As we work to instill an Information Governance culture in our companies, we often have difficulty moving the workforce to the correct perspective of records and how they need to be managed. 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 communications and learning 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, let us assert again, that 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. They are created, have a useful life, and then “die” (no longer useful to the company). Having a lifecycle, represents that there is an end to the usefulness of a record. All records should be considered as lasting for a “period of time” – there are no permanent records. Companies that take or allow a “keep it all” approach to retention of records, 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. I digress, but we recently bought a tulip tree for our back yard. This is a magnificent tree, attractive in appearance, fast growing, growing up to 100 feet in height. If grown in optimal conditions, a tulip tree can live for 300 years. That’s a long time, many generations, but it is not permanent. Your company may be growing quickly, have a strong future, enduring many generations, but it won’t be permanent.
There are also records that have a very short life span. 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 life span”.
During their useful life, plants are pruned to keep them healthy and useful. So too there is value in “pruning” records during their useful life. Draft copies, earlier versions and duplicates 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.