Why We Still Need Records Management

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 01:00

Records Management: the systematic control of the creation, maintenance, use and disposition1of information.

"I'd like to know what all this means, Signor Rossi. Is there some dispute about our ownership of this apartment?"

"I'm afraid it's a bit more complicated than that, Signor Brunetti."

"What is it then?"

"I'm afraid this apartment doesn't existthere are no records of it in our office. No requests for building permits, no plans, no final approval of the work that was done. In short, there exists no documentary evidence that this apartment was ever built."2

This is fiction, of course. But how far off the mark is it? How many times each day are we asked to produce some document - some record - as proof of a statement or assertion that seems obvious? You need a driver's license to prove you are the same person as is named on a boarding pass in order to board an airplane. You're clearly standing there holding the boarding pass. You had to provide some other proof to get it, yet, they require this additional document before you can pass through security.

You must submit your tax returns at the end of each year to the IRS. You must provide documentation of your income and your deductions. The companies who provide you with that documentation also provide that documentation to the IRS. Yet, you must have it as well - to ensure that both sides assert the same facts and that the right amount of tax is paid.

You sign a contract to buy a car. The car dealer keeps a copy, you keep a copy, the finance company keeps a copy, and the insurance company may receive a copy. Everyone must have his own copy of the record to ensure that the transaction cannot be disputed.

So, we still need records. We use them every day. We depend on them. But do we need records management? That is, do we need the structure and the discipline of identifying a particular document or set of documents as "records" and not only as records but as a particular type of record, which must be tagged and stored in this way, kept for so long but not longer.After all, storage is cheap and search engines are improving. Why not keep everything?

Storage Is Cheap

Historically, recording and storing information was very expensive. The Sumerians carved contracts in clay tablets and covered the tablets with "envelopes" containing the same information - to prevent fraud. Carving in clay takes time. Egyptians had papyrus, but the process of cleaning and preparing a piece of papyrus for use was very time consuming and expensive. Old, unnecessary information was scraped off so the papyrus could be re-used as much as possible. The invention of paper, ink and the printing press helped reduce the cost of capturing written information, particularly after photocopying came into widespread use. The cheaper the storage mechanism became, the more information was saved, but was it all equally valuable?

Studies have shown that the average "knowledge worker" - a phrase used to mean someone who works with information as opposed to physical objects - can spend up to one-third of his time searching for or recreating needed information that has been stored but cannot be located. As the volume of information continues to grow, how will this issue be resolved? Will any new information be created or will people spend all their time looking through old, largely valueless information in search of the one piece of useful knowledge they think might be there? How long does it take you to find an email that you received from a colleague about three months ago? You know it's there. You saved it because it was important and you knew the issue would recur. But where did you put it?

So, while storage mechanisms have gone down in cost considerably since the days of clay tablets, the cost of finding information continues to rise as the volume of information that is stored climbs beyond our ability to effectively browse and digest it.

Search Engines Are The Wave Of The Future

So, yes, we have a lot of information, you say, and some of it may be of little to no value a day or week after it was created, but we can quickly search through thousands or millions of documents and find everything we want related to a subject.

Search for the term "records management definition" and you receive this message:

"Web Results 1-10 of about 3,470,000."

Search for something less specific, say "houses for sale," and you get:

"Web Results 1-10 of about 33,000,000."

How useful is that? Can you depend on the accuracy of most of those millions of hits? Do you have time to look at a million or so responses? Probably not. With commercial search engines, the lists are weighted with paid sponsors being listed first. So your results are skewed from the start.

Internally, you have the same issues. If you search the intranet of a large company for the word "benefits," you are likely to find 20 or so pages that may include brochures about the general benefits a new employee receives, marketing documents about the benefits of a particular product or service, or a phone number for your health insurance plan. What you might not find is the form to request vacation if it wasn't tagged as a "benefit" somehow and the search didn't pick it up because the keyword wasn't found.

In other words, the way you construct your search has an impact on the responses, as does the search engine you use, the type of search conducted (keyword, title, fielded, concept, relational, etc.) and the way the information was originally stored (full text, image only, with embedded tags, etc.) and identified. As an end user, you do not have control over most of these parameters. You cannot predict with any confidence the type of result you will receive or that conducting the same logical search will result in the same result two times in a row or if two different users look for what appears to be the same thing.

The Impact

When you're looking to buy a car or house or shoes, the impact of too many choices, more than you can reasonably review and choose among, is minimal. You may not see every house available that meets your criteria, but you are likely to find one that you like. However, if you are involved in a contract dispute and cannot find the final, executed version of the contract to which all parties agreed, you may not be able to prove your position, which could have real financial or other consequences. Imagine you are involved in litigation or an outside audit and must produce all documentation that pertains to the matter at hand and you cannot state with confidence that you have done so, or the time it takes for you to search for, separate and review the available information to find only that which is responsive may be beyond the time allowed. In either situation, the consequences could range from fines to sanctions, adverse inferences or summary judgments. In other words, you lose.

The Solution

The answer is simple. Manage your information so that you can find what you need when you need it. Dispose of unnecessary information in a systematic and consistent way so that the universe of information you might have to search through, review or produce is reasonable. Utilize mechanisms like information mapping, asset management, and automated workflow to identify your information as it is created and then stored in the designated location. In other words, we still need records management.

1 Disposition is the final action taken on a record at the end of its defined retention period. Typically, disposition includes destruction of temporary records and long-term or archival storage of those records meriting permanent retention.

2 Leon, Donna . Friends in High Places, pages 10-11. Penguin Books, New York, New York, 2009.

Robert Kirtley is a Managing Director, and Maura Dunn and Lee Karas are Directors of Duff & Phelps, LLC.

Please email the authors at robert.kirtley@duffandphelps.com, maura.dunn@duffandphelps.com or lee.karas@duffandphelps.comwith questions about this article.