Black, White and Shades of Gray: IM vs. IT vs. Legal

Black, White and Shades of Gray: IM vs. IT vs. Legal

While presenting in Ottawa last week at the Infonex seminar, Managing E-records in Canada’s Public Sector, I attended a presentation by Lewis Eisen.  A former practising lawyer and a former IT systems manager, Lewis is currently the Manager of Records Management Services at Industry Canada.

Entitled “Improving Collaboration Among IM, IT, and Legal Professionals“, Lewis explored  the challenges that arise when these three independent groups of professionals try to work together.  In particular, he explored why conversations among IM, IT and Legal professionals are so often difficult and why misunderstandings across those groups are so common.

He attributes some of those difficulties and challenges to a lack of common vocabulary.  For example, the different meanings of ‘file’ across the groups with IM professionals thinking of a file as a classification, IT professionals thinking of it as container for information, and Legal professionals thinking of it as a case/client matter.

However, Lewis attributed most of the difficulties and challenges to the groups’ significantly different problem-solving approaches which he encapsulated in three thought-provoking graphics.  Many thanks to Lewis for providing copies of those graphics for this blog posting.

So what are the different problem-solving approaches?

IT – According to Lewis, an IT professional approaches a problem from a binary perspective – something is either ‘on’ or ‘off’ as represented by the black and white graphic below.  This approach results in ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses.  E.g. If you ask an IT professional, “Can we do this?”, Lewis contends you’ll get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer depending on the circumstances.   That is, ‘yes’ if you have enough time and money, and permission to do it and ‘no’ if you don’t.  Consequently, Lewis suggests instead asking open-ended questions such as “What would it take to do this?”


Legal – According to Lewis, a lawyer’s many shades of gray problem-solving approach (see graphic below) is the reason why IM professionals (and others, I’m sure) find it so challenging to get a definitive answer from a lawyer.  He uses the analogy of a frozen skating rink to illustrate this approach: A lawyer sees the world as a frozen skating rink in which some areas of ice are thick and others are thin, but because the lawyer doesn’t know exactly where the thin ice is located, s/he will provide a qualified ‘it depends’ opinion after weighing the risks, possibilities and outcomes.  And even if you could isolate all of the factors at play, a lawyer would most likely still give a qualified ‘it depends’ response.


IM – Meanwhile, accoridng to Lewis, an IM professional’s problem-solving approach is represented in three stark colours: black, white and gray as shown below.  Black represents the current (or present) state of uncontrolled and unmanaged records and white represents the target or goal (i.e. 100% IM success or compliance).  However, despite how desperately an IM professional wants to move an organization (and its staff) from black to white, s/he knows that either isn’t possible or is unlikely to be very successful.  So, instead, an IM professional resigns him/herself to attaining a compromise, as represented by the gray area.


While some may take exception to these gross stereotypes, it cannot be denied that IM, IT, and Legal professionals need to learn how to work together in many organizations and that having a better understanding of each other’s problem-solving approaches will help improve communication and reduce misunderstandings across these domains.

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  • Sheila Taylor is a well known consultant, educator, speaker and writer with more than 25 years of experience in the information management (IM) field.

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    Case in Point

    That's A Lot of Records!
    Often the requirement for a needs assessment is driven by a specific initiative being considered or an immediate problem to be solved, rather than a general desire to establish a corporate (or organization-wide) IM program. We had a client wanting to improve its management of a specific group of critical records – thousands of member files in paper, microform and digital formats containing hundreds of unique document types.
    Assess, Plan and Schedule
    Ergo reviewed the organization’s current practices for managing those records, compared those practices to best practices, and identified risks and areas for improvement. From there we developed a strategic plan with a focus on records storage and retention. The plan identified the operational, financial and technological requirements for implementing the recommended changes, improvements and enhancements in the lifecycle management of the member records. Activities in the plan were classified as short term (next 6-12 months), medium term (next 12-24 months) and longer term (next 25+ months).
    Step by Step Success
    Implementation of the strategic plan enabled this organization to ensure its member records are properly identified, organized, accessible, protected and retained as long as necessary to meet operational and other requirements.
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