Does "record" or "non-record" really matter?

By Monica Crocker posted 07-27-2012 17:55


I had no idea blogging would be so educational FOR ME.  Putting an idea out there and getting input on it really forces you to refine your thinking.  So, I am going to take this opportunity to revise my previous statement that “Everything is a record” as follows:  Record or non-record has become a meaningless label. * Turns out I was oversimplifying my position in my previous blog:

Instead, what I meant to say was, in retrospect, if I may be allowed to back-peddle….since anything potentially could be a record, and there are so many other characteristics of information that have a greater influence on how it’s managed than whether or not it falls into your definition of a “record,” then why bother to put the additional burden on the users of information to make a record or non-record determination?  As a steward of information, there are decisions many they make in order to determine how to manage it.  My updated decision diagram follows:

 Based on my experience, and the comments I got on my previous blog, if I tried to put “Declare it a Record” on this diagram, it would appear in different places, depending on how your organization defines a “record.” AND it might appear more than once.  Some fuzzy “record” or “non-record” examples:

  • The contents of my recycling bin under my desk are NOT a record until I am under investigation for mis-directing corporate secrets.  Then they are subject to a Legal Hold.  Record or non-record?  When did it change?
  • I download a really useful AIIM white paper that I use to develop our new corporate information security policy.  Record or non-record?  How about 2 years after the policy has been in place?
  • I arrange lunches with my co-workers using email.  Non-record, right?  Then one of them accuses me of using email to harass them?  Now it’s a record, right?

Looking at the diagram, it seems we already have “enough on our plate.”  Is it an original? Is it under legal hold? Is it past its retention?  Is it one of those pieces of information that needs to be “locked down” and stored as an unalterable version?  Those are the questions that lead to the decision about what to do with that information.  In order to figure out whether or not it’s a record, you have to answer all those questions anyway.  So what does “Is it a Record?” add in terms of value to the process?  Decision fatigue is a quantified issue in our society.  If we can remove a low value decision from the process, don’t we owe that to our organization? (Interesting article on decision fatigue:

So, since everything needs to be governed, everything needs a retention schedule and everything is subject to a Legal Hold, let’s just come up with a common approach to governing all that information.  Applying the “record” or “non-record” label doesn’t help you get the job done.  It just adds a step. 

So, here’s my better impersonation of Linda Richman from CoffeeTalk:

“Records Management…it’s neither aboutjust Records or just Management….DISCUSS.”

 *to anyone except Records Managers, who constitute 90% of the market for Ronco label makers**

**totally made up statistic

#non-record #InformationGovernance #ElectronicRecordsManagement #record


08-23-2012 10:27

Alex, it was in my work with local government agencies that I originally decided "record" versus "non-record" was not a helpful discussion. Under the Freedom of Information Act, you need to produce ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING you have in response to a FOIA request. And if you don't have something, you had better have good justification for why you can't produce it. But it sounds like you have an issue where you are being told to keep things LONGER than the retention schedule actually dictates. I've had that happen. It is frustrating. I can't offer any real words of wisdom there except to maybe treat that material like it's "potentially subject to an investigation?" So you can tell yourself it's sort of on a legal hold? Hang in there.

08-21-2012 12:38

I think there are some problems what you and other fellows mentioned.
Records, non-records, after I saw also Official Records, and other definitions.
As person who works in Municipal Environment, I can say there are only few "records" that have status of "official" - Agenda, Minutes, Corporate Report, and By-Law. Other files are "simply" "background" information. The same may be relevant for other organisations - everyone has set of records prescribed by different regulations and "papers" that support these records.
Of course, transition from paper based information to computer based creates "problems" and challenges.
Very often people create problems by themselves when decide to keep everything in case..., while they have full right to destroy obsolete information and versions during the normal course of doing business.
I know that it is difficult to say that these records could be destroyed as they meet their obligations, and, by the way, have no Archival Value, but very often I get no approval with explanation "this is Political issue" - especially when these records are about donation during Gala meetings and dinners.
It's a pity, but we cannot help it

08-10-2012 13:06

Turns out I wasn't the first (or even the second) heretic to suggest that records are not the center of the universe. Thanks for sharing, Chris!

08-10-2012 12:53

Instead of actually writing a comment, I'm gonna cheat and link to 3 blog posts I wrote last year. They're in order (it's important). I'm using the one's on my Wordpress blog because: A - There's some comments that are worth looking at, and; 2 - it was way easier to find them.
Have fun!

