The connection between mental models and success in records management
Mental models are mental representations of reality. They provide a kind of scaffold that we use to understand the world and how the things in it are related. When we look at the world, we don't take in all of the information we see, we attribute significance to certain things because of the mental models that we have - and they become all that we see (there is a certain amount of debate about why this happens, but not that it happens). We develop mental models just by being in the world, based on the things that happen around us, and the things that we do and the strongest models are the ones that we use the most often.
The challenge of mental models is that we aren't generally aware of them.
They are often not what we say, but how we act, and we may not even be consciously aware of the difference.
You can see this in action if you've ever mapped a business process based on how people have told you it works, and then gone to watch them actually perform the task only to find it is very different - sometimes it is deliberate, but often it is inadvertent. The models for explaining and doing are different.
The challenge for us in records, is that the effectiveness of what we do, depends on how effectively we can match the mental models of the people creating records. And how effectively we can resolve the tension between the mental models of the people creating records, and those of the (often many) secondary users.
The challenge for everyone with mental models, is that they determine what we see. The only reason we see all the tasks in the process above is because we are unfamiliar with the process and know that we are unfamiliar and so are paying special attention.
Our mental models make us similarly blind.
The interesting thing about this blindness though, is that just like the person above, what we are blind to is the things that we know, and the way it makes us think, yet it determines what we see.
We see functions, activites and transactions (or some variation) - and don't realise that we are structuring our thinking that way.
We see legislative compliance obligations, and don't realise that our thinking is being structured by them.
The problem with our mental models, is that they are mostly unconscious.
I think they're also heavily connected to our success, because when we build systems that don't match the mental models of the people we build them for, they find other systems and use those.
To be successful, our work needs to match the mental models of the people around us - at least insofar as we need them to buy into it, and understand it.
This means we need to build systems to match mental models that people can't generally tell us about, and we have to avoid structuring them based on our own mental models that we likely aren't aware of.
We also need to design programs that match the mental models of the business stakeholders and executives whose support we need to execute them.
The hard question is how do we become aware of the mental models that people have?If we are aware of them, we have a better chance of designing things that match them, or being able to work to help them understand their own mental models so that we can help them change them when things need to change.
The other hard question is how do we become aware of our own mental models so we can avoid designing things in ways that seem completely sensible to us, and completely nonsensical to the people who we most need to use them?
These are challenging questions - but vital. Records Management is no longer a discipline in which we take custody of a file and put it in a place designed by records managers, for records managers and which only records managers will have to understand. We don't have the luxury of designing things just for us.
When we do design things just for us, people don't use them, and they don't support the projects that we put forward, because they don't make sense to them.
This isn't necessarily news to us - we know that most people don't have a model for record keeping, so we train them once a year to create a mental model that includes it, and reinforce it year after year.
What we don't have the luxury of however is to train ourselves in the disciplines of all the people who we need to do the work of recordkeeping. This makes designing things for them a real challenge.
So how do we tackle this problem?
It's both hard, and key to our success. I'm really looking for people's insights. If you've had success or you have a process, I'd really appreciate you sharing your story.
I was involved in designing a taxonomy to move into SharePoint from a network drive. We had 100 meetings (2 or 3 with each team/ stakeholder group). Then IM put it together and the teams signed it off - rolled out over 2 years. Our SharePoint Administrator built the system. The Project team had in-depth knowledge of what records were produced by staff, how (relating to what processes and procedures), why they were produced, all the different unofficial repositories. We had a PM that was IT trained and an IM Specialist especially around risk, compliance and privacy. This was my first role back in records for 5 years and it was like IT and IM had merged but still IT don’t know the value of IM. Plus I learned a lot too. It was like a revolution had taken place. Given the speed of change and anti change sentiments of new technologies of staff, I wonder if we have to look at ourselves. Break up the roles within IM but also the steps “up” the ladder. It seems there’s a lot of specialised knowledge and a lot of confusion amongst IM staff. And I think putting the IM functionality ‘behind’ end users views of their file structures like I understand the do in 365 now (I’m just being introduced to 365), people can work as they want to but IM can be integrated. I also think we need to educate ourselves more. One of the problems with IM is that there is never one way to do things - if 5 people are in a room they will come up with 5 different opinions on what process should be followed. I always found this a barrier to gaining confidence and knowledge - the loudest person can be wrong. Sticking to the basics is always a good idea.15489, your Public Records Act. The main thing was to file the record under the activity that leads to it being created - it’s the taxonomy that does this. And so gives compliance, has security applied etc. We have to promote ourselves and the reasons we do what we do. IM Is hard even for IM staff and it’s impossible to know everything. I know we need to focus on business outputs and quality inputs are the answer. Staff just want to know where to file what they’ve created - knowing the filing structure is key. Paper based systems you had to know your filing structure and electronically it’s no different. We need to get our feet on the ground again - and not get lost in the cloud. The purpose or processes involved when document is created is not necessarily known - that’s where we come in - and from there filing it correctly. We should be guiding IT in the design aspects of IM principles in records systems.