What is a record?

By Carl Weise posted 05-13-2010 21:07


With the growth of electronic records management (ERM) and lead by the ISO Records Management standard, ISO 15489, there has been a lot of discussion over what is a business record within an organization.

What a novel concept – a business record!

In fact, it is not a novel idea.  For decades, employees have been determining what is important to both themselves and their organizations.  The result has been that paper records were systematically filed in their desk drawers and file cabinets.  The paper records that were not deemed to be important were tossed out, either sooner or later.

Certainly, with electronic records there has been an exponential increase in the volume of information that passes across our desks and computer screens.  The ease of creating information has lead to many more records and much more information that is of little value to us or our organizations.  This requires much more of our attention than in the past.

Electronic records are also more difficult to manage than paper records.  As we look at electronic records, including emails, we only see the name of the file or the subject of the email.  To properly manage electronic records, we often have to open them up to look at the contents because the names and subject descriptions are so vague.  This is more cumbersome that just looking at folders or sheets of paper and immediately being able to identify the type of record that they are and knowing that we either need to keep them or to throw them out in the trash.

In AIIM’s ERM and Enterprise Content Management (ECM) Certificate courses, we address the need for controlled vocabularies within organizations.

ISO 15489, the international standard on records management defines records as: “information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business”.  This definition is useful in making it clear that we are not talking about only old, archival records, but everyday information that we create or receive in our work situations.

As we get inundated with information, we need to understand what is important to us and our organizations.  As we work in different positions, we should have training on what information is important and how it should be properly handled.  As we gain experience in our positions, we get a better understanding of what is required.  This can be considered determining what a record is “by the seat of our pants”.

The secret to improving productivity, as well as comfort on the job, is to get away from arbitrary decisions on separate pieces of information on what should be retained and what should be thrown out.  It is valuable to write down what our decisions are and to refer to those decisions in the future.  This is illustrated so well in the accounting profession.  Having a Chart of Accounts makes it so much easier to allocate the different revenues and expenses for ourselves or our organizations.  Instead of constantly rethinking the issues and making arbitrary decisions, you develop a structure to make your decisions easier.

As you look at the information in front of you, whether it is in the form of an email, a product of a computer application or even audio and video format, you can use the ISO 15489 definition and consider if the information is associated with legal obligations or support, or document, transactions.  If it does than the information is a record.

In the ERM and ECM certificate courses, we provide an analytical approach to determining what a record is by identifying if there are:

  • legal requirements to retain the information,
  • industry standards that relate to the information,
  • continuing relevance of the information to you and your organization,
  • public interest, including the historical value of the information, and
  • future need.

Another interpretation of the requirements is, looking at the information,

  • what is the administrative value of the information
  • what is the legal value, both regulatory requirements and protection in litigation,
  • what is the fiscal value, and
  • what is the historical value of the information.

If you have meaningful answers to any of these questions, the information is a record.  This can be considered as taking an analytical approach to determining what a business record is.

As I said above, employees have been determining what a business record is and what is not for decades.

What I would like to make clear is that arbitrary decisions on records are not good for employees or their organizations.  Like all business decisions, some are going to be correct and some are not.  Individual employees should not be responsible for these business decisions.  At the same time, there is case law that clearly shows that consistent practice in handling records is important to defend yourself, and the organization, from charges of obstruction of justice.  Therefore, records need to be identified enterprise-wide and the consistent handling of them must be enforced.

Employees who are creating and receiving information that they are not familiar with should work with the organization’s records management professionals to properly identify the information and determine how it should be handled and for what period of time.  The determination of what are an organization’s records should be a corporate decision and not an individual’s one.

So, what is a record?  It’s any information that’s important to you in carrying out your work and to your organization.

What is important is that you document your decisions as to what information is important and what is not.  Secondly, you need to work with the records management professionals and carryout an analytical appraisal of the information and come up with an organization decision on how they should be handled.

There are additional formal definitions of a record.  They can be found in the various ERM system specification standards that exist.  They can also be very helpful.

However, each organization must get approval on its own particular definition of what a record is.  This is a fundamental part of your records management policy.

Tell us how you developed the definition of records for your organization?

What issues did you face is getting your definition agreed upon and approved at your organization? 

#EMM #ERM #ECM #ElectronicRecordsManagement