The paradox of the fileplan

By James Lappin posted 04-08-2010 15:27


I remember a workshop I ran for a client, five years ago. We had brought together a group of colleagues from across their organization. My client was looking to develop and implement a corporate fileplan to organize their records.

I had been a records manager for a decade, but I was new to consultancy.

For the first hour the group described to me all the problems that they were experiencing with their shared drive. A familiar tale: the folder structure had evolved haphazardly over time; no-one could remember why certain high-level folders got named the way they did; lots of folders were named after individuals (some of whom had since left), etc.

I asked them if they would like to develop a new structure for their shared drive -- a planned structure-- that would cover all the work of the organisation in a coherent way.

My (naive) expectation was that they would say 'Yes! Great! Let’s do it!' But their reaction was muted. They thought about it, without enthusiasm. After a while one member of the group said: “I don't want us to replace one labyrinth with another.”

That remark has stayed in my head ever since. It sets us two challenges that are important for records management in general, and for fileplans in particular.

Challenge number 1: how can we make records management be seen to be feasible?

The main challenge for records management is not convincing people that records management is important. The challenge is convincing people that records management is feasible. All of those people at my workshop knew how important much of the documentation on that shared drive was to their business. They had told some compelling stories of problems they had experiencing through not being able to locate particular versions of documents. They just didn't believe that there was any feasible way of improving the situation.

The feasibility challenge is one that we as a profession will be forced to confront more and more. It is a paradox of the 21st century that good records management has become at one and the same time more necessary and more difficult. In whatever national jurisdiction you are working in there is more and more legislation and regulation that explicitly, or by implication, mandates rigorous recordkeeping. But recordkeeping itself has become more difficult for individuals, for teams and for organizations, due to:

  • the ever-increasing volume and pace of business communications
  • the great variety of applications in use in any one organization at any one time
  • the rapid rate of innovation in the formats people use to record and communicate information inside and between organizations (from emails to status updates via wikis, blogs, discussion forums, and instant messaging)

Twenty years ago if a team did not keep good records it was a sign of mismanagement. Now it is a sign of the times.

The problem is that if organizations no longer believe that capturing good records of what they do is possible, then they will not put effort and attention into records management initiatives.

Challenge number 2: If we are still going to build fileplans, how to we ensure that they are cared for and owned both centrally and locally?

There is an inherent tension in records management between the desire for corporate consistency, coherence, and control on the one hand, and the need for local input, local knowledge, and local ownership on the other.

The people at my workshop were afraid that the organisation would sweep away their dysfunctional shared drive structure, but replace it with a structure which would only be understood by the information managers/consultants that developed it (and which would therefore be itself dysfunctional).

In the 20th century, hard copy world, there were established ways in which organizations could settle the tension between the corporate centre and local teams:

  • They could let teams create hard copy records locally, but provide a corporate service for the management of non-active hard copy records, so that records got taken into corporate custody when a team no longer needed to frequently refer to them
  • They could set up what we in the UK called a registry service, where the organization deployed staff to create new files for each team, and to put incoming and outgoing correspondence onto the appropriate file

In both these cases there was a reasonable pay-off. The team lost a degree of control, but in return they get a service from the corporate centre which took away much of the pain of managing their records.

We have not yet been able to negotiate a similar settlement of that tension in the 21st century networked world. It is a winner takes all game.

  • First we had electronic document and records management systems which were all about corporate control. The corporate centre dictated the fileplan structure and the role of each team was simply to comply with it. The only scope the system allowed teams was to create new folder when pieces of work started, and to save documents needed as records into them.
  • Then we went to the opposite extreme with SharePoint where the team can set up as many team sites as they like, for whatever purposes they like. In those team sites they can have as many document libraries as they like, and whatever other collaborative tools they like. Underneath their team they can have as many sub-sites as they like, each with as many pages as they like and as many document libraries as they like. The corporate centre is left trying to make sense of a rapidly sprawling collaboration environment. The fileplan is banished to something called a SharePoint records centre which seems to be the place where documents in SharePoint go to die.

SharePoint drove a coach and horses through the rationale and the market share of electronic document and records management systems. Enterprise Content Management vendors have responding by offering us a variant on the SharePoint records centre model, but this time with the fileplan kept in an ECM system that sits behind SharePoint (or whatever other system you want to connect it to).

When we pushed the fileplan under everyone’s noses it got up everyone’s nose. . But if we hide it out of the way, then we need to be wary of the old saying that out-of-sight is out-of-mind.

Wherever we put the fileplan, we still need to create a pay-off to ensure that it is cared for locally as well as centrally. The corporate centre cannot construct a fileplan on its own, they need the knowledge and input of people locally in order to build the fileplan in the first place. But where is the incentive for teams to contribute if the fileplan is hidden away in a place that they never visit?

Moreover the fileplan is not a build-it-once-then-forget-it structure. It has to be a living, evolving structure. More like a coral reef than a castle. Every time a new project starts, a new case, or a new piece of work of any kind; then you need a new folder added within this fileplan structure. Otherwise the fileplan does not work as a record keeping tool. Only local teams can do that. Only they know when a new piece of work has started. The corporate centre doesn’t know. There is no algorithm that can work it out automatically. We come across that same dilemma again. What is the motivation for teams to add new folders to the fileplan when a piece of work starts, if the fileplan is hidden in a place that they never visit?

How can we square the circle between the freedom of the collaborative space and the rigidity of the corporate fileplan? We have the functionality to do it: ECM vendors will tell you about their connectors that let you control content in other systems through the fileplan and associated record keeping rules held in the ECM repository. SharePoint re-sellers will talk about their content types and the content organizer in SharePoint 2010. Both provide the functionality to allow people to work in a collaborative environment of their own design, whilst saving content needed as records to a repository structured by a fileplan. But that is just the technical side. What about the people side? Where is the model that provides teams across an organization with the incentive to contribute to, and care about, their part of the fileplan?

All that the ECM vendors have done is to ensure that corporate fileplans are still possible. But the more important task is to make fileplans feasible. And I think we have plenty of work still to do on that front.

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