Thursday, September 18, 2008

ATR: The Bucket List

Over on the Records Management Listserv, there is a small battle raging. Now in the past, I'd jump in and hammer out a long-winded posting that would drive a whole lot of people batty. So now that I have my blog, well, you'll find something a bit more reasonable to read.

The elder statesman of the profession, Bill Benedon, FAI, CRM got things started earlier this afternoon with this:

"Appears the rush is on to take over the scheduling process with buckets. A few very interesting articles have appeared pushing this concept. I know what it is all about and I'm agin it. But I would like to see a RIM definition of bucket(s). Buckets come in all sizes as we know and at times they can overflow. So you buget-teers out there. Since this is now part of the RIM literature, let's hear a definition. Is this really new or just and expansion of the "series concept" or the "functional" approach to scheduling."

Now no one who has had a run in with Bill will ever confuse him for the kindly grandfatherly type when they have been at odds with him. I say that with all due respect and I know that challenging Bill means that you better be on your "A game". It's ultimately a good thing. So for much of the late afternoon and early evening, while I was still slaving away at the Day Job, a small battle was going on. It was just a small battle, but it was late in the day, so I suspect that the battle will be joined again in the morning.

Bill's original post points out the three major approaches to records retention schedules. Once upon a time, every retention schedule was based upon the record series. This approach goes back to the foundations of records management in the archives field, where description of records down to the document level have often been commonplace. record series are extraordinarily granular and are typically created at the department level of an organization. They can be hundreds or thousands of lines long. They are obsolete as soon as the next organizational change takes place or whenever some new type of record is created. But, in a manual system of paper records, they are an effective way to find a particular record. Unfortunately, they are a bear to keep consistent and expensive to maintain over time.

At the other end of the spectrum, are the "big buckets" that likely prompted Bill's original post. This approach tends to be more in vogue with people who never have to try and find anything or who have never sweated over some legalese to try and determine the proper retention period for something. This approach effectively works from the standpoint that there are only a handful of frequently used retention periods. Records are tossed into a bucket that corresponds to the length of time that the record should be kept. This keeps maintenance to a minimum because no one really ever has to change anything. People will be able to determine how long something needs to be kept. In theory, that could make sense. Problem is, no one really knows. Absent a control to the contrary, most people will keep everything for as long as they can. The others will toss everything as soon as they can. A few in the middle will figure out what is correct. The buckets will also tend to make it very difficult to accurately find anything.

In the middle are functional schedules. An organization is distilled down to the core functions that it performs. Accounting / Finance, HR and Benefits, Real Estate and Facilities, Administration, Law, Manufacturing, R&D, Health & Safety, and so on. These functions avoid matching the business units of the company one for one. In other words, if a company has a consumer division and a business to business division, it really shouldn't matter what is being manufactured or sold at a broad level. The variable here, however, would be in heavily regulated industries where there is likely a significant difference in retention periods for products in the regulated industry and those in an unregulated industry. The benefit to the functional schedule is that it allows the organization to expand and contract without having to perform massive revisions of the retention schedule. The downside is that it still allows a certain amount of choice by the end user and poorly described records are still subject to loss. But the trend seems to be for most organizations to move towards the functional schedule and simplify their retention schedules.

The question is whether or not the end users are in a place to accurately select the right line item and consistently describe the records.

The archivist in me pines for the old days when we had these great detailed lists of records. every department had a nicely customized retention schedule that described just the records in that department. when you wanted a paid invoice, you knew you could search for "Paid Invoices" and the right invoice would be found in a box very quickly. Under the functional schedule, those paid invoices will be in the "Accounting" line item and you have to hope that the person sending the records offsite took the time to indicate that the records were paid invoices from a particular year and organized in a particular way.

But at the same time, if we have any hope of getting our electronic records under control, we have to make things easier for the end user. They are not going to drill down through hundreds of departments and tens of line items to find the particular thing assigned to their department. If the end user can't click through the proper identifiers in a couple of seconds, it just won't happen.

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