Shortly after I became an electronic records archivist, I attended Partnerships in Innovation: Serving a Networked Nation, a conference sponsored by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). One of the speakers, a scientist who helped to develop the Open Archival Information System Reference Model said something that has stayed with me ever since: the greatest digital preservation challenges we face are not technological but sociological. In other words, conflicts over terminology, turf, roles, and responsibilities can be and often are the thorniest problems we face. As time passes, I'm increasingly convinced that he was right.
Fynette Eaton's exhilarating session at this year's Best Practices Exchange made me think about some of the sociological challenges that we confront within our own institutions. Using NARA's Electronic Records Archives (ERA) program, which will enable NARA to preserve and provide access to the archival records of federal government and to modernize its scheduling, accessioning, and other workflows, as an example, Fynette discussed the principles of change management. She emphasized that although most administrators fail to realize it, implementing new procedures and new technologies and overcoming resistance to change are fundamentally human resources, not technological, issues.
Fynette began by emphasizing the difference between change and transition (see above) and outlining the three phases of the transition process:
- Ending: letting go of the old way of doing things and the sense of comfort, familiarity, and confidence in one's own expertise that comes with having mastered the old way, saying goodbye to the old way and one's old sense of self, and achieving some sort of closure.
- In-between time: feeling as if one is lost in the wilderness. This phase is often difficult, but it also results in the generation of new ideas about how to do things and about the self.
- New chapter: the sense that one has mastered the new way of doing things, often accompanied by a sense of personal and organizational renewal.
When I first became an electronic records archivist, I started thinking about what separated me from the colleagues who privately told me that they were glad they were still working with paper records or that they would retire within a few years. My colleagues consistently talked about their lack of comfort with technology or our (minor) differences in age, but more and more I came to realize that, in many instances, the most significant difference was my relatively high level of tolerance for chaos and uncertainty. I don't think I enjoy the transition process any more than anyone else, but I'm willing to live with it -- and to set the process in motion -- if I think that the stakes are high enough.
Of course, dealing with the immense and complex challenge of digital preservation requires more than a few librarians and archivists who can deal with a certain degree of chronic upheaval. This session was full of information about how to implement sweeping changes effectively and humanely.
Fynette identified the key success factors for implementing change:
- Alignment of and visible support from the organization's executive team, including senior managers. Without visible, consistent support from the executive team, change won't succeed.
- Formation of a change management team charged with planning and preparing for implementation of the desired change.
- Consistent communication with employees, including early involvement of employees in pilot testing and other parts of the change process; research indicates that key points need to be communicated a minimum of seven times (!)
- Frequent communication and negotiation with stakeholders, which for archives and libraries include end users and creators of records and publications.
- Employee and staff resistance.
- Middle management resistance -- a significant factor at NARA.
- Poor executive sponsorship.
- Limited time, budget, and resources.
- Organizational inertia and politics -- also in play at NARA.
Fynette devoted most of the session to NARA's efforts to manage the changes that accompanied the development of ERA, which ought to serve as a model for other cultural heritage institutions making similar changes.
NARA's change management team was responsible for:
- Keeping NARA running while ERA was being built.
- Building and sustaining the momentum needed to set changes in motion.
- Dealing with the human dimension of organizational change.
- Managing NARA's transition to a new and sustainable way of doing business.
1. Clarity and consistency of vision are essential. NARA leaders' perceptions of ERA's scope and mission were inconsistent and varied over time, and some leaders had difficulty sticking to decisions that had been made during earlier phases of the project. Averting endless review of past decisions -- which in some instances wa a form of resistance -- was particularly important.
2. A variety of users must participate in the testing and pilot phases of system development. Doing so helps to ensure that all users feel as if they have a voice and that problems are identified and solved before the system's agency-wide rollout.
3. Communications must be actively managed:
- Staff needed reassurance that ERA's implementation would not cause NARA's operations to grind to a halt and that they would not lose their jobs as a result of the change. The team frequently met with staff and encouraged them to discuss their concerns. It also identified champions -- people who, regardless of their official position within NARA's hierarchy, had the respect of their colleagues and who could persuade others to support ERA.
- External stakeholders, whose perceptions of NARA often differ sharply from NARA's perception of itself, also needed confirmation that ERA was on track. The team helped to bolster ERA's credibility by emphasizing NARA's extensive and ongoing involvement in cutting-edge digital preservation research. (I've always been deeply impressed with ERA's research component, and I was both stunned and amused to learn that NARA has actively nurtured this perception.)