File Plans Simplified

By Julie Gable posted 04-20-2010 11:33


A file plan or classification scheme is a basic building block for successful ERM. The file plan is a category hierarchy, usually presented conceptually as nested folders. Place a record in the folder hierarchy – by way of workflow, metadata, auto classification or manual drag and drop – and it inherits the retention rule associated with the category.

While the underlying idea is simple, designing file plans is part art and part science. The best ones mirror business processes, have broad but clearly defined categories, and are easy to implement, use and understand. Some thoughts:

Three levels seem to work best, particularly if users will classify manually. The first tier represents a business function, for example, Legal or HR or Finance. The second tier is for the processes associated with that function. For Law, it might be Contracts, Litigation, Intellectual Property, Real Estate, etc. The third tier represents the specific transactions under each process. Part of the file plan for Law might be:           


                        Services Contracts

                                    Lamm, Kerry & Reiss

                                    Acme Discovery Services

                        Supplier Contracts



The arrangement is simple but illustrates the content, context and structure of what the categories contain. It could be used to associate user roles (and the records they produce) with specific business processes. The plan has staying power because even if organization charts change frequently, business functions and their basic work most likely won’t, so maintaining the plan is easier. There is also greater opportunity for “big buckets”- the broad categories that seem to work better with auto-classification technologies.

The trade-off is that the more you try to layer onto this type of file plan, the more granular it has to become. If you want to associate security levels with folders as well as retention rules, you’re going to end up with more folders, and you’ll trade some simplicity. It may be best to handle document security classifications in metadata rather than at the folder level.

Some things to avoid:

File plans based on retention schedules that were done for paper records are not plug-and-play. Many of these were done based on physical inventories and represent the way that paper files were arranged in file drawers. They tend to be too granular to use as is and require consolidation for electronic records.

File plans based on user names are simple, but ineffective. The category “Ed Smith’s Files” may work while Ed Smith is part of the department, but when he leaves, what happens to his records? It’s the electronic equivalent of boxes in storage labeled Ed Smith that contain who knows what. His successor doesn’t want them and they either live forever or get tossed out without examination.

File plans based on retention period are appealing but problematic. I’ve seen clients set up classification schemes based on retention periods where each folder represents one, two, five and ten years. The problem arises when you need to put a legal hold on an entire category of records – for example, Product X – parts of which could be spread over all the folders.

Done well, classification schemes are powerful because they can associate an electronic record with a retention rule, a security rule or even a legal hold that is associated at the folder level. Done poorly, file plans become a morass that undercuts ERM effectiveness. Like you, I wait for the day when they are obsolete.

#classification #Fileplan #ElectronicRecordsManagement #categorization