Legacy Information Clean-up and Defensible Disposition: What to do if you do not have a filing plan?

Posted on June 18, 2013

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There is more than one reason to create a filing plan for your organization. Every business or program must address well-defined objectives which will add value, either directly to the bottom line or toward the achievement of the organization’s goals and objectives.

Records management programs must manage organizational information so that it is timely, accurate, complete, cost-effective, accessible and useable. Better information, at the right time, makes better business.

Records management programs are not, however, generally an organization’s primary business, and even though records management programs don’t usually generate income there are plenty of reasons why they are essential.  Here are 10 reasons why you should consider having a filing plan and implement retention and transfer actions:

  1. 1.       To Control the Creation and Growth of Records
  2. 2.       To Reduce Operating Costs
  3. 3.       To Improve Efficiency and Productivity
  4. 4.       To Assimilate New Records Management Technologies
  5. 5.       To Ensure Regulatory Compliance
  6. 6.       To Minimize Litigation Risks
  7. 7.       To Safeguard Vital Information
  8. 8.       To Support Better Management Decision Making
  9. 9.       To Preserve the Corporate Memory
  10. 10.   To Foster Professionalism in Running the Business

Is this new? No, this list is actually from the 1995 book “Ten Business Reasons for Records Management in Information and Records Management: Document-based Information Systems” by Robek, Brown and Stephens. So, what has happened to records management in the last 17 years?

A business office with files askew stacked on top of file cabinets and in boxes everywhere creates a poor working environment. The perceptions by customers and the public, and “image” and “morale” of the staff, though hard to quantify in cost-benefit terms, may be among the best reasons to establish a good records management program.

These days, almost all information is electronically stored, we do not see or notice the data chaos, so we care less, until we get involved in active litigation or are placed under regulatory investigation.

Therefore when considering a legacy data clean up, creating a filing plan is a good starting point. But what do you do if you do not have a filing plan? or if you do not know where to start? There are two routes to success:

  1. Use a top down approach: use records management best practice and create a filing plan based on your organizational structure and document types. Then use regulatory and internal requirements to define retention policies and security access control.
  2. Use a bottom-up approach by identifying your servers and electronic data locations, use technology to collect, process and, automatically classify into commonly used corporate or government document types, document formats, security levels, departments, topics, time stamps, etc.

The top down approach will take longer to prepare, but you will be able to better manage the bigger picture and it is unlikely that you will overlook or miss anything important. Once complete, you can use content analytics to recognize document categories automatically and you can automatically process data quickly and economically. The risk however is that you may miss a specific document category, simply because you are unaware of its existence.

The bottom-up approach allows you to start immediately, you will spend more time initially looking at and working with the data, but you will very quickly gain a full and detailed overview of all potential categories and classifications from which you can derive a global filing plan. You will not miss any categories, because they all will show up when working through the data.

There is of-course a hybrid approach which is often the best choice. Here you combine the aforementioned two approaches and start with a small global filing plan (often organized by business unit, department, document type, security level or retention period) and expand over time. This will ensure that you identify non-existing categories during the processing of the legacy data.

In the past, I have often noticed that the absence of a (complete or up to date) filing plan was a major obstacle for companies to start legacy clean-up initiatives. They just do not know where to start and what to do with all data and as a result, they do nothing, leaving the problem to foster and become even bigger…

My experience however, is that there is no reason to worry about the non-existence of a filing plan. Creating one is much easier than one thinks and by using the right technology, success is closer than failure!

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