Records management and/or information governance

Last week Laurence Hart published a blog post in which he stated:

”I’ve been talking a lot about information governance of late. The reason I’ve been doing it is because if it simply becomes a term used in place of Records Management we will have wasted an opportunity. Information Governance is different. It needs to be different.

Records management failed.  We need a new approach. Information Governance has the potential to be that new approach, if we tackle it correctly.   If we get lazy, we will be fighting the same battles for another decade.”

Laurence’s post should prompt us to explore the distinction between the terms ‘records management’ and ‘information governance’.  They are both names we give to approaches to a particular problem that organisations face.  The best place to start comparing them is by defining exactly what that problem is:

  • every day there is a massive flow of written communications into, out of, and around every organisation.  Thirty years ago they moved around in envelopes.  Now most of them move around as e-mails or in attachments to e-mails.   But the flow has continued uninterrupted.
  • what we call ‘records’ are simply these written communications when they are at rest.
  • the organisation is accountable for each piece of work it undertakes. It needs to find a way of assigning each significant communication to the piece(s) of work that it arose from. Thirty years ago this would have been done by placing communications onto paper files that represented each piece of work.  Now there are lots of different ways this could be done.  We could ask users to assign them to electronic files, or set up workflows to move the communications to the right file, or define routing rules, or set up e-mail accounts dedicated to particular pieces or areas of work, or train an auto-classification engine
  • if the organisation does not assign each significant communications to the piece of work that it arose from that then it will not be able to assign an appropriate access rule or retention rule to those communications.  Nor will it be able (at least with any degree of certainty) to present colleagues or stakeholders in those pieces of work with a complete collection of documentation of that piece of work
  • any method the organisation uses to manage its records needs to be built into the communications flow itself.  If it is not part of the flow it will not be able to cope with the volume of communications exchanged.  This was true in the paper world, and is even more true now
  • once assigned to a piece of work, a communication should be protected from amendment or deletion for the length of time that the organisation needs a record of that piece of work
  • not all communications are significant, many are trivial or ephemeral or irrelevant to the organisation’s responsibilities or purpose.  These communications do not need to be assigned to a piece of work, and do not need to be protected from alteration or deletion during a retention period.  They can be scheduled for deletion after a convenient interval
  • whatever method the organisation chooses to use to filter out insignificant communications needs to be trusted by both internal and external stakeholders


It doesn’t matter what we call the next generation of solutions to this problem:

  • we could call it ‘records management’ on the grounds that it is the same old problem that records management has been tackling for fifty years, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully
  • we could call it ‘automated records management’ as NARA (the US National Archives) are calling their search for automated solutions to this problem across US federal government
  • we could it ‘information governance’ as it tends to be called amongst vendors, and in the private sector, if we want to put clear water between the largely discredited electronic records management system approach and this newer (but not yet fully articulated) set of approaches

Whatever name ends up sticking to the new approach, one thing we need to remember is that records management is a body of thought, professional practice and experience stretching back half a century.    There is far more to records management than simply the roll out of a particular breed of product that used to be called electronic document and records management systems.   Even as ‘information governance’ tries to distance itself from the electronic records management system approach,  it should endeavour to take on board the lessons the records management profession has learned over the past fifty years.

The corollary of that is that we records managers need to articulate what those lessons are:

  • What we can we learn from the relative success of records management approaches in dealing with the communications flow in the paper age?
  • What we can we learn from the failure of electronic document and records management systems (and SharePoint) to adequately deal with the digital communications flow?
  • What can we learn from those records management approaches that have worked in the digital age ? (because there are indeed been some pockets of success)

I will have a stab at distilling these learnings in the next few blogposts.   We need to use these learnings to come up with some critical success factors for the next generation of records management/ automated records management / information governance approaches.   And those criteria in turn can be used for us to come up with some alternative scenarios of how such an approach might work.