The role of records and information managers is at a crossroads as the function struggles to prove itself relevant in customer-focused industries such as retail, according to a study from Iron Mountain. This article is copyright 2015 The Best Customer Guide.

Only one in three retail businesses have a records and information manager, compared to traditional process- and compliance-based industries such as manufacturing, where 46% have one, energy (48%) and financial services (50%).

Over a third (38%) of the retailers surveyed in a study of European and US mid-sized businesses admit they don't fully know what their records and information professionals do, and less than half (45%) say the role currently adds significant value to the organisation. This compares with the three quarters of business leaders in manufacturing (79%) and energy (74%) who say they understand clearly what their records and information managers do.

However, despite their uncertainty of what records and information managers currently contribute, 92% of retailers believe information professionals should play an important role in making the most of the organisation's information.

Harnessing the full value of customer data while keeping it safe and compliant is becoming increasingly important for success and brand reputation in consumer-focused businesses, and the retail sector was an early adopter of data analytics as a means to better understand its customers.

It is therefore important to understand why the contribution of records and information managers appears to be so misunderstood. One explanation could be that the records and information professionals employed by these businesses are confined to more traditional content types; with little responsibility for 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%) and email (76%), with just a quarter involved with external social media content (29%) and mobile communications (37%).

The good news is that these trends do not necessarily herald the extinction of this key information management role. Despite the marked differences uncovered in both the understanding and employment of records and information managers, business leaders across all sectors are unanimous about the valuable skills the role could offer 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%); the confidence to communicate effectively across other teams and departments (68%); the ability to make information easily accessible (64%); along with compliance, security and digital transformation skills (62%).

"While there are signs that the natural habitat of the records and information manager is disappearing, the future looks bright for those willing to adapt," said Sue Trombley, managing director of thought leadership for Iron Mountain. "Companies in all sectors are becoming more customer- and data-driven. They want to exploit information where possible for business success and competitive advantage. As a result, customer-focused data flows are now getting as much attention as more traditional processes aimed at protecting information. Our study supports a view that records and information managers can play an active role in enabling the transition to a data-driven future. 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."