Records Matter, Declaration Doesn’t

This is a follow up, inspired by Scott’s comment, to my post “Records – Do They Matter?” There are two things to keep in mind when reading this: 1) only electronic records are in scope; 2) ISO 15489.

Formally declaring a piece of electronic content as a record is antiquated, artificial, and unnecessary. Based on the accepted definition of a record, if an invoice is sent we already know that it’s a record by it being proof of a business transaction. When I send an email indicating a course of action I want taken, we already know it’s a record based on the context, content, and sender of the email. The only thing we really need to do is to determine how long we need to keep these items for. Assuming that we’ve implemented our technical infrastructure and business systems correctly, we can even assure the principles of authenticity, reliability, integrity, and to a degree, usability. Formal declaration will have no effect on any of these principles. For the record (pardon the pun), I do include ECM and E2.0 tools in infrastructure and business systems, since they do facilitate the execution of business functions.

From a retention management perspective there are three types of records:

  1. Permanent / Archival;
  2. Long term temporary (=> 1yr < forever);
  3. Transitory (< 1yr).

I’ve chosen the time frames for long term temporary and transitory for the sake of example only. The retention bucket we put the record in depends only on the business context and the business and/or historical value of the record; the origin and format of the record don’t matter.

We can argue that all business content qualifies as a record by virtue of it being business content. If we accept this approach we accomplish two important things: 1) the distinction between record and non-record is removed; 2) life is simpler for the average user (they no longer have to decide if something is a record or not). We can further simplify things by providing the user with a function based classification model.

Users know what business process they’re involved in, and they’re usually involved in only a couple of business processes in an organization. There is no reason to ask an average user to make a determination of how long something should be kept. At most the user should decide whether they’re working on a draft / work-in-process or they’ve finished whatever it is they are working on. That’s it.

I am not implying that users do not have the intelligence to make RIM-type decisions; they don’t have the training, focus, or need to make these decisions. We need to let people focus on the jobs they were hired to do in order to add greater value to their organizations. If they wanted to be RIM professionals they would let us know and we would help the poor buggers on their way (or send them for counselling).

What we need to do is to provide users with the education, tools, and support to do their jobs effectively in the information ecosystem. We don’t need to burden them with responsibilities and accountabilities that distract them from their core competencies without adding value to their goals or to organizational objectives. If we want organizations that perform better and manage information to its full potential, we need to build environments that encourage and reward collaboration, focus on value rather than rules, support knowledge workers with education, use appropriate tools, and work towards achieving organizational and individual objectives.

So I’ve changed my stance; records do matter, for without business records we don’t have businesses. However, there is no point in formally declaring content as a business record since if it isn’t a business record it has no reason to exist in the business.


9 Comments on “Records Matter, Declaration Doesn’t

  1. “However, there is no point in formally declaring content as a business record since if it isn’t a business record it has no reason to exist in the business.”

    Chris, you had me up until this sentence, which I have been reading over and over like a Zen Koan trying to figure out if it is purposefully tautological in order to make me question the meaning of existence, or if I am missing something 🙂

    OK, so we need some way to ascribe value to a piece of information so we can decide how much money to spend on managing it. I don’t have any problem with borrowing the concept of “declaration” to describe at least part of this process. I am in complete agreement that the method of declaration (for example, implied declaration as you suggest) needs to be easy, intuitive, and non-disruptive. However, some kind of differentiation needs to occur. Perhaps, by using the term “formal declaration” you are only taking issue with “traditional” records management-type declaration.

    Ok, then there is the second half of your sentence: “if it isn’t a business record, then it has no reason to exist in the business.” I’m with you. But, how do we know if it isn’t a business record if we have no declaration?

    But, if we aren’t differentiating between records and non-records how


    • Yes, I am most definitely taking issue with “traditional” records management; I think the whole community has to because traditional RM is still mired in its paper based roots.

      As long as the topic of the content pertains to the business, it’s a record. If it doesn’t pertain to the business it’s not a record and we get rid of it. If it’s mixed, it’s a record. I don’t believe that there is any point or value in differentiating electronic content based on a status (record or not record). The differentiating factor has to be the content’s value to the organization.