08-08-2012 11:44

Of course, Susan, the arrow goes FROM "Keep it" to the first question again, because, naturally, you need to continue to review records until they have reached their end of life. So, the lines from "Keep it" AND emails AND meeting agendas all go to the beginning of the process. Circle of Life and all that....

08-08-2012 10:23

Hi Monica, thanks for your interesting blog. In your diagram, can you elaborate on the line from emails and meeting agendas to keep it?

08-07-2012 09:49

I thin I get your point but don't quite agree:
"‘A unique piece of information, created or received in the course of carrying out official business’."
Well, yes but trusting the user-base to make that decision doesn't strike me a good idea. There can be misjudgments or accidents when users are responsible for decalation.
"If you chose to define exactly what a record is, then the note that you threw away, will be classed as short term information with no ongoing value, and will be excused as information disposed of under Normal Administrative Practice (NAP). "
I think I'm lost on your terminology here.. You state that a "note" could be classed as short term information." I would agree that a note could be classed as a record with a short-term disposal schedule and short cut-off cycle. That was it can still be destroyed quickly by a records manager and still be managed in an identical (and hopefully automated) fashion to all other records.

08-07-2012 09:38

For a number of companies I've consulted for, the question of "declare or not declare" in the context of information content, has been a defunct question for some years. That's also like saying the traditional definition of "a record" has also evolved. From my point of view the test of a record is fairly simple:
Was it created on corporate equipment (including instant and text messages)? If yes, then a record
Was it brought into building (and it was clearly NOT a personal item)? If yes, then a record
Was it a thought or dicussion or an idea relating to work or customers? If yes, then all records .. but not so easy to capture, of course :)
Questions such as:
"Was it paper, electronic, printed, stated, emailed, faxed, still in an edit phase, scanned etc?"
"Is it in an edit/review lifecycle or a word document or a half-completed CAD drawing"
...are no longer relevent and haven't been for a while. I think the questions may have been relevent when legislation was lighter (I'm thinking pre-SOX). Or when a records manager had to manually classify "declared records" or rely on the user-base to enter in the required meta-data or navigate "functional" heierarchies, making a declaritive decision would reduce the work-load.
These days, I think everything should be treated as a record from the moment of its inception. From the moment it's enetered into a computer system it just becomes easier to manage.
Systems exist these days where a user only needs to enter minmal information (depends on your system-of-choice but could include: doc type, field set, effective/expirey/creation date, project/customer name) and business automation engines (can I please just call them workflows?!) will automatically file and classify them OR, when appropriate, route them around the organisation where they gain more metadata - maybe for the purpose of more precise classification - or given a different disposal schedule.
Randy, like you comment:
"I agree. I found the record/not record question to be mostly academic. I dropped the question long ago in business when I found subpoenas didn't state "only what you call a record"."
It's another reason why to me a declaritive process isn't the right mind-set for handling records.

08-07-2012 04:33

Besides vital records and functional records everything else is still a record - but a different records type. Even a copy of a VR or FR is a record. Why? because when it comes to management you still need to control regulatory and legal risks associated even with copies as well as the consequences of storage bloat. So, "the everything else is a record" type can be called "General Business Records" and assign a retention period as a default. Let's say max 3 years so if your systems are smart enough to allow users to delete stuff sooner they can (and should) to keep their electronic house in order. GBRs are also good to use as a not for archiving or storage rule so you only retain long term the master records. The only issue then is what is the master or official records and what is the copy when it comes to keeping electonic vs. paper records. Sometimes you need both and so we might wnat to think about official copies in those rare cases where legally/regulatory require you to keep (in some countries) a paper copy of, say, an invoice whilst still having your electronic system records for easy access & retrieval. One day, laws & regulations allowing, we might do away with paper altogether......

08-03-2012 10:03

Excellent point regarding inconsistent approaches to "non-records." We address the issue of "casual notes" by including those on the retention schedule with a MAXIMUM retention period, so that they are all gone after a short period of time. As a result, the fact that they are gone defensible. As long as we consistently categorize our information and dispose of it accordingly, we're covered in terms of explaining why we don't have stuff. I have attempted to implement simliar definitions of record/non-record for years but got into way too many analytical discussions with employees that had sound rationale for considering every bit of information they ever touched "a unique piece of informatin, created or received in the course of carrying out official business" and others who thought almost nothing met that criteria. So the variance in the interpretations of any "record" versus "non-record" definition result in inconsistent implementation of the records program. Plus, once they figure out "it's a record," that doesn't tell them anything about what to do with it. Is it a record past it's retention? Is it a record under legal hold? I want them to focus on the questions that will lead them to the appropriate action regarding the information. Keep it or not? Lock it down or not? Done.

