Big Bucket Approach to Records Retention Schedules

By Carl Weise posted 11-18-2011 15:18


There have been discussions in the records management profession about limiting the number of record categories (records series) in an organization’s retention schedules.  The argument is that there are just too many different categories of records in a large organization and that not enough records management resources are available to identify and analyze them all - however, that it what we are being paid to do.  It is also felt that fewer categories of records would make the classification of records easier for the users.

It is suggested that records management theory is fine, but we must address the reality of the current situation in organizations.

The fewer records series could be established using a project management approach – follow the work flow and group the different records series by how they are associated at the different stages of the work flow.  Others suggest identifying records series based on the years of retention.  Establish one records series for two-year retention, another for five years, etc. and matching the different records to the most appropriate records series.

In my many years of establishing retention schedules in organizations, I have held many discussions with senior members of management who argue that retention schedules are different and, basically, they have never had to deal with them in the past.  I have responded by saying that structure for retention schedules is not unique.  In fact, those of us managing information are using the management control structures that have been proven successful in other areas of the organization.

When I teach AIIM’s ERM certificate course, I am met with silence when I ask the students what the parallel management control structures are in Human Resources and Finance.  These parallel structures are the Organization Chart and the Chart of Accounts, respectively.

I simply ask has anyone seen a truncated Organization Chart or Chart of Accounts in large organizations.  I don’t think so.  In the same way, and in this information age, it is absolutely necessary to compile a comprehensive records retention schedule and to follow it.  This more granular approach will allow us to address the business drivers for a records management program of efficiency and effectiveness in managing our information assets.

I believe in the one general management principle that “You cannot manage what you don’t know about”.  The different records series must be identified and a value analysis must be carried out on each one.  While I agree that establishing retention periods is important, what is even more important is documenting the value of the records series to the organization.  This is parallel to the Organization Chart in which each job position is supported by an approved job description.

I agree that many organizations do not have the records management resources they need.  In this information age, that must change.  For those organizations that are concerned about their levels of staffing, I am happy to suggest they reduce staffing in the HR and Finance areas.  Policies in these areas are well established.  There management control structures are developed and taken for granted by the operating managers.  Fill these positions with records management professionals who need to establish records management policies, including the handling of e-mail and instant messaging, along with the many other information forms.  There is also the critical need to establish a comprehensive records retention schedule across the enterprise and to provide the necessary communications and training, and to enable enforcement of these policies.

There is also the issue of getting employees’ cooperation.  What is currently going on is that organizations are establishing corporate control over their information assets.  This also parallels the corporate control over the human resources and financial assets of organizations that began after the Second World War.

Believe me, staff screamed and hollered when those efforts were first introduced.  For example, having to provide receipts to get reimbursed for business expenses was considered impossible to do.  Employees argued that this idea was ridiculous.  Yet, years later, this practice is taken for granted.  In the same way, individual users will become comfortable with the fact that they need to capture their own records into an electronic records management repository.

Is this effort to instill corporate control over the information assets of organizations easy?  Absolutely not!  Senior management will have to buy into the need for this to be done.  Reading the current literature on the damages experienced by organizations, including the negative impact on their reputations, because of poor email management, their inability to handle e-discovery and their inability to protect personal information, I have no doubt that management has no other alterative.

We, as records management professionals, will need to stick to our guns (remain convinced that what has been successful in other practices, Human Resources and Finance, is the right approach to follow), we will need to implement enterprise content management (ECM) and electronic records management (ERM) solutions within our organizations and we will have to use all the change management knowledge and skills that we can muster. In regards to an integrated solution, the records series presented to the user when they need to capture their records can be limited to that person’s role within the company.

What is your experience in developing retention schedules in your organization?

How have you gained acceptance from the users for properly capturing their records?

I will be speaking at the following events:

  • November 29 - December 2, 2011 AIIM ERM Masters in Phoenix, AZ


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