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You are a records management failure

June 25, 2012

A provocative title, I know, but I think we need a little provocation in the records management (RM) world today. For way too long, we’ve been focused on the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, and the disastrous information management situation in play at 99% of the organizations I encounter is a direct result: we keep everything forever, have adopted corporate policies we can’t follow, either because they are operationally impossible or technically unfeasible (or both), and we derive precious little of the value our information could be providing us if we could only find it and use it effectively.

Man in the mirror

Before you stop reading and hastily scroll to the bottom of this post to heckle me mercilessly, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your RM policies in place? Are they being followed? For both paper and electronically stored information (ESI)?
  • Do you have a corporate retention schedule in place? Are you retaining and disposing according to the schedule? Both paper and ESI?
  • Are you currently using RM technology? If not, how close are you to doing so?
  • Does the larger organization understand the strategic importance of managing information?

If your organization is anything like the hundreds of organizations I’ve encountered in my time as an enterprise content management (ECM) practitioner, my guess is that:

  • You have policies and a retention schedule in place, but that you can’t demonstrate compliance with any degree of certainty (for both paper and ESI)
  • You are years away from getting technology to enforce your RM policies (even if you currently own licenses for this or that tool)
  • Your organization pays mostly lip service to the strategic value of information and manages it much less effectively than the its physical, financial, or human assets

How did we get here?

There are a number of reasons why we’re where we are with RM, but these three are pretty key:

  • All or nothing “letter of the law” approach to the RM program – total compliance with laws, regulations, and standards
  • Comprehensive, records-focused approach to retention schedules – hundreds of record types, complex retention triggers
  • Academic, best practices approach to RM policy – extensive and comprehensive coverage of all RM areas

What these three problematical RM approaches lead to, on the one hand, are policies and processes that are impossible to live up to in practice, which places an unreasonable (unattainable) compliance burden on the organization; and on the other, they result in a retention schedule that’s far too complex either for users to understand and follow or for IT to support with tools and systems.

Et voilà: we find ourselves in the mess we’re in today.

We gotta get out of this place

The way out is not going to be easy—it took 10 years or more to get into this mess, it won’t take a year (or two, or even three) to get out—but the basic idea behind the way out is pretty simple:

  • Practical “spirit of the law” approach – reasonable compliance with laws, regulations, and standards
  • Big bucket, execution-focused approach to retention schedules – dozens (not hundreds) of record types, simplified retention triggers
  • Realistic approach to policy – transparent and up front about what can and can’t be done at the organization

These three guiding principles help back you out of the information management dead end you’re currently in: you get an actionable and practical RM program, with policies and procedures that place reasonable obligations on the organization, which it can (and will) meet—not the least of which is a retention schedule that’s straightforward enough for users to understand and follow and for IT to support with tools and systems.

And the payoff is significant: the enterprise can demonstrate with reasonable certainty its compliance with laws, regulations, and standards as well as corporate policies and it’s able to curb rampant over-retention because information is now disposed of according to the retention schedule (and when past its legal and operational life).

The final word

With that done, you are now free to heckle, as usual. But hopefully, in addition to being provocative, the post also made you take a hard look at how RM is done at your organization and evaluate how successful it really is. Feel free to jump in and share your thoughts, observations, questions, comments, feedback, insults, etc.—always excited to get the conversation started!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 12:18 pm


    • June 25, 2012 2:05 pm

      Thanks for the spiritual feedback and encouragement…we need all we can get in RM today 🙂

  2. June 25, 2012 1:57 pm

    Each industry should have its own “just enough” criteria for RM. One size fits all will not work as you really shouldn’t try and equalize NASA and Day Care. Standards are the way to go … but to what degree? And how many “levels”?

    It takes work to determine the sweet-spot and that work is most often ignored.

    • June 25, 2012 2:09 pm

      Agreed — too often RM practitioners treat every organization like NASA, with predictable results.

      No real best practices answers to what the sweet-spot is for organizations, but I often begin with the question, “will anyone die if we get this wrong?” If the answer is, “no”, RM can set the compliance bar lower than if the answer is, “yes”. After that, you ask, “can we afford reputational damage from RM non-complaince?” Again, the bar can be set lower if the answer is, “no”. After that, you can ask, “would we be better able to serve our customers if we had better RM compliance?” Lower bar for a “no”. And so on until you reach the sweet-spot (or a sweet-spot) for that organization.

  3. Randy permalink
    June 26, 2012 7:14 am

    Thanks for stating what a growing number of us RIM folks have been trying to get the profession to realize. For 25+ years I keep hearing “it’s now RIM’s time” which means we’ve failed for 25+ years. The lack of being practical, risk based or 80/20 meant we have been our own worse enemy. This could finally be taking hold as it could be just fine to be a 3 rating in GARP vs. a 5. Our approach to the fast changing world must stop being a quick “NO, you can’t do that” but “Great idea, let’s walk through the process and see if there are issues we need to work out.”

    • June 26, 2012 7:32 am


      Glad you found the post valuable. I totally agree that we’ve been spinning our wheels in RIM for some time now, but am very hopeful that things really are going to change for the better this time because the status quo is rapidly becoming untenable for organizations in every industry (not just traditional ECM adopters like financial services and insurance, but others as well, e.g., oil and gas, manufacturing, mining, construction, foodservice, etc.): too much information to manage, too much risk to carry, and too much competitive advantage to be gained by managing information assets as well as we currently manage our financial, physical, and human assets.

      Anyway, thanks for jumping in and joining the conversation!



  4. Karen permalink
    July 30, 2012 8:00 pm

    That’s why most people can’t look an RM in the eye – thanks for the enlightment!

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