developing strategies and techniques for "selling" our programs. The articles and seminar presentations on this subject are innumerable. The Greater Los Angeles Chapter of ARMA went so far as to engage a consultant to design and produce professional slide and flip-chart presentations that could be used by chapter members to convince their companies of the critical importance of our discipline. The implicit - and sometimes explicit - assumption in all of these presentations is that we records managers fully understand what we do, what we should do, and what we could do - if fully supported - to greatly profit the organization. We rarely question the value of our programs. The only problem we mention has been the lack of general recognition of them.
Recently, questions have begun to intrude upon my self-confidence. Do we know what we are selling? Is it as good as we claim? Is it the right product for our organization at this point in time? Might it not be a good idea - do we dare - to assess the value of the wares we are peddling? My own experiences in self-evaluation supports skepticism of assumed objectivity. While I have always tried to give the impression of objectivity, my words are usually tainted with bias. Thus, I can recall that, as a teenager, I proudly reported to my father that I had finished painting the house - but neglected to mention that the screens, bushes, and sidewalk were also covered with paint. In recounting my youthful sports achievements to my sons, I told how I was known as the "strikeout king" but failed to explain that it was as a batter, not a pitcher, that I had earned this title. I am fond of recalling the precision and perfection of the graduation exercises I directed as Registrar - not the lines of students that wanted to string me up when the computerized registration totally flopped. My resume still cites the period of 1976-81 as one of "assuming progressively more responsible positions." It neglects to discuss the demotion of 1981 that capped off this "progression."
In my career in records management, I continued this extravagant exposition of what I did and could do. For example, I filled my justification for a proposed imaging system with a multitude of plausible calculations. I estimated the number of hours currently spent filing and retrieving the paper documents we were planning to capture. Next, I multiplied the result by an average burdened wage of the persons doing the work. Then I added in the depreciated costs of all the filing cabinets required to hold all of these documents and the cost of office space where the cabinets sat. The result was a justification manifesting thousands of dollars saved the very first year. Of course, I pointed out that these were only the "hard" savings. I argued that the real advantage would come from the "soft" savings of reduced time searching for documents during litigation, of expedited work processes, of eliminated lost documents, and of reduced mail deliveries. By the time I had completed the proposal, I had convinced myself that only a managerial idiot could fail to be swayed by such logic. But was it true? Would staff really give up filing away the paper copy in the very first year - or even the fifth or tenth years? Would we really stop purchasing filing cabinets? Just because the documents are also electronically available, would the lawyers really cease searching through all of the paper that staff continued to file? I have learned now that the answer to all of these questions is "No." In the best scenario, the savings realized would approximate, by the time I retire, only a small percentage of what I had projected. In fact, the implementation was so delayed that the system had hardly begun to pay back its cost by the end of the second year. This does not mean that the imaging program was not a good idea - only that the justification for it was not entirely honest and realistic. …