The Psychology of Records Management – RIM Lessons from the Natural World

Craig Grimestad

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As we work to instill an Information Governance culture in our companies, we often have difficulty putting records and how they are managed into the right perspective for the workforce. We need to find a way to communicate with the workforce that enables a correct understanding of records and promotes appropriate retention and disposal. One effective tool that might be useful, is learning by association – identifying parallels to knowledge one already possesses. For records, the world around us provides many parallel illustrations that can be helpful to articulate the character, attributes, and phases of a record’s lifecycle.

Foundationally, records are a company’s most important asset. More important than property, buildings, equipment, and yes, sorry to say, people. Like other assets, records require maintenance to retain their value and usefulness. Records are the lifeblood of a company, traveling throughout the corporate body from one location to another to accomplish the purpose for which they were created.

Records, like living things, have a lifecycle. Having a lifecycle means that there is an end to the usefulness of a record. A record is created, has a useful life, and then “dies” (no longer useful to the company). All records should be considered as lasting for a “period of time” – there are no permanent records. Companies that foster a “keep everything culture” records retention do themselves damage both from a cost and liability perspective. This approach could be described as a “Dead Sea” approach to records management. There is inflow, but no outflow.

Certainly, the useful life of a record can be a long time – the life of a company, but “life of a company” is not permanent.

Imagine if you will that your company is a garden and all the records plants. For example, we recently we bought a tulip tree for our backyard. This is a magnificent tree, attractive in appearance and fast growing. If grown in optimal conditions, a tulip tree can live for 300 years. That’s a long time, many generations, but the tree will eventually reach the end of its natural lifecycle and need to be removed. Your company may be growing quickly, have a strong future, enduring many generations, but it won’t last forever.

There are also records that have a very short lifespan. Similarly, annual flowers decorate for a season. Then, as the season ends and the weather changes, they wither and die, having fulfilled their purpose. Most records fall somewhere in between “life of company” and “short lifespan”.

During their useful life, plants are pruned to keep them healthy and useful. So too there is value in “pruning” records during the active phase of their life. Draft copies, earlier versions and duplicates of final copies, can all be trimmed or disposed of to eliminate confusion and establish the Official Record.

When the end of life comes to living things, they begin to decay and rot. Similarly once the useful life of a record is over the record transitions from being an asset to a liability. The cost required for retention is no longer justified, the record consumes space in the repository (potentially making it more difficult to locate a desired useful record), and the record remains available for a records search by outside counsel during litigation.

Living things come in all shapes and sizes, with varying lifespans. All are identified and classified in their respective taxonomies by common characteristics and placed groups of species and sub-species. Similarly, records come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Paper, electronic, film, disk, clay models, tissue specimens, core specimens and more. Each is assigned a place it the company’s Record Retention Schedule where Record Classes (prescribing retention) are established according to common characteristics and information content.

Records are an essential dynamic part of the operation of a company. Records document a company’s corporate existence, its learning, its transactions, its ability to develop and produce services and products, its possessions, and its satisfaction of legal and regulatory requirements.

The better the workforce recognizes the value of records, the stages of the record’s lifecycle, and the transition of a record from an asset to a liability, the better they will be able to actively participate in an information governance culture. Drawing parallels and using examples from the world around us can be very helpful in attaining that comprehension and participation.

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