What Woolworths and project management can teach us about the iron rules of classification

Something that has made me alternately frustrated, depressed and extremely angry in the last few months is that there appears to be NO research about the impact of classification scheme design on records management system usage.

In the face of no research, I’ve had many arguments with long standing practitioners who tell me that the practices we use are “well proven” – while conveniently ignoring rates of systematic control of records between 10 and 20%, and the FACT that when you put people on a windows file server and let them organise their own information, they happily implement a classification scheme that makes sense to them and use it. Incidentally, the classification scheme they are using is very different to the one we try and implement for them.

The most infuriating piece of practice I keep running into concerns variable terms and non-variable terms. No one in records management seems to like the idea that there’s a variable term above a non-variable term.

This means that we try and implement a project classification scheme that makes many people go somewhere else. The example that keeps coming up is project management.

Project managers universally (in my experience) want –

Project name –> Project stages

This is how they think about their work.

What we seem to want them to deal with is

Project Stage –> Project Name.

This is apparently considered “best practice” and “proven.”

It makes project managers go somewhere else – where they inevitably create a file structure that goes Project name –> Project Stage.

This structure is also copied in EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE that I’ve ever seen. None of them start at stages and move down to projects. NONE.

To recap –

  • Project managers organise their information in a certain way.
  • Project management software vendors organise the information in the same way.
  • Records managers do it differently.
  • Records managers can’t get project managers to use their systems.
  • The way records managers do it is “proven” and “best practice.”

We could argue about the virtue of a static number of stage files above a potentially unlimited number of project files, but that is an academic argument that still sees project managers not knowing how to deal with what we’ve created and going somewhere else.

We could also argue about the problems of variable terms above fixed ones – but it is something we do for our convenience and the convenience of system vendors, not the people that we actually need to use the system.

Lets move on to woolworths.

I am 100% comfortable saying that their classification scheme does not stand up to records best practice. Simply looking at their drinks shows you that they’re not interested in a “best practice” classification.

You’ve got Coke in the “drinks” section with 180kj/100ml of energy. Monster in the “energy drinks” section with 9kj/100ml of energy, milk (a drink) in the dairy section with 247kj of energy/100ml, orange juice (drink is broader than juice) in the “juice” section with 180kJ/100ml.

So why do they organise their stores like this?

Simple – they’re in it to make money, and they know that organising the stores like that is more effective.

And to me, that should be the iron rule of classification.

Do what is effective.

If you implement best practice and usage goes down, back it out. If you implement terrible classification practice and usage goes up – stick with it.

Records management is not struggling because we have a shortage of best practice.

Records management is struggling because we can’t get people to use our systems.

We should take a leaf out of woolworths book and organise the information we have in the way that gets us what we want.

And what about classification to ensure we have good archives and can classify according to disposition needs?

The problem we have at moment is getting people to put information in the systems. If it never gets into the systems, it’s never going to get to archive, and if we never get control of the information disposition and our profession become irrelevent. It has to get in the system first.

The only iron rule for classification scheme development should be “do what gets people using what you’ve built.”

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