Can ‘traditional’ records management survive the digital future

At a conference last year I listened with interest to a panel discussion on the subject of ‘paper versus digital’. Perhaps the debate was only meant to be light-hearted but it was clear that quite a few records managers continue to manage paper records and see them as their primary focus. In almost all cases these records are the printed version of a digital original. In most cases those digital originals remain stored on a network drive (or a person’s USB), or attached to an email, or – if you are lucky – copied to the organisation’s electronic document management (EDM) system to become the ‘official’ version.

Only a month ago I saw a colleague, whose position title clearly indicates she is responsible for digital recordkeeping, asking about KPIs for the creation of paper files. Perhaps it was part of the digital recordkeeping strategy to examine this subject, but it underlined for me the persistence of ‘traditional’ recordkeeping concepts, that documents belong in containers, that may be files or groups of files (or series etc). This is not just an issue for records managers, but for end users as well who continue to ‘think paper’.

It concerns me that records managers persist with the concept that digital records somehow ‘belong’ in digital files, often directly connected with the descriptive ‘business classification’ system of function and activity (in the sense that the file title or metadata may include the function and activity).

This way of thinking reinforces the concept that these records belong nowhere else, or might have no context outside the container, which of course is not necessarily true. It is, of course, possible to cross-link documents to a different container, but at what point is this a manual exercise? And where does it stop?

Part of the problem has been that digital systems mimic in their appearance and functionality the concept of a file or folder. We see them on network drives, in email, and in the containers of EDM systems. These folders or containers provide a sense of surety, that a document has been ‘stored’ or saved in a specific file. The file, however, is no more than a visual construct; the document’s file/folder/container metadata is what causes the document to appear that way.

This is all the more obvious in some EDM systems that store documents in a file store (often folder-based) and the metadata about the documents in a separate database. Aside from the folder structure, these documents are more or less a bunch of uncontrolled documents with metadata links to the ‘file’ construct in the database.

Of course, keeping records in some form of business context is important both for the management of those records (short and long term) and for retention and disposal purposes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that documents must be associated with ‘files’ that, according to some records managers (and paper filing theory), should contain no more than 300 documents.

All of this is unnecessarily restrictive and, for end users, results in additional work. It’s no wonder that EDM systems have lagged behind the more ‘traditional’ way that users store documents, in network drives.

We should, I believe, think of digital records as being self-contained and dynamic objects with their own metadata payload that may be relevant in multiple contexts, not a fixed object stored in another fixed object.

Enter Microsoft Groups

In 2015 Microsoft announced the concept of Groups, accessed primarily from Outlook. Conceptually, you could think of a Group as being more similar to an Active Directory Distribution List rather than a shared mailbox. It is also similar to Yammer groups, but with much more functionality.

From Outlook, a user can create a Group to work collaboratively. Group members can initiate conversations with other members of the group (including Skype discussions) and – importantly – share documents.

So, Microsoft is taking us into the world of Group-centred information collaboration. This is not an experiment on the part of Microsoft, it is part of the world of Office 365 which includes SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, Delve, and more, supported by any device to enable users to create, access and share content anywhere, anytime.

Now, not every organisation uses Microsoft products, but an awful lot do. And for those who do, Groups in Office 365 is the future. The impact on traditional recordkeeping practices is likely to be large.

By 2020 or earlier, users will create Groups via Outlook to collaborate. Within the Group they will store digital content (not just documents); documents are stored in SharePoint Online site collections which are in addition to any other Site Collections. That’s right – in addition to your controlled Site Collections, there will be a multitude of Group-specific Site Collections. Conversations that take place in the group are stored as items in the inbox of the Group mailbox. In other words, all the content (and perhaps context) will be based around the Group ‘subject’.

To access all this rich content users will have three main options: (a) be an active member of the group; (b) SharePoint search; and (c) Delve. Business intelligence and data analytics, or e-Discovery type products, may also provide a fourth line of access.

Likely impact on recordkeeping

The recordkeeping practices that I believe will be most affected are: (a) metadata, including the application of BCS terms; (b) container-based storage, and (c) retention and disposal. It may also impact the careers of records managers. There will be no control over the creation of new groups (there can be, but why?), so their information content (in Outlook and in the associated SharePoint Online site collection) will become, in many respects, the new containers for records, in addition to other site collections.

On a positive note, I believe users will adapt and adopt this new model of working rapidly. Users, many of whom remain glued to Outlook as a business ‘collaboration’ tool, will find that Groups provide them with the ability to store and share documents via the Outlook interface. They may need to get used to the idea of ‘working out loud’ in Groups, but I think that will happen fairly quickly.

One thing is sure – change is inevitable.

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