2012 Resolution Challenge pt. 2: Simplifying Records Retention

mspring Records Management

On January 4, 2012 we published the first installment of our 2012 Resolution Challenge to Records Managers. In that post, we asked you to evaluate your entity’s records management program or practices. Did you do it? How did you score? Let us know in the comments. Typically, 88 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail, in part because they are too vague, general, or unrealistic. Not this year. As we say goodbye to January 2012, now is an excellent time to dust of your January 4th evaluation and set to work trimming away those old — long past their approved retention — records turned office décor.

Our goal with part two of the 2012 Resolution Challenge: DLTIYHBTIYN– “Don’t let the information you have bury the information you need.”[i] One of the many challenges records managers face is the 20 foot high, 6 inch thick, concrete wall called the “keep everything” mentality. This mentality can be both a legal liability and cost prohibitive as staff time and storage costs increase with the demand to do “something, anything” with those records. Not to mention that the more records you keep beyond their retention the more records you are required to produce in response to a records request.

Overcoming the “keep everything” mentality is a profession-wide challenge. One method for achieving entity-wide buy-in is to adopt simple solutions that function as a part of the business process. For example, when writing a draft of a document, place the “draft” watermark on the document.

Another solution is to move towards a records management system that emphasizes “big buckets” which can simplify the records management process and mitigate employee resistance to move the records they create to the appropriate person or location. The “big bucket” approach calls for identifying related record series that are produced as part of a specific business function—legal records fall under the legal function of the entity. Sounds pretty logical and easy, right?

Unfortunately, everyone loves an exception and we all think we have one. Just like in our personal lives, in the office we often make new years resolutions that we never seem to follow. Instead of coming up with reasons we can’t go to the gym we find reasons why we can’t apply the retention schedules we promised we would follow. Maybe the records in the office were created for a special event that does not have a retention period yet or we have case files with multiple record types: correspondence, research, studies and evaluations. Or we have project files that contain contracts, proposals, photographs, summaries, etc. Often times the manner in which we conduct business does not fit into neat, tidy categorizations. We want to look at a general retention schedule and find that there is already a written description and retention period that matches the files on our desks perfectly. Or because many of us wear more hats than just that of a records manager we set aside those files that for the reasons above just do not fit. Keep in mind, we all have them, they aren’t special. In fact, 30-50 percent of office records could be considered exceptions.[ii] Given that percentage, maybe, they are not really exceptions at all.

As a profession we need to move towards a culture where the exception is just that, the exception, and not the rule. We can start by evaluating what files in our offices are records and which are not. Non-records should follow a big bucket retention schedule. Examples of non-record buckets include: general working documents and personal reference documents or more simply, non- records.

At this point in the process, you should not be focusing on actual records, records series or record content. Simply identify at the highest level what buckets you need for how your entity does business. Stop thinking about all the exceptions, those come later. For today, we encourage you to examine what buckets you use, or need to use, to effectively conduct business and create an environment where the information you have does not bury the information you need. The Utah state general retention schedules can help you get started.

In the interest of keeping our 2012 Resolution Challenge focused and realistic, we recommend that each records manager identify one entity function and compile a list of items that do not need to be retained for that function: duplicates, superseded or obsolete records, drafts, etc.

[i] Acronym reprinted from ARMA International’s “Hottopic” supplement and belongs to the CA Information Governance solution.

[ii] “Trimming Your Bucket List” hottopic, ARMA International. September 2008. http://www.arma.org/pdf/hottopic/sept2008.pdf Accessed January 31, 2012.