Why is ‘going digital’ a problem for records management?

Why is ‘going digital’ a problem for records management?

Few organisations create original records on paper any more. Almost all the paper records that are created these days are the printed versions of born-digital records.

In a somewhat ironic twist, many organisations seek to digitise (or ‘scan’) the printed versions of born-digital records.

And yet, there apparently continues to be an ongoing problem in many organisations (particularly government organisations) about ‘going digital’.

Why is ‘going digital’ so hard for records management?

On one hand, allowing people to even print and store the printed version of digital records on paper files helps to perpetuate the problem of going digital.

On the other hand, many older style recordkeeping systems require content to be copied from one system where they have been created, captured or stored, to another. The requirement to copy a record (if it is not automated) requires a conscious, voluntary (and selective) action on the part of the end-user. It does not guarantee that the copied record is the final version of a document or, in the case of email, that there is no additional replies in a thread. And, the original remains in the originating system.

Additionally, some types of records cannot easily be copied to a centralised recordkeeping system. Examples include Twitter tweets, Facebook content, instant messaging texts, chat, video, and conferencing text, audio and video. And even when they can, there is no certainty that the version saved is the most recent.

The elephant in the room – digital recordkeeping has not evolved

In my opinion, the primary reason why digital records continued to be printed, and why organistions find it hard to ‘go digital’, is because many recordkeeping systems and practices have not evolved with the digital world.

Instead, they remain based on the idea that all records should be stored, with added metadata, in a central recordkeeping system. Anything that does not fit this model, and any system that doesn’t meet all the standards for keeping records in this way, is regarded as ‘non-compliant’.

Vendors of these traditional, centralised recordkeeping systems highlight how these systems meet recordkeeping compliance requirements, which in turn further cements these systems as being the only way compliance requirements can be met. These systems increasingly are unable to capture the full range of digital content and consequently, ‘going digital’ becomes a problem – because the system isn’t working.

It’s a vicious cycle.

How paper recordkeeping turned into digital recordkeeping

Until the early 1990s, paper files (and boxes) were the really the only way we had to store records. During the late 1980s and 1990s, many organisations acquired databases to keep track of these paper files and the boxes in which they were stored.

At the beginning of the digital world, in the early to mid 1990s, in the absence of any other method, digital records were usually printed and placed on the same paper files.

By the end of the 1990s, the databases that were originally used to keep track of paper files were adapted to manage digital records in digital ‘files’ (folders, containers).

But the opportunity was missed to evolve the paper recordkeeping paradigm into something more suitable for digital records.

Additionally, none of the leading software manufacturers, Microsoft in particular, did anything to incorporate recordkeeping in their various systems and applications.

Recordkeeping systems used to manage digital content, retained the same ‘filing’ concept where end-users, after receiving suitable training, had to (voluntarily) copy the digital record (including emails) to the digital ‘file’, leaving the original in place.

The idea of a central recordkeeping system, to where all records are to be copied, makes almost no sense in the digital world. For almost twenty years, it has overlooked or even ignored the ever-increasing volume and types of digital records and persisted with a centralised model.

In my opinion, the problem of ‘going digital’ for many organisations has been directly related to the fact that recordkeeping systems have not evolved from the original centralised model.

It doesn’t make sense in a digital world.

Fixing the problem

In my opinion, one of the key problems is not so much that many older style recordkeeping systems are based around a paper recordkeeping paradigm (because this paradigm can still be valid, especially for high value or archival records), but that organisations think they should manage all records according to the same paradigm, or otherwise they will not somehow ‘comply’ (especially with government recordkeeping requirements).

In reality:

  • Records may have different ‘value’. There are a lot of low-quality, low-value records.
  • Some records can go from being innocuous (‘OK’ in an email reply) to being critical very quickly (when the ‘OK’ becomes evidence of fraud).
  • Not all records need to have complex recordkeeping metadata. In fact, most digital records already have extensive metadata payloads.
  • Emails will continue to remain separate from other records.
  • Only a small percentage of records need to be kept for a long time.
  • Digital records can be categorised or classified in multiple ways over time. Pre-defined classification applied to a digital record may not accurately capture the full context (or potential context) of a record and may even impede it.
  • Digital records may remain active even after they are captured, including as new versions, new replies in a thread, modified images and so on.
  • When managed well, digital records can be managed and accessed in place, in the system in which they were created or captured.
  • Digital records that need special attention, including records that require long-term storage, can still be managed in ‘files’ or ‘containers’, but this needs to be implemented in a way that is simple for end-users to understand.

Organisations should, in my opinion:

  • Embrace digital recordkeeping.
  • Abandon the idea that all records must be copied to a central recordkeeping system.
  • Accept that any system can contain records – including line of business systems that also capture documents as records – and focus on how to manage the records in those systems.
  • Use the recordkeeping capability of the systems where records are created or captured.
  • Focus most effort on records of high value, or records that need to be kept for a long time including for archival purposes.
  • Let end-users create and work with born-digital records where they are created or captured, without the additional overhead of having to copy these to another system.
  • Implement high-level architecture models and monitor where information is being stored.
  • Use a combination of global retention policies and auto-classification to protect the integrity, reliability and authenticity of records.
  • Use search and discovery to find content, wherever it is stored, whenever it is required.

One thought on “Why is ‘going digital’ a problem for records management?

  1. “Digital records can be categorised or classified in multiple ways over time. Pre-defined classification applied to a digital record may not accurately capture the full context (or potential context) of a record and may even impede it.”

    Nice piece. Well done!

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