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This is the sixth entry in our NARA series. Check out the others below!

The Importance of Sponsorship and Reinforcement 

You would probably get no argument, even from practitioners, in saying that the responsibility of driving and enforcing records management practices within organizations is seen as a fairly un-glamourous job

There’s the rigorous time spent designing and planning an end-to-end records management strategy for the organization, laborious work to implement and train on the business processes and workflows necessary to identify, capture and manage records, and the inherent “chasing” of users and business units who either don’t understand or don’t comply with their responsibilities (which are often the last mile of records management within organizations).

And yet the goals of a proper records management implementation couldn’t be more important to an organization. These usually include: 

  • Ensuring the capture and proper handling of the organization’s most important information,
  • Limiting the exposure (legal or otherwise) of information that is no longer relevant, necessary or required but may present risk to the organization, 
  • Achieving provable compliance with legal or auditory requirements that ensure regulated content can be discovered and produced as appropriate. 

These are lofty goals given the amount of data produced, stored and shared in today’s modern world of work and the many collaborative systems and services that are currently in use by organizations. Take, for example, the NARA 2019 and 2022 guidelines and mandates for the handling of permanent electronic records by US federal government agencies. To do this kind of work properly and effectively requires a combination of the right people, processes, and technology within the organization.

Another key element is required for a successful program: the support of an executive sponsor. In our work with many regulated organizations in both the commercial and public sector, we have seen the full spectrum of engagement in records management programs by the executive team. Over time some common strategies, symptoms, and remedies have emerged. 

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When It’s Working Right

The guidance from industry organizations such as AIIM on the executive sponsorship issue is clear. AIIM’s 2010 ECM toolkit states: ”To be successful, records management must start at the top. A senior executive must be held accountable. There is a growing but not yet universal understanding of this fact within the business community.” 

Furthermore, guidance from AIIM suggests “Framing the initiative and confirming commitment needs a variety of key stakeholders: business, legal, executive, records, and IT. And don’t forget some representation from the people who will actually have to use all this technology!” The obvious value of an executive sponsor is to create motivation within the organization at large to actually comply with the goals and processes the program requires. 

Records management initiatives that are properly funded, resourced and broadly visible within the organization are often sure signs of good executive buy-in. I’ve seen extremely effective implementations where an executive sponsor was actually the face of the initiative and the one whose persona was used for all important communications around strategy and user impacts of the new processes. 

Executive sponsors also have the luxury of not living in the granular details of the program, so they’re effective advocates of staying focused on big-picture goals (such as how the program’s controls and processes will be communicated to and received by regulators and auditors). In essence, good executive sponsorship allows records management teams to borrow authority and influence and help deliver the message that this really is important and vital work for the organization as a whole. 

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Symptoms That Executive Support May Be Lacking

As you would logically expect, symptoms of records management initiatives that are lacking executive sponsorship look a lot like the opposite of those listed above. Funding for these initiatives can be problematic if they are not seen as strategically important and, without funding and resources, these initiatives can have problems fulfilling their vision.

For example, the NARA 2019 and 2022 mandates are driving US federal agencies to re-examine their existing processes and technology. Those examinations often reveal the need for more effective methods of the identification, handling, and disposition of records. Where they have previously heavily relied on manual, user-driven processes, automation through technology is now seen as the proper way forward. That said, if there isn’t tight alignment between the records management team and the executive level, the engagement and commitment to these technology evaluations can stall or lack priority against other IT procurement priorities. 

Another telltale sign of lack of executive sponsorship is when records management teams have to constantly chase business units for the information required to formalize their program or for compliance with the policies once the program is launched. Simply put, the lack of the ability to borrow the authority and influence mentioned in the last paragraph can the level of change that is possible in the organization. 


Report: New Survey Reveals Why Federal Agencies Aren’t Transferring Records to NARA


How to Encourage and Engage an Appropriate Sponsor

By now we’ve established why executive sponsorship for records management initiatives is so important. But how do you get there? If you’re leading a records management program, what can you do specifically to get the high-level buy-in you need? Here are a few best practices. 

  1. Be clear and detailed about the strategic value for your objective. Before you can gain buy-in, you need to understand for yourself why your program or initiative has value or urgency beyond solely the records management team. Again, AIIM has some great guidance here for building your business case justification. The good news here is that some of the same justifications you land on for selling your program up the chain will also help you communicate the importance of the program down to your business units. 
  2. Align with a compelling event or regulation. Nothing drives like a driver that is mandated from the outside. NARA’s 2019 and 2022 mandates are great examples here for the US federal agenciesBe ready to communicate both the detailed requirements of the driving event as well as the path you are laying out to get there. Not all compelling events will be date driven, of course. There’s always a looming driver for regulated organizations, though changes in the way the organization collaborates and the systems they use can be a good reason to re-evaluate and engage your executive sponsors at a deeper level.
  3. Align with a key business initiative. Records management is the end of a larger information management strategy in organizations. Information management initiatives can be closely aligned with multiple strategic goals of an organization. A side benefit is that the better and more formalized the organization’s information management policies are (i.e. document templates, metadata/classification, data ownership, etc.), the more prepared they’ll be for implementing effective end of life strategies for that content. Where possible, identify and align with these deeper organizational goals.

Attaining executive sponsorship–and constructing effective records management policies as a whole–isn’t easy, but it also doesn’t have to be a major issue for your organization. If you’re looking for more insight into common issues and gray areas in the space, take a look at our Best Practices Guide for Records Management for the Digital Era.


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