A modern way to manage the retention of digital records

A modern way to manage the retention of digital records

In his April 2007 article titled ‘Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing’ (Harvard University RWP07-022), Viktor Mayer-Schönberger noted that the default human behaviour for millenia was to forget. Only information that needed to be kept would be retained. He noted that the digital world had changed the default to remembering, and that the concept of forgetting needed to be re-introduced through the active deletion of digital content that does not need to be retained.

The harsh reality is that there is now so much digital information in the world, including digital content created and captured by individual organisations, that active deletion of content that does not need to be retained, seems an almost impossible task.

This post explores issues with the traditional model of records retention in the digital world, and why newer options such as the records retention capability of Microsoft 365 is a more effective way to manage the retention and disposal of records, and all other digital content.

The traditional retention model

The traditional model of managing the retention and disposal/disposition of records was based on the ability to apply a retention policy to a group or aggregation of information identified as records. For the most part, those paper records were the only copy that existed (with some allowance for working and carbon copies).

The model worked reasonably well for paper records, but started to falter when paper records became the printed versions of born-digital records, and where the original digital versions remained where they were created or captured – on network files shares, in email systems, and on backups. Although, technically, the official record was on a file, a digital version was likely to remain on network file shares or in an email mailbox after the paper version was destroyed at the end of the retention period, and remain overlooked.

How many of us have had to wade through the content of old network file shares to examine the content, determine its value, and perhaps see if it can even still be accessed? Or do the same with old backup tapes?

The volume of unmanaged digital content, not subject to any retention policy, only continued to increase. This situation continued to worsen when electronic document and records management (EDRM) systems were introduced from the late 1990s. End-users had to copy records to the EDRMS, thereby creating yet another digital copy, in addition to the born-digital originals stored in mailboxes or file shares.

Even if the record in the EDRMS were destroyed, there was a good chance the original ‘uncontrolled’ version of the digital record – along with an unknown volume of digital records that probably should have been consigned to the EDRMS but weren’t – remained in email mailboxs, on file shares, or on a backup tape somewhere.

eDiscovery was born.

The emergence of new forms of digital records, including instant messages, social media, and smart-phone based chat and other apps from the early 2000s only added to the volume of digital content, much of which was stored in third-party cloud-based and mobile-device accessible applications completely out of the reach and ability of the organisation trying to manage records.

Modern retention management

A modern approach to retention management should be based on the following principles:

  • Information, not just records, should only be kept for as long as it is required.
  • It is no longer possible to accurately and/or consistently identify and capture all records in a single recordkeeping system.
  • Duplication of digital content can be reduced by creating and capturing records in place, promoting ‘working out loud’, co-authoring and sharing (no more attachments and private copies).

None of the above points excludes the ability to manage certain types of records at a more granular level where this is required. But these records, or the location in which they are created or captured, should not be regarded as the only form of record.

Ideally, these records should be created (or captured) directly in the system where they are to be managed – not copied to it.

Change management is necessary

Some of these new ways of working are likely to come up against deeply ingrained behaviours, many of which go back several decades and have contributed to a reluctance to ‘forget’ and destroy old digital content, including:

  • hiding/hoarding content in personal drives (and personal cloud-based systems or on USB drives);
  • communicating by email, the content is which is inaccessible to anyone else;
  • attaching documents to emails;
  • printing and filing born-digital content; and
  • sometimes, scanning/digitising the printed copies of born-digital records and saving them back to a digital system.

What about destruction?

Records managers in organisations moving away from the authorised destruction of digital content identified as records, to the destruction of all digital content (including identified records) need to consider what is required to achieve this outcome, and the implications for existing process and practices (including those described above).

  • Some activities will remain unchanged. For example, the need to review certain types of records before they are destroyed (aka ‘disposition review’), to seek approval for that destruction, and to keep a record of what was destroyed.
  • Some activities are new and can replace other existing actions and activities. For example, the application of retention policies to mailboxes can remove the requirement to backup those mailboxes.
  • Some of activities or outcomes may be challenging. For example, the automatic destruction without review of digital content that is not the subject of more granular retention requirements, such as emails out of mailboxes, documents in personal working drives. This content will simply disappear after the retention period expires.

How Microsoft 365 can support modern retention management

Microsoft recognised some time ago that it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the volumes and types of digital content that was being created every day by organisations.

Exisiting and newly released functionality in the Compliance portal of Microsoft 365 includes the ability to create and apply both label-based retention policies to specific types of records, including automatically based on machine learning capabilities, and broader ‘workload’ specific (e.g., mailboxes, SharePoint sites, OneDrive accounts, MS Teams chats) retention policies. This capability helps organisations to focus retention requirements on the records that need to be retained, while destroying digital content that is no longer relevant and can be forgotten.

Instead of directing end-users to identify records and copy them from one system to another (thereby creating two versions), Microsoft 365 allows end-users to create and capture records in place, providing a single source of truth that can be shared (rather than attached), be the subject of co-authoring, and protected from unauthorised changes (and even downloads).

Limitations with Microsoft 365

It is important to keep in mind that there are some limitations with the current (October 2020) retention capability in Microsoft 365.

  • Retention and disposal is based on individual digital objects, not aggregations. There are limited ways to group individual records by the original aggregations in which they may have been stored (e.g., document libraries in SharePoint).
  • Only the (minimal) details of records that were subject to a disposition review are recorded in the ‘disposed items’ listing, and this is only kept for a year (but can be exported). No record is kept of any other destroyed record, except in audit logs (for a limited period).
  • The metadata details of records subject to a disposition review that were destroyed is minimal – the document type and name, date destroyed, destroyed by whom.
  • When records are destroyed from SharePoint document libraries or lists, the library or list remains with no record kept of what was previously stored there. It is not possible to leave a ‘stub’ for a destroyed record.

Summing up

The primary outcome from introducing modern ways to manage retention will be that all digital content, not just content that has been identified as records or copied to a recordkeeping system, will be subject to some form of retention and disposal management.

In other words, a change from exception-based retention (where all the other digital content is overlooked), to a more holistic method of retention with both granular controls on certain types of records where this is required, and broader retention capability allowing us to forget the content that is no longer relevant – the ‘redundant, trivial and outdated’ (ROT) content often scattered across network file shares.


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