Why were corporate wide records systems in the paper age so much more successful than those in the digital age?

Records managers are often accused of trying to replicate ‘a paper paradigm’ in the digital world.  This is a little ironic. If we were able to implement corporate wide electronic records management systems that were half as good as the best records systems in the paper days then we would be very popular indeed.

Our predecessors in the records management profession 20 years ago  tried to abstract the qualities of the best paper records management systems and express these qualities as a set of technology neutral criteria, in the hope and expectation that we would be able to design electronic records mangaement systems that also met those criteria, even if they met them in a completely different way.

The best statement of these technologically neutral criteria can be found in  section 8.2.2. the ISO 15489 records management standard, (see my last post for a more detailed discussion of them)

The five characteristics are as follows. In order to be considered reliable a records system must:

  •  routinely and comprehensively capture all records arising from the activities that it covers
  • act as the main source of reference for the activities it covers
  • link records to the activities from which they arose
  • protect records from amendment or deletion
  • preserve access to records over time

These characteristics may at first sight seem utopian. No organisation I know of currently operates a corporate wide system that meets all these characteristics and covers all of their activities. And yet in at the time they were drawn up, in the early 1990s,  they seemed anything but idealistic. Before the introduction of e-mail, any organisation that wished to could set up a record systems that met all five of these characteristics.

What made it possible to set up a reliable corporate wide records system in the paper age?

In the paper age there was a gap in time and space between:

  • the point in time at which a business document/communication arrived in the organisation from outside AND
  • the point in time at which that business document/communication arrived in the in-tray of the individual responsible for dealing with that communication

There was also a gap in time and space between

  •  the point at which an individual within the organisation sent a business document/communication out AND
  • the point at which that communication either arrived at the colleague it was addressed to, or left the organisation for dispatch to an external recipient

Organisations could insert control points into those gaps in time and space to ensure that business communications were routinely captured into the records system, and assigned to containers (usually called ‘files’) that each represented an instance of a particular activity.


How a registry system typically worked


The illustration above shows how such a registry system would typically work

Incoming post would arrive in a post room. The post room staff would do a rough filter of the post

  •  Things that looked like they were not needed for the record system because they were trivial, personal, or reference material (promotional material/flyers/postcards/love letters/magazine subscriptions) would be sent direct to the individual concerned
  • Things that looked like business communications (letters, memoranda, reports etc.) would not be sent direct to the addressee, instead they would be sent to the relevant records registry

Each registry was simply a team of records clerks who looked after the files for the area of the organisation within the scope of their registry. Typically an organisation would have several registries, each covering one or more of the organisationsfunctions/departments/buildings, though it was also possible to operate with one central registry covering all activities.

The registry would assign the document to the file representing the activity from which the correspondence arose. They would deliver the file, with the new correspondence on it, to the action officer.

The action officer would draft a reply which would be typed up by a typist in a typing pool. The typist would create two copies for the action officer to sign – one to go on the file, and one to be sent out.


Evaluating registry systems against the five criteria for a reliable records system

The registry system described above meets the five reliability criteria for a records system because:

  • There is routine and comprehensive capture into the record system.   In the post room(s) the same staff filter incoming correspondence day after day. They apply the same thought process to post day after day to decide what post goes to which registry, and what post bypasses the registries and gets sent direct to individuals. If the post room acquires a new member of staff, they train that person in the thought process.     Similarly in the registry(ies) the same staff do the filing day after day.   The registry staff have no interest in withholding embarrassing material from the file. The file is not holding them to account, it is holding action officers to account. The files are comprehensive – every incoming  piece of correspondence goes through the post room, and is either filtered out or sent to a registry for filing.
  • The colleagues working on the project/case/relationship/matter use the ‘file’ as their source of reference. If there are gaps in the file a colleague is not only likely to notice, there is also a fair chance that they will be motivated to do something about it, because they rely on that file being complete in order to be able to do their work, and defend their work.
  • A file is set up every time a new piece of work starts and every piece of correspondence placed on the file is, by the act of being placed on a file, connected to the activity it arose from.
  • The registry guarded the files. They typically kept a record of who each file was loaned out to and when. It is true that there was nothing to physically prevent an action officer ordering up a file, removing a paper that was incriminating to them from the file, and returning the file. However they would risk dismissal if detected.
  • Organisations had ways of managing the records lifecycle so that access to records were preserved over time. The registries would store active files close to office space, then send records to a record centre when they became non-active at a point some time after the work had finished From the records centre records would be disposed of at the end of a designated retention schedule either through destruction or through transfer to an historical archive

What happened to these systems when e-mail and networked computers arrived?

On the face of it it seems that the records management and archives profession was in a good position circa 1993 to ensure that no paper registry system was decommissioned without an adequate digital replacement being put in-place. Those organisations that operated such systems tended to proud of the systems, and proud of the records that the systems held. Their records were their support, their defence and their source of reference. They had no plans to jeopardise the quality of their records.

So why did that not transfer?  Why is it that even organsiations that had great records systems could not replicate the quality of those record systems after e-mail?

There are three main reasons to this:

  •  the speed and manner in which an e-mail moves through space and time is so different from that of a piece of paper that even having abstracted the qualities of a good paper records system into a set of criteria it was hard for the profession to imagine a way in which a system in the post e-mail world would meet those criteria
  • individual e-mail accounts collapsed the  time and space between a piece of correspondence arriving in an organisation and it arriving at the desktop of the action officer.    There was no time or space for records management controls to be inserted
  • the rapid and uniform spread of e-mail, through standard e-mail client and server software, meant that organisations denied themselves the opportunity to innovate when they set up their systems for handling e-mail.   A satisfactory method for transparently filtering and classifying/ filing e-mail never emerged because so little experimentation was done.


One thought on “Why were corporate wide records systems in the paper age so much more successful than those in the digital age?

  1. Thanks for this James! It strikes me that one of the key features of registry systems was not least a division of labour that it would be hard (nor necessarily desirable) to replicate in a digital world. Your graphic illustrates it well: those who did the core work of the business did neither the RM nor the communication with the outside world. So apart from the fact that the busy chap on the left was not being bothered unduly with recordkeeping, there used to be a strict separation between deliberating / deciding on the one hand, and the subsequent communication of the outcome on the other. But the latter began to soften up before the advent of networked computers and e-mail, didn’t it?

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