Tuesday, September 22, 2009

BPE 2009: lessons learned from counterinsurgencies

One of the most fascinating presentations at this year's Best Practices Exchange was delivered by Eliot Wilzcek, who identified four main lessons that archivists and librarians charged with preserving electronic materials can draw from recent cultural and institutional shifts within the U.S. armed forces.

Lesson 1: digital preservation requires lessons learned. Eliot furnished an overview of the U.S. Army's "lessons learned" infrastructure. The Center for Army Lessons Learned takes in observations (descriptions of conditions), insights (issues caused by conditions), and lessons (potential solutions) captured in after-action reviews, operational records, interviews and incident reports, and other sources. It then combines this information with historical analysis to produce "lessons learned": validated knowledge and experience that produces a change in behavior.

He then discussed after-action reviews, which are conducted at every level of the U.S. Army and range from impromptu, unit-level sessions in the field to highly structured, formal processes that involve large numbers of people.

After-action reviews focus on four core questions:
  • What did we set out to do? (purpose of mission and criteria for success)
  • What actually happened? (past events)
  • Why did it happen? (reasons for success and failure)
  • What are we doing next time? (make fixes, and continue what works)
Their core characteristics include:
  • Thorough documentation of actions -- dedicated note-taker
  • Carefully defined scope
  • Skilled facilitation -- ideally, the facilitator has general knowledge but no stake in the discussion
  • Leaders who talk as little as possible and who willingly admit mistakes
  • No penalties for making mistakes or being candid
  • Focus on improvement, not assignment of blame
  • Focus on solvable problems and things that were done well
  • Part of an ongoing, frequent process -- instills a review-oriented ethos and helps people get better at the process
I really like the after-action review concept and ground rules. Many archivists and librarians have done informal "post-mortems" after wrapping up projects, but most of us aren't doing them systematically or formally documenting the outcomes -- which would certainly help to meet our institutions' knowledge management needs. I suppose an argument could be made that conducting frequent reviews of this sort takes too much time, but if military units in combat zones can do so, so can we.

Lesson 2: preservation requires integrated research and practice. Eliot noted that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have a strong academic culture and that many officers have graduate degrees (e.g., General David Petraeus has a Ph.D. from Princeton). Moreover, people get a lot of experience in the theater, and the Army and Marine Corps capitalize upon it by turning them into educators. The armed forces nonetheless keep in mind that there are limits to the amount of time people should spend in the theater and make sure that they rotate out periodically.

Eliot asked whether archivists could emulate the armed forces and develop the capacity to rotate between work and research, and a couple of people noted that in some instances their colleagues had been given time to conduct needed research on behalf of their institutions. We also discussed other, more modest options for combining work and research: sponsoring regular meetings to discuss shared professional readings and creating reading groups in which each person read a different article, drafted a summary of the article s/he was assigned, and shared the summary with the other members of the group.

Lesson 3: Preservation requires air strikes. Eliot likened the counterinsurgency techniques developed by the armed forces to the findings that Susan Davis and Richard Pearce-Moses outlined in New Skills for a Digital Era: archivists will need both "soft" and technical skills and to connect their institutions to external resources. Counterinsurgency, which focuses less on hunting down insurgents than upon protecting the population, also requires a mix of soft and technical skills. It means more emphasis on talking to and living among people, and less emphasis upon shooting one’s gun. However, it still requires "kinetic operations" (shooting and shelling) and the ability to call on external resources (e.g., air strikes) when needed.

Eliot noted that there are few archives that will be able to preserve resources entirely on their own; even wealthy repositories are going to use tools developed by each other. We need the skills to call upon these external resources -- the archival/library equivalent of air strikes. However, even if we outsource all storage and management, we still need to do appraisal and do some ingesting work: trusted digital repositories cannot preserve what they don’t ingest, and they can’t turn junk into meaningful records.

Lesson 4: Preservation requires joint patrols. The U.S. armed forces have learned that external forces do not win counterinsurgencies. Host governments do, and U.S. forces are there to give them the training and time they need in order to win the loyalty of their people. Training the host nation’s military and, in particular, police to be trustworthy is key, and working jointly is essential. When the U.S. conducts joint patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan, the local representative leads; although local participants don’t do things as well as the U.S. forces do, it’s important to put a local face on the patrols.

Eliot reminded us that archives and libraries do not win the preservation war. Societies do, and archivists cannot assume sole responsibility for preservation. What does this mean Within a state government context, it means that "joint patrols" should be conducted by the state archivist and the state CIO. It also means that archivists (and librarians) working in many contexts will also have to ask themselves some unsettling questions. If we can't preserve records on our own, do we embrace a "post-custodial" approach? Do we train records creators to be preservationists if that means more records are “preserved” but not to our standards? There are no easy answers to these questions, but we sure do need to ask them.

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