3 steps to effective records retention

Good information is fundamental to good decisions.

In my last two articles, I wrote about what I called the “Corporate Cigar Box,” the ever-growing collection of records and information that places increasing burdens on corporate IT departments and consumes a surprisingly large share of the overall budget. There, we discussed the need for accountability and policy, and I offered some high-level suggestions on how to begin to get a handle on the problem of unneeded data.

This time, I want to take the discussion to the next level, and suggest some specific steps that companies should follow to begin to better manage records and information, and reduce the amount of what a very smart woman once told me was the “OC,” or “obvious crap.”

1. Update Your Records Retention Schedule

You might not have looked at it in a number of years. It might be collecting dust in a notebook on the back of a shelf of a basement storage room. But, unless you are a very young company, you have a records retention schedule, and it is time to update it. (If you aren’t a very young company, never fear. There are dozens of templates available from a variety of paid and free sources that you can use as a starting point. See, e.g., http://www.byui.edu/Retention/formsList.htm and http://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcpdf/0111.pdf

Before you can ever hope to effectively manage records and other corporate information, you must know what you need to manage, which means having an accurate and complete schedule of corporate records. And, though updating the old schedule or creating a new one is real work, it can be done. Each department must be tasked with identifying the records that it creates and maintains in order to do business. And that information needs to be collected in a schedule. Getting it done will require that executive mandate I mentioned in my last article.

2. Map Your Information Systems

I’ve mentioned before that effective records and information management is a multi-disciplinary problem in today’s world. In a very similar way, records and information is a multi-dimensional challenge as well. Decisions about what records to keep and for how long are content-driven. However, the same is not necessarily true for information systems.

Increasingly, mixed-use repositories such as email archives and collaboration tools constitute the primary consumers of storage space.  One of the values of such systems is that they are content-agnostic. You can store anything in SharePoint, which is, well, the point. Therefore, it will be critical to eventually map the record content to the storage location within your information systems, and that begins by mapping the information systems themselves. The good news is that those smart folks in IT are already ahead of you. Chances are good that you’ve got a change management database (CMDB) or similar application or document that may well serve.

3. Update Your Records Retention Schedule

No, that’s not a typo by the folks at Inside Counsel. I really am repeating myself. Now that you’ve got an accurate schedule of the company records and a map of the systems within which they live, it’s time to transform the retention schedule into something really useful. Because the location dimension is essential to your ability to manage records, your records retention schedule needs to include that dimension as well.

It is time to trash the old word processing document or spreadsheet, and move your retention schedule into a relational database. You might be able to leverage existing systems (such as your CMDB), or you may have to build or buy something new, but moving the retention schedule from a two-dimensional construct to a database environment will vastly improve your ability to make effective decisions about records and information strategy. For example, understanding the retention periods for all the different records contained in a mixed-use environment may enable you to simplify the retention requirements for all those records, allowing you to more easily leverage technology to facilitate the disposition decisions for individual records and eliminating the burden on individual users.

The ability to creatively examine your records storage practices along both the content and location dimensions simultaneously opens the door to more creative decision-making. In addition, it will greatly facilitate maintenance of the schedule on both dimensions. As new information repositories are created and old ones retired, the records retention database will give decision-makers visibility into the content of those systems that simply doesn’t exist otherwise.

These three steps will create the foundation for effective records and information management decision-making, because good information is fundamental to good decisions. Next month, we’ll consider how to make and implement some of those decisions, such as, “What can we get rid of?”

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Dennis Kiker

Dennis Kiker is a partner at LeClairRyan in Richmond, Va. He works with corporations and government agencies to facilitate and improve information management and discovery response...

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