TAKING RECORDS MANAGEMENT THROUGH CHANGING TIMES
Change is constant1 and comes in many different shapes and forms. Mergers,
acquisitions2, organisational closure, are some of the many change events that happen
more or less continuously across all sectors. In 2011, as we contemplate widespread
changes across the UK public sector, the hard won lessons from the change events
described below may prove valuable to records managers
We don’t need to dwell on the labelling since the reasons why organisations join
together (or split asunder or disappear altogether) usually fall into one of the following
Synergy and economy of scale
Increased market share
Vertical integration or diversification
Management hubris or empire-building
Despite the justifications organisations use, academic research shows that the success
rate of mergers and acquisitions falls out between 40% and 50% which really is no
surprise given the complication and complexity of these undertakings. Success is
obviously elusive and needs (the literature declares): strategic fit and intent, detailed
planning, clear control, pace, communication, taking best from both, focus on a few
major issues, focus on people. Obvious, but difficult.
Mergers are everyday work with the volume turned up!
Everything that happens in a merger or similar event happens at other times too. There
are new organisational and functional groupings; changes in personnel; decisions made
somewhere else without consultation; consistently uneven communication; and far too
little support for people. My response is to say that this is just like everyday work3. Get
hold of that fact and get on with it!
My two big mergers
I was working as corporate records manager and archivist for a UK based
pharmaceutical company when it was merged with a larger rival in 1995. Essentially an
acquisition, the merger was executed quickly. Both companies had HQs in London (we
soon occupied only one) and there was one major site closure in the UK which kept a
records management team busy there for another year or so.
In 2000, my then much larger company merged with an equally large rival to form the
largest company in the industry. This merger was driven from the USA where the other
company (although a UK company) was headquartered. This was a much slower affair;
much bigger and there was a lot of travelling to and fro between sites to carry out
What was supposed to happen?
On both occasions, we were told to carry on with work as normal. “Business as usual.
Keep focused on the job. It’s important to keep the organisation running.”
On the other hand, there was frequent reference made to the hundred day timetable
that seemed to be driving activity and it became clear that there had been a great deal
of functional analysis and pooling of people carried out already. There was a phased
engagement of people starting with senior management and going down through the
organisation. There was a new organisational design but only in outline and there was
much fine detail to iron out.
In 1995, I (and my team) were introduced to our counterparts and were anticipating a
straight competition for jobs. Within weeks, we’d been moved to another part of the
company entirely and were now (as part of a much larger pool of people) facing
selection for jobs in a substantially larger team. If there were consultants involved
(there were), they were invisible to me. The first task to complete was people selection.
Stressful at times; but over in a few weeks. Once selected, we then got stuck into legacy
projects (a major site with an enormous quantity of records was closing) and
understanding what business as usual meant in the new company.
In 2000, our counterparts were spread across the UK and USA. The merger was much
larger and far more complex. This time, consultants appeared to take forward the
detailed design of parts of the company. The new organisation was very big and people
very quickly learned to stay within their own division. Cross-divisional working became
a major challenge. In my memory, the process of selection took a long time.
Records management and my mergers
This might sound obvious but all these various organisations did records management
differently and all the players defended their approach to it with vigour! RM is a
bespoke activity, after all, and I often found myself trying to compare apples with pears:
classifications, box sizes, terminology, service levels, views on external storage and
On the positive side, consolidation of physical holdings was relatively straightforward;
complicated, undoubtedly, but a primarily logistics task that needed lots of lists, labels,
clipboards and people. There were no digital records in my merger world in 1995.
However, intellectual consolidation was (in 1995) a non-starter as both organisations
depended on a wide range of paper finding aids, card indexes, embryonic databases and
people know-how. Where they were in use, different schemes of arrangement and
standards of description had been applied. There were widely different approaches to
retention even in one heavily regulated industry. Unification of retention schedules was,
it turned out, the first consolidation task to be attempted and that had to wait until the
I am tempted to say that nothing had changed in 2000 and at the operational level, the
same factors of duplication and difference applied.
What sense did I make of all this?
As a records manager, you need to be looking both ways at once. Strike a balance
between planning for the future and managing the legacies – all of them. The
aggregated accumulation of records and information from all parties in a merger
presents an often large problem and it’s very easy to be labelled as the legacies expert.
You won’t avoid that but it’s critical to get involved with planning the future.
And in 2011 you must...
Get connected. Get a laptop and a smartphone if you haven’t got one. Go to meetings
and briefings; listen hard and talk to as many people as you can. Go to external
meetings; connect with your external network; update your CV. Building your personal
presence (your “brand”) is still a priority and now there are even more tools to do it:
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Dive in there and give them a go. Read relevant blogs and
post comments. Start your own if you’ve got enough to say.
Clear out your office; keep only what you can use in the future; travel light. Make sure
your passport and driving licence are up to date. Expect to be uncomfortable some of
the time. If you manage a team, talk with them frequently and tell them everything you
know. Listen to what they’re saying and agree with them what needs to be done to
finish ongoing work and tie off loose ends. For the team’s sake, make sure you have a
stand-in if you’re frequently away from the office.
On the work front, many of the same basic tasks will need attention. In 2011, there will
still be legacy issues. There will certainly be volumes of paper records to deal with.
There may be storage contracts to harmonise or reconcile. Get on top of this. Engage
third-parties to deal with hardcopy records4. Manage them closely and look for
economies of scale.
So, if you’ve skipped what I’ve written above, my top tips for getting though a merger,
acquisition or closure are:
1. Strike a balance between planning for the future and managing the legacies.
2. Get connected – talk, meet, build your brand.
3. If you manage a team, talk with them
4. Don’t waste time trying to join up systems, indexes, file plans, retention
schedules – just move them all to wherever you’re going to be based
5. If you manage a team, structure it so that “new organisation” projects and
“legacy” projects are clearly differentiated
6. “Legacy” projects are messy and need a lot of resource – be very selective about
which you progress. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Being seen to get
things done counts a lot early on.
7. Approve and apply a provisional retention schedule (or schedules) ruthlessly and
be clear about what you are disposing or retaining. There will be time later to
8. Engage useful people who might be leaving the organisation and harvest their
know-how for future use
9. Promote information governance, assurance, and risk mediation to every group
or individual willing to listen
10. Focus on policy consolidation and write new ones if you have to
11. Promote information architecture to IT and dig into the details of their processes
12. Shift RM from doing to advising and project managing.
1 There are numerous sources identified for the set of quotations on the theme of change as a constant.
These range from Heraclitus to La Rochefoucauld. Take your pick. The sentiment is the same.
2 Although they areoften used synonymously,the terms merger and acquisition mean different things.
When one company takes over another and clearly establishes itself asthe new owner, the purchaseis
called an acquisition. Amerger happens when two organisations agreeto go forward as a singlenew
organisation rather than remain separately managed and operated. This kind of action is more precisely
referred to as a "merger of equals". For any particularevent to be considered a merger or an acquisition
really depends on whether the intent is friendly or hostileand how it is announced.In other words, the
real difference lies in how itis communicated to and received by the target organisation’s board of
directors,employees and shareholders.
3 How we describeevents or problems shapes the way we respond to them. Mergers and similar events
are not necessarily good or bad. Change: principles of problem formation and problem resolution by Paul
Watzlawick and others (W.W.Norton, 1974) will changethe way you think aboutchange.
4 In 1995, Hays was the UK's largestrecords management company having purchased Rockall Scotia
Resources in 1994. Iron Mountain only arrived in the UK in 1999 with the acquisition of BDM and then
went on to buy the Information Management Services unit of Hays PLC in 2003.