08-02-2012 23:14

I can see your point in regards to discoverable content but I can also see a court saying that because you have decided to declare absolutely everything as a record (or not define it at all), the one note you do throw away (and that is subject to discovery) will be the one you are held accountable for, along with the 25 slightly different (unofficial) versions of the same document.
If you chose to define exactly what a record is, then the note that you threw away, will be classed as short term information with no ongoing value, and will be excused as information disposed of under Normal Administrative Practice (NAP).
Because you chose to define what a record is and what can be disposed of under NAP (non-records), in an official organisational policy, and there is no foreseeable reason to hold onto it, I can’t see that any court could possibly hold you accountable for disposing of it.
It is of course important to identify those pieces of information that have historical, administrative, legal or financial value in a disposal (or retention) authority and apply appropriate retention periods. If records disposal decisions are made and documented according to your company policy, and base metadata is retained for a period of time, then a court won’t have any issue with disposal, as long as there is no legal hold.
Clearly the general business community will not use or even see your disposal authority, so that it why I think it’s important to make a simple, common sense definition or criteria to define a ‘record’.
I ask the employees where I work to ask themselves just two questions:
1. Is the information I have unique?
2. Did I create this information when carrying out official business?
If the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes’ then we classify it as a record.
So the official definition we use is
‘A unique piece of information, created or received in the course of carrying out official business’.

07-31-2012 13:09

Excellent analysis, Mark. By your definition, we don't "declare official records" because we let the business units manage their own records, unless they are subject to a Legal Hold. Only if they are subject to a Legal Hold do they change ownership and get locked down. But many of those pieces of information that are held by the business unit are very high value, so they need to be managed accordingly. So, we can't differentiate "record" from "non-record" the way you describe.

07-31-2012 12:59

Which is my point exactly. I have no idea when the contents of my recycling bin when from record (notes on my desk) to non-record (stuff in the recycling bin) and then back to record again (investigation materials), but my point doesn't matter. The information went from being eligible for destruction to "under Legal Hold" and that's what dictates my actions, not when and if it was ever designated as a record.

07-31-2012 09:24

There are several market dynamics that make this discussion relevant.
One is that we are moving to a largely electronic paradigm with much less emphasis on paper.
Two is that volumes are increasing exponentially.
Three is that we have legal discovery driving many decisions.
Four is that for many organizations budgets and resources are shrinking.
Legal discovery drives the argument to consider everything as a record, because everything is discoverable - whether it is a declared record or not. Discovery costs are high so there is pressure to make records easier to find and to remove the clutter in a defensable way. Storage costs are high as well, so that is another reason to remove the clutter (such as email).
Therefore the entire RM industry is moving from a back-end process that just deals with inactive, declared records to an information governance paradigm that deals with information throughout its lifecycle, from creation to final disposition.
This changes the dynamic about how to implement RM as well. It becomes a component of an enterprise ECM solution that includes document management, BPM, archiving and integration with major business applications. This approach allows organizations to embed retention management into most business transactions so that is part of the DNA of those transactions.
Having a Transitory big bucket means that you can explicity call out huge volumes of information as Non Record, and apply a short retention period to it. In this manner you can cull your email, drafts, copies, etc. in a systematic way using the latest tools such as auto classification, thus lowering discovery costs and storage costs to the tune of millions of dollars.
On the other hand, declaring official records is still pertinent - this locks the records down and changes ownership so that they can be retained consistently and be available for litigation, audits, historical research, and so on, in a manner that facilitates easy and efficient discovery.

07-31-2012 07:32

You state in your first bullet point:
"The contents of my recycling bin under my desk are NOT a record until I am under investigation for mis-directing corporate secrets. Then they are subject to a Legal Hold. Record or non-record? When did it change?"
When does something change from a record to a non-record used to be a question that I pondered often. In an electronic records keeping system it is easier to track with hash codes and proper metadata. Paper records on the other hand can morph from a non-record to a record without any formal process, especially if someone has kept a convenience copy after the original has been disposed. I'd love to hear your thoughts and for you to expand on this more.

07-30-2012 13:04

I agree. I found the record/not record question to be mostly academic. I dropped the question long ago in business when I found subpoenas didn't state "only what you call a record".
I go by the information's value. Supports tax deduction (high), tells me what time the meeting is (low). Folks have this low value stuff, ask what to do with it and don't care if I think it is a record or not. They just expect an answer so short retention it is.