Thursday, June 5, 2008

ATR: "Keep It All -- Let God Sort It Out"

Once upon a time, I told someone that I was going to open a concession at an ARMA or AIIM Conference selling t-shirts with the phrase, "Image It All -- Let God Sort It Out". (If that hasn't been copyrighted, I'm copyrighting it right now.) Back in the day, it seemed like the records management solution du jour was simply to image everything. That thinking drove me insane. I could never understand why anyone would see logic or good business sense in taking dead records and imaging them for the sake of imaging them. "Oh, but we'll save so much money in records storage." Uh huh. If you're dumb enough to think that spending a couple hundred dollars to properly image and index a box of paper records is a good idea to save a couple dollars of annual storage cost, I'd like to open an imaging service bureau for you.

Well, today I continue to see various bloggers and pundits suggesting that applying proper records retention rules to electronic records is "too hard and complex", so just keep everything because "storage is cheap". If you think that is a good idea, I'm going to open up a legal discovery document review business, just for you.

I've had a couple small written disagreements with some pundits when I see these sorts of recommendations posted. They tend not to see it my way.

Now I suppose that if you can't get anyone in the organization to properly retain records and spoliation is an everyday occurance, you might feel that you have little or no choice but to keep everything. At least you're consistent. Your storage vendors will love you. Your outside counsel will alternately love and hate you.

But, in my opinion, organizations that defer making records disposition decisions should start setting money aside as a deferred liability on their books (accountants, please pardon my butchering of good accounting practice). Why? Well, sooner or later the company will need to migrate all those records. They will need to convert them in a manner that doesn't screw up the metadata. They will need to move them to cheaper storage. They will need to purchase more powerful search engines and search caching systems. And sooner or later, they will hit some litigation that will require a search through all of the documents and a physical review of all of the potentially responsive documents. That will take serious money because automated keyword and even context searches will reduce the volume, but a human being (generally a highly billed legal professional) will need to read the potentially responsive document to figure out if it is truly responsive. And the more stuff you start out with, the more stuff you have to look at once the search results come back.

Once upon a time, in the good old paper world of yore, we didn't create as many documents. But some people managed to become packrats just the same. And at some point, they simply ran out of space or were forced by the fire inspector to do something about the mess. Generally, that involved a dumpster or lots of records boxes. The pack rat was unhappy because sorting through the mess was time-consuming and the filing was beneath them. But the choice was made once the paper built up to a point where even the pack rat had to admit that there was a problem. Flash forward to the world today. While many organizations limit electronic storage, there always seem to be ways around the rules. The real problem, however, is that the storage takes place out of sight. It is invisible to the pack rat. And the pack rat perceives electronic storage as incredibly cheap -- terabyte hard drives go for less than $500 these days. So it is hard to convince the pack rat that something has to be done -- after all, they can usually find what they need after a little digging.

The other problem is that pack rat workarounds tend to involve offline storage -- CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, etc. When the company insists that the pack rat gets organized, the pack rat goes to Best Buy. A credit card swipe later and that pack rat has reduced his or her corporate storage requirements to zero. No real work is required. A few mouse clicks and everything is copied over to the portable media. And that makes the pack rat even happier because now he or she can take all their stuff home. In those days of yore, the pack rat was limited in what could be carried out of the building and the pack rat's spouse / significant other would tend to frown on a garage full of paper.

A pundit recently suggested that all email should be retained "forever". I challenged that. The problem is that at some point, someone (likely a bean counter)will realize that keeping spam, personal email, and unimportant emails ("let's do lunch!") is probably a real resource waste, so those things should not be kept -- and preferably should be deleted by the user. Well, that will require written rules about what should be kept and what shouldn't be kept. Then someone else will decide that some email really doesn't need to be kept "forever". So they will write some rules that suggest which items can be kept for briefer periods of time. Then someone else will be afraid that the end users are making bad decisions about what to keep and what to delete. Pretty soon you have a retention schedule again.

The ultimate solution is simply to teach people how to file electronic records and provide the user with simple tools to do their filing as quickly as possible. Users will need to make a decision as soon as they create or touch a new document / email. That touchpoint will need to last a matter of seconds. And that touchpoint will need to ensure that the user can quickly find what has been filed. That's a tall order, but one that I'd suggest will happen a lot sooner than waiting for God to get busy filing.

1 comment:

Shawn Malone said...

But Patrick! For some of us in the public sector, "simply to teach people how to file electronic records and provide the user with simple tools to do their filing as quickly as possible" is much harder than it sounds, because we are not always in control of our own retention schedule.

At Travis County, where I work, the State of Texas promulgates a schedule with between 135 and 1,500 series. Trying to compel users (including independent elected officials who have their own ideas about records management) to master such complex categorization schemes and apply them to email is very difficult.