Retail sector risks losing touch with records managers in a world of big data

Six years is a long time in 21st century retailing. In 2009, when Freeform Dynamics published a paper showing retailers how they could differentiate themselves through their information management , today’s disruptive omnichannel retail landscape was a distant dream.

But the paper’s conclusion, that “success in the retail industry is largely a factor of how quickly knowledge can be gathered and acted upon” remains just as valid in 2015 - it’s just become far more complicated.

Emerging content types, such as social media, big data, and a growing number of information stakeholders across the business all of whom are looking for real-time analysis and insight, have become part of every-day life in customer-focused industries such as retail. Information management has moved from a controlled linear process to a fluid, increasingly transparent model where well-established record-keeping processes no longer apply.

So where does this leave the traditional records and information manager in the retail sector? Struggling, if our recent research is anything to go by. Our study explored the current roles and expectations of European and US records and information managers and considered the future for this once central information role. We then put the same questions to their employers.

The results reveal that many information managers employed by retailers find their careers at a crossroads. They feel misunderstood and have lost track of what the business and their colleagues need from information, but are keen to reassert their relevance in a rapidly changing information landscape. Eight in ten (79 per cent) believe they can help the business to extract maximum value from information.

Just one in three retail businesses has a records and information manager today and less than half (45 per cent) believes the role currently adds significant value to the organisation. This is despite the fact that one of the top priorities for retailers is improving the customer experience by harnessing the full value of customer data while keeping it safe and compliant. Records and information managers should be playing a key role in achieving this - why aren’t they?

One explanation could be that the records and information professionals employed by retailers are often confined to more traditional content types; with little responsibility for the emerging and unstructured forms of content that are rapidly growing in importance and use in consumer sectors.

For example, around three quarters of records and information managers in retail businesses are responsible for the management of customer data (71 per cent) and email (76 per cent), with just a quarter involved with external social media content (29 per cent) and mobile communications (37 per cent).

The good news is that 92 per cent of retailers believe records and information professionals should have an important role to play in making the most of the organisation’s information. Further, they are very clear about the value-adding skills the role could offer the business in the coming years.

For around two-thirds of business leaders, these skills include the ability to approach information with a strategic outlook and an awareness of wider business goals (61 per cent); the confidence to communicate effectively across other teams and departments (68 per cent); the ability to make information easily accessible and fluid (64 per cent); and compliance, security and digital transformation skills (62 per cent).

Developing such skills and experience should be a priority for records and information managers in retail. But there’s more that they can and should do.

Records and information managers need to ensure that their employers and colleagues better understand how they can help to meet information needs. They need to become full and active participants in conversations about big data and analytics and the need to balance risk-related requirements with the free flow and use of data for competitive advantage. They need to better understand the pressures colleagues are under and remove pain points regarding information storage, retention, workflow and technology. Thinking strategically, analytically, creatively, collaboratively and with a business focus needs to become a given.

So, while there are signs that the natural habitat of the records and information manager is disappearing in retail, the future looks bright for those willing to adapt. Retailers are leading the way in becoming more customer- and data-driven. Traditional protective information processes are increasingly sharing attention with customer-focused data flows.

Our study shows that records and information managers can play an active role in enabling this. We urge them to embrace the new information landscape and to build the skills and expertise they need to thrive. Extinction is not a given, but evolution is inevitable.

Sue Trombley, Managing Director of Thought Leadership, Iron Mountain