Organisations today are using two conflicting working definitions of a record. Neither definition is adequate on its own (which is why the two conflicting definitions co-exist with each other!).
The first of the two working definitions states that ‘records’ are those documents/communications that are needed as evidence of a piece of work. This definition comes from records management theory. Records management practice aims to capture these documents in a file/ records folder dedicated to each particular piece of work. The file/ records folder exists in a records system, which could be anything from a shared network drive, to a SharePoint team site, an electronic records management system, a line of business document management system, or a traditional filing cabinet.
Traditionally records management practice aims to ensure that the file/ records folder is the only information about a piece of work that survives over time. This translates into advice to colleagues on handling documents and e-mails such as ‘if it is important put it on the file, it if it isn’t important get rid of it ‘
If a team is confident that the file/records folder tells the whole story of the piece of work, then they can be confident in disposing of all information about that work lying outside of the file. The converse is also true – if you have not got confidence that the files in your records system(s) serves as a sufficient story of your organisation’s activities, then you are not going to be confident that you can delete material from other information stores such as e-mail in-boxes, and shared drives.
However for most pieces of work in an organisation ‘the file’ in a designated record system can no longer be regarded as the single source of evidence on that piece of work. This is down to two factors:
- it is highly likely that other pieces of evidence about that piece of work persist outside of the file, and that these pieces of evidence are findable or discoverable
- it is highly unlikely that each colleague has placed all significant documents/communications arising from that piece of work onto the file
I am struggling to think of a single organisation I have worked with that routinely delete e-mails after a period of months, or routinely deletes material on shared drives that is a year or two years old – they simply have not got enough confidence in their ‘records’ to risk losing important material like that.
The second working definition defines ‘records’ as being any information, in whatever form, that is held by that organisation. In other words any piece of information that exists anywhere: on the organisations network, in its filing cabinets, on people’s desktops, in desk drawers. This definition stems from the legal obligations placed on organisations. These obligations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but include data protection, freedom of information, and e-discovery. Such obligations make no distinction between those documents/communicaions that an organisation intended to keep as records, and those that have accidentally survived.
This definition is not adequate from a practical point of view either. When an organisation receives a data protection subject access request, or a freedom of information request or an e-discovery demand, they have to pull out all the stops and trawl their network. They might ask swathes of the organisation to go through their e-mail and unearth any messages regarding that matter. They might do searches of shared drives and document management systems. They unearth a pile or a mountain of material, that they then spend days or weeks sifting through. That is a massive pain, that an organisation is willing to put up with because that is the law that they are working under. But this approach would be overkill for most internal uses of record, such as the following scenarios
- You have taken over the management of a contract that has run into problems. You want to understand what has been agreed and discussed with the contractor up to this point.
- You have been asked to revise the service level agreement you offer to your customers. You want to understand the thinking behind the clauses in the current agreement. You want to read the discussions/correspondence that took place the last time the SLA was drafted
- A budgeted cost has changed between different versions of a business plan and you are trying to understand why
In each of the above scenarios you would be hoping that the colleagues involved in those pieces of work had kept a good file/records folder of that work, in which they had brought together all the relevant documents/communications relating to the work.
The dilemma for organisations is that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are not able to maintain good files across all areas of work. The concept of a file/records folder feels like an old-fashioned concept, a legacy from the hard-copy world of decades gone by. And yet organisations still need some means of relating together the records (however defined!) of a piece of work and managing them over time.
If the file/records folder was invented today, from scratch, with no history or legacy, what features would it have?