Do you organise your fridge like your information??
It’s not often that I describe a refrigerator as a taxonomy, so bear with me here… So, you loaded up the car with your grocery shopping, you brought it all in the kitchen from the car, and you are about to load up the fridge. Do you organise your fridge layout based on the “Use By” date of the products? No, nobody does. You put the vegetables in the vegetable drawer, you put the raw meats on a shelf of their own, the yoghurts and the desert puddings on a separate shelf. The eggs go in the door. You may consider the use-by date as you stack things of the same category, e.g. the fresh chicken will have to be eaten before the sausages which will still last until next week, but that’s incidental, it’s not the primary organisational structure. Your fridge has a taxonomy, a classification scheme, and it is organised functionally, by product class, not by date.
Where am I going with this? Records and retention management (where else?). It’s over fours years ago, that I wrote an article called “Is it a record? Who cares!” which created quite a bit of animosity in the RM community, and I quickly had to follow it up with a Part 2 to explain that my original title was quite literal, not sarcastic.
Four years later, I find myself still having very similar conversations with clients and colleagues. The more we move into an era of Information Governance, the more the distinction between records and non-records becomes irrelevant. And the more we move from the world of paper documents to the multi-faceted world of electronic content, the more we need to move away from the “traditional” records management organisational models of retention-based fileplans: The physical management of paper records necessitated their organisation in clusters of documents with similar retention requirements in order to dispose of them, so classification taxonomies (fileplans) were organised around that requirement.
In the digital world, this is no longer a requirement. Retention period, is just another logical attribute (metadata) applied to each individual content piece, not an organisational structure. With the right tools in place, a retention model can be associated with each piece of content individually, and collections of content with the same retention and – more importantly, disposition – periods, can be assembled dynamically as and when required.
For me, there are only two logical questions that drive the classification of digital content: “What is it?” (the type of content, or class) and “What is it for?” (the context under which it has been, or will be used). To use an example: An application form for opening a new account, is a certain type of content which will determine its initial retention period while it’s being processed. If that application is approved or rejected, is context that will further affect its retention period. If the client raises a dispute about his new account, it may further impact that retention period of that application form. This context-driven variance, cannot be supported in a traditional fileplan-based records management system, which permanently fixes the record – fileplan – retention relationship.
The classification (organisation, taxonomy, use any term you like…) of that content, is not even relevant to this fileplan/retention discussion. The application form in the previous example, will need to be associated with the customer, the account type, and the approval process or the dispute process. That is the context under which the organisation will need to organise and find that particular application form. You will not look for it by its retention period, unless you are specifically looking to dispose of it.
To go back to my original fridge metaphor: You will not start cooking dinner by picking up the item in the fridge that will expire first – that’s probably the pudding. You will look in the relevant shelf for the food you are trying to cook: meat or vegetables or eggs. Only after that you may double check the date, to see if it is still valid or expired.
So… I remain convinced that:
(a) there is no point in distinguishing between records and non-records any more, non-records are just records with zero shelf-life
(b) the concept of a “fileplan” as a classification structure is outdated and unnecessary for digital records, and
(c) it’s time we start managing content “in context”, based on its usage history and not as an isolated self-defining entity.
As always, I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this.
P.S. I read some blogs to learn, some for their amusing content, and some because (even if their content sometimes irritates me) force me to re-think. I read Chris Walker’s blog because it generally makes me nod my head in violent agreement :-) . He often expresses very similar views to mine and I find his approach to Information Governance (which he is now consolidating into a book) extremely down to earth. The reason for this shameless plug to his blog, is that as I was writing the thoughts expressed above, I caught up with his article from last week Big Buckets of Stuff, that covers very similar ground… Well worth a read.