Misconceptions hinder real records management strategy

Steve Weissman

If you've spent time trying to develop a cohesive records management strategy that also considers the rest of your enterprise content, my guess is you've run into two misconceptions that can delay or derail even the most well-intentioned initiative:

  1. Content management and records management are separate disciplines.
  2. Documents must be saved in particular formats or stored on physical media to qualify as records.

These falsehoods are the legacy of the long history of the business record, which literally traces back across the millennia. But in the digital age, there is no reason for misconceptions about records management to persist, and failing to counter them makes your job far more difficult than it needs to be.

Use metadata management to bring records and content together

In the old days, the difference between a record and "regular" content was pretty clear. Functionally, if you needed someone in accounts payable, accounts receivable or human resources to do something with your item, it was probably a record. If you could handle the item yourself or in conjunction with your boss, it was probably content.

In the digital age, there is no reason for misconceptions about records management to persist.

Today, however, records are cropping up all over the place as decentralized operations, distributed architectures and mobile platforms make greater freedom of action more the norm. For example, salespeople can now capture customer signatures on their tablets the way they once did on paper. The resulting contract is no less a record than it was when it had to be snail-mailed back to headquarters, but the fact that it can now be uploaded or emailed means that your information infrastructure handles it the same way it does every other kind of electronic document coming in.

But now I hear you saying, "You can't comingle business records and ordinary documents this way! We will go nuts (and broke) trying to separate them when we have to prepare reports for senior management or get ready for an audit or legal discovery action!"

Well, given today's modern technologies, you can -- and beyond that, my guess is that you already are.

Tools that center on taxonomy and metadata management are the enabler. These functions are integral to content management systems and records management systems alike and allow you to apply identifying tags to documents so they can be quickly found, retrieved and used. In the context of records, populating a metadata field labeled "retention period" or "disposition instructions" means, for instance, that auditors can sort and access documents by the designated destruction date to ensure that compliance requirements are being met. The trick is to incorporate these and other record-specific requirements at the outset; it is too difficult to introduce them after the fact.

Define records in terms of function, not format

ARMA International defines records as "evidence of what the organization does. They capture its business activities and transaction." If a process verifies transaction completion or involves information about how long a document must be stored, it is a record, according to the organization.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that this definition makes no mention of format (e.g., PDF, JPEG, MP3) or medium (e.g., paper, film, CD-ROM, flash drive) -- nor does the International Organization for Standardization, whose ISO 15489 standard defines records management as efficiently and systematically controlling "the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records."

For more on enterprise content management

Creating a business case for ECM

Using records management for SharePoint control

So, according to official sources, records are documents that contain specific types of information and are kept to meet specific organizational needs. The good news is that specific metatags can facilitate records management by electronic means. Besides the two listed in the previous section, these often include categorizations such as record category, media type, format, vital record indicator and others (customer ID) that it may share with other enterprise solutions such as enterprise resource planning.

This technique also allows you to manage hard-copy records with electronic tools. But note that the audit trail ends with a screen containing a physical warehouse location and box number rather than a link to the document itself.

Practical impact

Adopting a cohesive records management strategy today is within reach. The current pace of information creation and collection makes it imperative for organizations to begin viewing records and content through a single lens.

From a best-practices standpoint, doing so means bringing all the taxonomic and metadata work under a single umbrella, the benefits of which can ripple all the way from records to databases and to process improvement by establishing a more standardized vocabulary. It can also create new economies of scale in acquiring new or using existing storage, server capacity, bandwidth, security and other components of a data center infrastructure.

Make no mistake: Records themselves remain, and always will be, special documents that must be separable from "regular" content when the need arises. But constructed appropriately, the infrastructure for records management can easily support content management. You just need to eliminate the organizational misperceptions that stand in the way.

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