Tasks for Modern Info Pros: Build Relationships

In November 2013, SLA published The Evolving Value of Information Management, a report summarizing the results of research commissioned by SLA and the Financial Times. The report, which was based on surveys of and interviews with information professionals and senior information users, identified 5 essential attributes of modern information professionals and set forth 12 key tasks they must perform.

Several SLA members have agreed to share their thoughts about the 12 tasks. In this post, Allana Mayer advocates getting visibly, actively involved in addressing colleagues’ information needs and using these interactions to build relationships.

AllanaMayer

A couple of months ago, an articling student knocked on my office door. He had been charged with reading through about 8,000 e-mails as part of the discovery process for a case at our law firm, and he had heard I might be able to help. Twelve minutes later, I had whittled the batch down to 5,000 e-mails through two minutes of Googling and ten minutes of processing the purchase of a de-duplicating add-on for Outlook.

I’ll admit to an initial moment of indignation when he asked for my assistance. “Not my job!” is a response I’m consciously trying to inculcate in myself, so as to distinguish the archives and records management (RM) work from that of a secretary. I’m also the youngest non-lawyer in the firm (by about 10 years), so I’m wary of anything that approaches intern-like treatment. Especially in a law office, with its bizarre and antiquated rituals of hierarchy, senior partners will often push off tech-related tasks to associates and students if they don’t have the skills themselves. Hard work flows downhill, and nothing is harder than combing through an unstructured mess of digital material to find crucial information.

Being an embedded information professional means nobody’s really sure what your role is until they have a question they’re not able to ask anyone else. I’ve been here about nine months, and I’m still learning when to say yes to extraneous tasks, when to go looking for work, when to offer extra help, and when to stick to my guns and prioritize my own projects (which seem to be multiplying by the day). My day-to-day duties consist of designing records management policies, developing a digitization program, processing archives and authorizing resource destruction, dealing with subcontractors on storage and secure shredding issues, hosting training meetings and one-on-one sessions with staff, arguing with future-minded, profit-oriented professionals about donating valuable historical documents to the law society … oh, and taking over tasks that had been shunted off to our outsourced IT staff before my position was created. At some point I’d also like to spend time with our law librarian and learn about our collection. Pipe dreams!

I consider the IT Department one of my biggest allies in the battle to emphasize my own worth in the office. I’m hoping to help relieve their burden by taking on some of the easily “Google-able” requests, and they’re going to feed me information about what kinds of problems most need immediate attention (and maybe even facilitate my ability to solve them). I may have been hired to work in the background, to deal only with old files, but there’s plenty of space for participation in active cases.

In my case, the aggravation caused by a new and more intensive RM program gives me an opportunity to address day-to-day information needs that weren’t in my job description to start. I’m purchasing the time to spend on heritage materials with the currency of visible, proactive involvement.

But inserting myself into existing business processes has been finicky and slow. Not long ago, I finally spoke face to face with a certain senior partner, who started by complaining about the RM system I had implemented. I showed off my “archives” server for digitized documents, explained from a legal standpoint why it was so important to get his input on retention periods, and suggested I come back later to pick up some materials that were cluttering his office. The next week, he sent me a follow-up e-mail and a handful of files to digitize.

When someone makes a fuss about “not understanding this newfangled system,” it’s an ideal teachable moment. That person is just waiting for me to swoop in, deliver my elevator pitch about the value of good information management, diagnose a problem he didn’t know he had, and solve it on the way out the door.

Action Steps

I don’t think I’m qualified yet to give broad advice about building relationships, but here’s what’s working for me so far:

  • Find out which way power flows, and talk to people on the bottom. IT staff, administrative assistants, and interns can tell you where the biggest procedural and technological bottlenecks are.
  • Use your time with upper management wisely. Be efficient with your message, patient with their questions, and upbeat in your offers to help.
  • Do one favor per person per project, and only if it helps you develop a reputation as a collaborator (not an underling).

As for that poor articling student, he came back and asked if I would help him print the 1,200 relevant e-mails he had found in the batch of 5,000 (originally 8,000) in chronological order. Baby steps.

— Allana Mayer is an archivist with Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP in Toronto.

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