According to ARMA International, “Records Management is the professional field dedicated to information that rises to the level of importance that requires ongoing maintenance, whether it be for evidentiary or specific business purposes.” Records are declared and managed according to a records retention schedule, “a policy document that defines an organization’s legal and compliance recordkeeping requirements” (Iron Mountain).
ARMA also notes that “These pieces of information are termed ‘Information Management’ but some organizations combine the two disciplines under the moniker of ‘Records & Information Management (RIM)’” (ARMA International). Because a record is not always a neatly bound single product (such as a PDF, Word document, Excel spreadsheet, etc.), it is appropriate to talk about managing records within the broader management of all kinds of information, from semi-structured documents to highly structured database data.
Information making up a records file may be mixed with all other types of information, making it extremely difficult to separate records as defined by the records retention schedule. For example, placing all records which must be retained for five years and then be subject to records disposition in a single folder in a shared drive is likely not possible. These records will be associated with other records with different disposition schedules and associated to client or individual personal information stored in a database, such as a name and address. For instance, all of the documents and information making up a single homebuyer’s file will be subject to different records retention schedule policies and will include a mix of electronic and physical records.
Working in coordination with a records retention schedule, an enterprise taxonomy can be used to manage the records lifecycle, including all of the various pieces scattered throughout repositories and platforms.
Taxonomies are semi-autonomous structures which can be applied to and connect information where it lives. Because it is so difficult to remove records from their context, in-place records management is the most desirable practice; manage records where they live in the context of other information which may or may not be records.
It is important to be able to identify and retrieve records, especially during the process of legal discovery. The inability to produce records within a given time frame can result in significant and ongoing financial penalties. Sometimes it’s enough simply to prove that the records exist and are being managed. Other times, the records must be produced in electronic or physical formats.
Because records can be an assemblage of electronic and physical information, taxonomies can be used to identify these different components and their locations.
What Goes in the Taxonomy?
Records retention schedules are frequently complex and detailed documents specifying such information as the record type, a description of the record, the retention period, security requirements, disposition methods, and possibly the location.
It’s tempting to create folder structures or taxonomies mirroring the structure of the retention schedule. What becomes quickly obvious, however, is that the information doesn’t lend itself to neatly arranged structures. For example, a taxonomy following a records retention schedule might turn out looking like this:
Policies & Procedures
Retain for 5 years, then destroy
Information Technology Records
Information Technology Department
Retain for 5 years after end of fiscal year, then destroy
Policies & Procedures
Information Technology Department
Retain for 10 years, then destroy
In this example, each department has some kind of policies and procedures documents, two with the same name and one with a similar, but slightly different, name. They have different locations and may be in different formats. In addition, they all have similar retention periods, but the retention periods are often qualified. In that regard, they are all unique. Each retention description must be listed separately and may be used more than once where appropriate.
Managing this kind of polyhierarchical structure and updating it is very difficult. Also, a taxonomy isn’t a folder structure into which documents are placed, so do the documents live in a folder in a shared drive? If so, which folder? If the folder is only the document name, where do we store the metadata information about them? Assuming we can store that metadata describing records in a folder structure, can we connect this metadata and reuse it to label records in other systems?
One better way to handle the above would be to create several, mutually exclusive taxonomies or a single, faceted enterprise taxonomy which may include both records and other kinds of information. So, for example:
Policies & Procedures
In this example structure, the combination of concepts applied to content make up the complete record. The taxonomy modeling could take one of several different directions depending on the needs of the organization. The electronic locations may not be named as in this example, but a property with the URL location of the specific document included. Similarly, pointers to the specific documents could be included in the taxonomy with creation and disposition dates, especially for documents which have no way of indicating this where they are stored. Here is an example of what this might look like as a concept record in the taxonomy:
For many records, it is not the organization which sets the retention policies, but local and regional statutes. For an international organization, the same documents may be subject to different regulations based on where they are stored. So, a financial organization may be subject to SEC regulations for documents stored electronically or physically in the United States and have different regulations across the European Union and within individual European countries.
Rather than trying to re-create these statutes in a taxonomy, individual records could use URL links to official sites or include periodic updated pulls of the data into the taxonomy system.
The Taxonomy in Action
When an employee needs to find particular records or all the information making up a file, they can use a search interface powered by taxonomy concepts tagged to content and used for faceted search filtering.
Electronic documents live in repositories which can store metadata about the document. The metadata values are supplied by the taxonomy. Documents which have no associated metadata because of system limitations or because they are physical documents can be represented electronically in the taxonomy management system. These records can be searched as part of the overall search index or periodically published to consuming systems to be used like any other information in the system.
The use of taxonomies for records management assumes the same adoption of business processes any records management program would require: the application of accurate information at the time of record creation, during its management, and retained (if appropriate) after the disposition of the record. This is no more difficult or fool-proof than physically writing the correct information on a paper document and placing it in the correct box for shelved storage. There are always risks of misfiling information, but trained records management individuals are the subject matter experts whose job it is to ensure records are handled correctly.
The taxonomy is just like the records retention schedule applied to documents and data across systems, pulling together content where it lives based on search parameters.