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Three Approaches to Records Management

  17th March, 2016

# In order to deliver a report on managing records retention, a somewhat long word on records management has to be included in this chapter. The principles of records management and the methods to implement records management controls are worthy of their own report. In an attempt to summarise the topic, the following explanation is limited and covers my account of three approaches that are taken by organisations to manage their records. The explanations of the approaches rely on the reader having some understanding of processes in their organisation. All three would benefit from further exploration and justification of the statements made, however, this report is about managing records retention and the following paragraphs are for scene setting alone.

The three approaches are:

  1. Preventative approach
  2. Proactive approach
  3.  Reactive approach

Preventative approach

The preventative approach is real-time records management, where the principles are embedded in each process, are largely unseen and are definitely not isolated as a separate administrative process. The staff implement the controls and manage the information lifecycle for those records for which they are held responsible.

This type of records management has a small footprint and, after the initial development and training costs, has few costs associated with the activities. Updating of retention legislation and standards, inclusion of the records management tasks in the auditing of the work, and management of the appreciably smaller archive storage service will incur expenditure, but the employment of a specialist records management professional and possibly a team to work alongside the specialist will be unnecessary. The archive ‘housekeeping’ tasks could be included in  a facilities role, with the auditing being part of the audit team’s responsibilities and the updating of the retention legislation either outsourced or part of the work undertaken by the legal department.

The continual staff education and training would be the responsibility of the human resources team or could be outsourced to a specialist training company. Online training tools and resources (either internally or externally produced and maintained) would allow staff to dip in and out of the guidance as required. The guidance would be related to records management within specific processes, putting the controls into context rather than developing a records management training programme isolated from the work.

The final and most important note on the preventative records management approach is that a senior manager or director should be involved in the development of the strategy and records management policy and remain accountable for the continual update and review of the records management policy and controls, within whichever management framework the organization chooses. Those managers responsible for the various processes within the organization must ensure that any changes to the records management controls are embedded within their teams’ work.

Whilst preventative records management sounds as if it is only for large organisations, it can be developed on any scale and will serve a one-man band as well as a large conglomerate or government office.

Proactive approach

The proactive approach involves the establishment of a records and archives management team (dependent on size and type of organisation) with responsibility for the records management controls and guidance and the undertaking of the various housekeeping roles including updating of the retention rules, training and archive storage service.

Proactive records management is the approach that has grown in popularity over the past ten years, most particularly in the public sector. In theory it is highly efficient, with skilled and experienced staff offering assistance and advice to the organisation. This should lead to an effectively managed and legally compliant records management system within the organisation. In practice, however, it is quite often seen by senior management as an administrative overhead and is continually asked to justify its existence, reduce its costs and limit its ambitions. The time taken in writing reports to show how records management is of value to the organisation stops the team from actually getting on with the work of implementing any of the controls.

The current economic climate dictates the size of the records management team, and some organisations have reduced the team to one records management person or combined the role with work associated with information such as data protection, freedom of information, compliance or continuity. The format for records management does not change with role-combining but may be compromised and forced to focus only on those tasks with the highest visibility, such as the management of the archive storage and the retrieval of information that has been ‘lost’ during the semi-active stage of the information lifecycle. This has two consequences: the records manager does not have the opportunity to develop and implement, across the whole organisation, the records management controls and guidance, resulting in records management being isolated as an administrative chore that has little relevance to the day-to-day running of the organisation until something important is ‘lost’.

With positive endorsement from senior management and agreed financial support, plus clear boundaries as to where records management controls are implemented, the proactive approach to records management can work well within large organisations. Unfortunately, records management professionals invariably rank the following as the three biggest hurdles to achieving a proactive records management system in their organisations:

  1. Lack of senior management support
  2. Financial restrictions
  3. Staff complacency

As to clear boundaries, they are rarely discussed, which might imply that clarity for implementation of records management controls within specific boundaries is not considered a high priority by the records manager.

Reactive approach

The reactive approach charges into action when an important piece of information is lost, someone remembers it went into the archive and a reaction starts. The reactive approach relies on subjective corporate memory, a member of the team who has been employed for a number of years and remembers ‘Joe and his files’ and roughly the year they were squirreled away into archive storage.

The reactive approach is the most risky and looks like the cheapest option to take, but the archive storage costs are invariably very high and on the increase. Staff can never find any file management guidance to reference so are forever reinventing the wheel and creating personalised systems for filing and archiving. Only when crisis hits does the management listen to the plea for records management controls. Most likely an information audit will be sponsored as a first and relatively inexpensive step, paid for from a contingency budget. As with all ‘knee jerk’ reactions, little time and effort is spent considering the case for an information audit, what it will achieve, and whether or not any of its recommendations will be implemented. By the time the information audit is delivered and reported on, the crisis will be over and the organisation will most likely not see much value in implementing the recommendations at a cost that will be eye-wateringly expensive (in the opinion of the finance director) and show little quantifiable return on investment. Most likely an archive procedure will be developed, telling staff to complete an electronic form relating to the contents of the archive boxes that they store and include a review date on it so that they can dispose of the records in a legally compliant manner. After all, ‘they should know how long to keep records within their own work area, but if not, they should use the seven-year rule’. The latter statement may or may not start the records retention ball rolling and may engender a ‘cherry-picking’ attitude to the recommendations in the information audit report.

Reactive records management can work. However, it is only really suited to a one-man band, an office with fewer than five people or perhaps the parish council or the home, where everything is in one place or there is very little information to go through to find the one document required. It is very risky, in terms of legal and fiscal penalties within an ever-increasing number of sectors. It may not be cheaper than either the preventative or proactive approach in organisations of more than five people.


An Extract from Alison North’s book “Managing Records Retention and Disposal”.

Alison North is an international document and record management consultant with over 40 years of experience in the information management world. She has designed and implemented numerous document control and records management systems for clients, both private and public sector, in many countries including throughout the GCC.

Alison will be facilitating the PLUS Specialty Training Document Control and Records Management course in Dubai.