      Ascribing value to content (types / categories) is a bit trickier, but not impossible. To keep things really simple for now, value can be determined by:

      • Content’s purpose – if it’s helps generate revenue or reduce costs, it’s more valuable

      • Content’s retention period – the longer we have to keep it, assume the more valuable it is

      • Risk of adverse consequence in cases of unintended destruction or unintended disclosure

      I think these three points could form the basis for analyzing the value of content to an organization, there are certainly no absolutes, and it won’t be easy. But, if we want to develop information governance strategies that focus on collaboration and value rather than compliance and control we’re going to have to do it.


  2. I stumbled upon your post and find it extremly interesting, since my boss asked me today if there was a difference or could be a difference between a document becoming final and “official” by declaration.

    I can see where this might be the case in a piece of advertising copy that is final but doesn’t get published until a later date. Taking your post and applying it to the question makes me realize that my boss (and I) were over thinking the process. I like your process of the document being a work in progress/draft or finished that is all anyone really needs to understand along with what retention they need to keep the object for. It would make the process more easily to embed in the operation rather than being an afterthought.



  3. ‘Declaration’ is not, as suggested, a ‘traditional’ RM concept. It was introduced in the early days of electronic RM systems as a way of identifying a point at which documents in EDM systems moved from personal control to corporate control: essentially the point at which they should be fixed and unavailable for amendment. It was, perhaps, important at the time as a way of emphasising the transition from one stage to the next. Unfortunately, as you suggest, it’s an arbitrary distinction which gets in the way of sensible process management. Content which is clearly significant to the business sits outside the system because creators/users/handlers are reluctant to ‘declare’ it until they are ‘finished’ with it. As a consultant I always encouraged clients to operate on the principle that it was better to capture ‘incomplete’ material into the system (drafts in old speak?) than to risk the record being incomplete. In one UK government department we worked with only 25% of all documents created or received were in the ‘declared’ repository. How do you apply retention management, collaboration and information government requirements in those circumstances?
    Records are created or received as part of a business activity. It’s sometimes difficult to establish exactly what this means, but if it looks like a record and feels like a record it’s probably best to treat it as a record


    • ” How do you apply retention management, collaboration and information government requirements in those circumstances?”

      Your two options are to either have all content reside in a repository that has retention management capabilities or to use federation to apply retention management to content that resides outside of managed repositories. More likely than not a blend of the two approaches is necessary.


  4. “Users know what business process they’re involved in. …”

    Chris, not sure here. What about knowledge workers, who “often advance the overall understanding of that subject through focused analysis, design and/or development” (Wikipedia). Are they in a business process? Perhaps, but more often than not in a very large one, like a product development, an IT or marketing project. These people send email, word and powerpoint docs back and forward, take notes. Notes? Karl Alexander Mueller, Nobel price winner in physics 1987, discovered a material for high-temperature supraconductors. He took the decisive note a few years earlier at a congress – on a single page of his pocket notepad.

    Moreq2010 comes up with a similar example. In the introduction chapter, they show a hand written shopping list and the resulting cash register receipt. They consider only the latter as a record.

    In my experience, it is really a question of who will consume the information. There are the usual suspects:
    – business
    – legal
    – long-term (historical) archive

    As you pointed out during your speech at the Swiss ARMA Chapter inaugural meeting, different people have different views on the same information. So, it would be compelling to classify information multiple times by different consumers… and I’m inclined to say: as late as possible. Only if we know about the purpose of the classification, we can do it right. E.g. for legal, they actually only know what they are looking for upon a litigation. By then though, they know very well what they need.

    However, the case of “late classification” does not answer one key question: for how long should we retain? The only reliable basis here is law and the retention schedule. And for that, by nature, we must classify upfront. That isn’t too difficult for “real business processes” (e.g. selling a ticket), but becomes tricky with output from knowledge workers. Here, to some extent, we need their support. Classifying draft/final is a good start, formally assigning it to a project would be very helpful, as well as identifying ownership and the document type.


  5. Pingback: Talking records – podcast discussion with Christian Walker « Thinking Records

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