Records – are we storing for storage, or storing for usage?

I think this is a critical but not obvious question for Records Management.

I think that a lot of the time, we get focused on the technicalities of our profession – so we end up storing for destruction, storage (permanent retention) or so we can give the record to someone else (archive).

So what about usage? And users?

Most problems I encounter are problems related to getting people to use the system.

Despite that, we aren’t having problems getting people to store records. 

They store them on file servers, in their inbox, on their laptop, in dropbox and in 20 other places.

The one thing these systems all having common, is that the users get to organise their content for usage.

It’s not function-activity-transation, it’s “emails from CLIENT”.

What if we started with the question “what are your future information needs likely to be, and how can we facilitate that?”

Would that get us better results with users than “how do we comply with all relevant legislation, ISO15489, ISO16175 and the local metadata standards?”

It’s the difference between a system that stores five records a long way apart – when they are often used in conjunction, and another that says “here are the five records you regularly use, conveniently stored together”.

The problem with this idea, is that to function it requires a different input and exit path, and that’s not something around which our heads are easily wrapped, and not something that’s easy to design for.

The functionality to enable this is available in most records systems – in TRIM it’s user labels, in Objective it’s the handy, in explorer it’s shortcuts and the quick access bar.

The problem with these functions is that to work well, they require a user to think like a taxonomist and design a taxonomy for their job ahead of time, and then implement a structure that will help them do their job – which they likely don’t yet fully understand.

As well as not understanding the job yet, ordinary people also aren’t used to designing classification schemes or taxonomies. They don’t immediately think about their job in ways that expose their well structured information needs. What they typically do is keep things on their desktop, organise it a few times and eventually settle on something they like – order is emergent.

To me, this is another opportunity to move the needle just a little for records. It’s an opportunity to get people to see us as being there for them and not just people who built a system that they like, and enforce behavior that gives them little benefit. 

It does require us to go 1:1 – or at least 1:activity, and it does require us to invest time in understanding the information needs of the people we support every day. Ultimately though, if we can understand how their job is structured, and bring them structures that provide easy access to the information they use most, the records system will get used, because it will be useful, and the shortest path to what they want.

All it requires us to do is think about how we store information for usage. What that really means though, is how we store information based on the needs of other people, and my belief is that when they know we are thinking about how to help them, they will think about how to help us.

I know that a lot of people already do this – some of my earliest good recordkeeping moments came from people helping me with exactly this. For everyone else, it will make a difference to how the organisation sees you, and it takes records from being a time sink to being a source of value.

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