Retention Needs an Enema

By Julie Colgan posted 01-22-2011 12:16


Ok, bear with me.  I was talking with Randy Kahn the other day, a respected colleague in the RIM world, and in addition to a delightful discussion about my new Doc Martens boots and 80s alternative rock, we commiserated about the fact that retention is just too dang hard.  It’s complicated.  Overly complicated. 

If you don’t know Randy, I’ll just say, well, he’s brilliant.  Oh, and he’s a bit of an upstart.  When he said to me that he is “over” retention as we know it and he thinks it needs to get turned on its ear, it validated the feelings I’ve had about the subject for a long time.  Randy, you’ve inspired insubordination in me.

How’d We Get Here?

Retention schedules, born in the era of paper-based records, were traditionally granular.  They often worked, in effect, as a search engine for analog records so granularity was useful and valuable … valuable enough to throw bodies at the task of records management.

Fast forward 50 years and we now find ourselves with a vast majority of electronic records (and bodies being thrown at technology instead of records management) and all sorts of fancy search tools that usurp the original search value of granular retention schedules. 

The waning if not defunct value of retention schedules as search tools rendered the retention schedule to the realm of compliance value.  And who really (I mean REALLY) cares as much about compliance as they do about being able to put their hands on the information they need to complete the task at hand and drive revenue (or meet whatever their mission is)?  No company’s mission is to be compliant with recordkeeping laws.  It’s to make money, or cure cancer, or whatever.  If companies really, really cared about compliance, they’d all have a Records Manager on staff; yet so many don’t have *any* dedicated RM staff. 

The 2009 AIIM State of ECM Industry survey indicated that the main driver for retention (at that time) was cost reduction, not compliance.  Perhaps that’s due to the economic stresses of that day and it will shift back, as the Survey suggests?  The 2010 Survey says that “improving efficiency and optimizing business processes are the biggest drivers - by a factor of 2:1 over compliance, whereas 3 years ago they were equal.”  I think compliance will continue to take a back seat.  The mess created by the changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are, in my opinion, the biggest driver of RIM investment these days.  But does the answer to this question really matter that much?

If that’s not bad enough, organizations now must look to end users to be an army of records managers.  The personal nature of personal computers – regardless of networks – means that individuals are now responsible for filing the stuff they create and receive.  No longer can they ship it off to Records for proper filing.  The problem above is magnified here – most workers could care even less about compliance and discovery than their organization does.  They are worried about pleasing their boss, making bonus, serving their client, etc.  So what priority do you think proper filing according to a retention schedule gets?  Right.  Little to none.

There’s a Hole in My Bucket, Dear Liza

Good news!  The records management industry recognized the problems inherent in having an untrained army of records clerks filing willy-nilly, and found that it was nearly impossible to manage electronic records to the granularity of traditional retention schedules, so the industry innovated.  The innovation that came along was the Big Bucket retention approach.  Reduce the categories in your retention schedule down to a level where the average employee would be hard pressed to mess up and where it doesn’t require them to spend all day figuring out where and how to file something.

Now the bad news.  They still figure out how to mess it up, and now you’re also keeping some stuff longer than you used to and so have increased cost and risk.

Don’t get me wrong - I like Big Buckets far better than I like granularity.  But even Big Buckets aren’t really working either.

Too often an organization will make the effort (and spend the money) to develop a RIM policy and retention schedule, and then never really employ (and enforce) it regardless of the size of the buckets.  Why?  All sorts of reasons, such as a lack of proper technology to truly implement the policy, an unwillingness/inability to truly hold individuals accountable, the speed of technological evolution wreaking havoc on an organization’s ability to even know all of the record types in play much less manage them, business agility demanding levels of flexibility that are counterintuitive to a policy that usually gets updated once a year (at the most), increasing complexity and number of regulations as well as legal demands on organizations … and so on.

Designing retention and initially implementing retention is one thing, but keeping up with it is an entirely different thing.  Organizations, generally, just don’t do it well.

Now What?

So I’m here to say that I think it’s time to innovate again.  But this time it needs to be big innovation, not incremental.  Maybe it’s a “tear-down and re-build”?  Throw it all out and start over? 

There is some innovation happening already in a growing analytics space.  Maybe that’s the ticket - remove people from the task altogether, or is that simply automating a task that suffers from a more fundamental problem?  Does something need to change both in terms of those who are regulated and those who are setting the regulations?  Are we even looking at and thinking about retention in the right way?

Can GARP® and the Information Governance bandwagon be leveraged in a way so as to make retention a real value proposition again?  Is the ticket to focus more on the business value of the information itself and less about the hard costs and risks associated with it?  Isn’t that the realm of knowledge management?  Does knowledge management still exist?

I don’t have the answer.  I really don’t have any well formed ideas.  Randy and I agree however; we have a gnawing in our gut every time we make a business case to develop and implement a retention schedule when we know that its adoption, implementation and use is likely to be a shadow of its intent and never truly return on the investment to the level anticipated. 

Uprooting something so deeply seeded isn’t easy, or comfortable.  Turning something on its ear doesn’t sound all that comfortable either.  But I think it’s time for some pain. 

What do you think?

#ElectronicRecordsManagement #bigbucket #garp #retention #ERM #analytics