The fiction of sentencing on creation, and why the model is broken.

It think “sentencing on creation” creates a problem for records management. It creates a fiction that a sentence is applied that we can actually follow through on. The end result is quite different, and the economics of sentencing don’t change – and the economics of storage have, so sentencing has to as well.

The idea of sentencing on creation is fairly simple.

We apply sentences when a file is created based on the function and activity.

This means sentencing on creation is actually a prediction about what the file content will be.

And we know the prediction isn’t accurate.

So when we actually come to the point where we need to destroy, we can’t rely on the sentence, and we don’t press the button.

So if we end up destroying anything, it’s because we’ve sentenced at the content level.

In a paper world, there was a business case and it made sense to spend time appraising content for destruction or archival.

In the electronic world, that business case just doesn’t exist.

The hundred year cost of storing a document is below the cost of getting an appropriately skilled person to sentence it.

So we don’t do it.

Ultimately, the economics of sentencing and retention have to change if we’re going to keep doing it.

It’s already changing for consumer focused organisations with the consumer data right.

Outside that though, I have had many conversations with regulated organisations that have previously had destruction programs, but are now questioning whether they need to. They know that they can stay in compliance with the law as it stands by retaining indefinitely.

When I discuss this with people in the community, the conversation naturally switches to risks associated with retention. So far though, they’re fairly toothless in Australia. They’re also set to remain fairly toothless outside of a few consumer focused areas.

One of two things needs to happen.

We either need to rethink the model of retention and destruction altogether, or the economics needs to improve.

I think a foundational re-thinking is necessary.

When retention rules were established, the focus was very much on ensuring that evidence was retained for a suitable period. It’s understandable because it’s cheaper and easier to throw paper in a bin than to hire a team of people to catalogue and manage it. The economics of retaining were very much in favour of destruction.

The economics of storage have improved dramatically though, and are improving still. While the costs of sentencing have dropped marginally because there is less manual handling, in the end, there is still a person appraising a document.

Fundamentally, I think that at an organisational level, we all need to recognise that sentencing is an economically heavy activity, and reserve it for classes of record that are actually high risk.

Without a rethink, there are only really two viable options to continue destruction practices:

  1. Apply a “legal fiction” that the content reflects the file sentence – and hit destroy.
  2. Use technology to bring down the cost of sentencing at the content level to a point at which it becomes feasible.

The report missing from every records management system

Is the report about what’s not there.

Why can’t the records system have place holders for the documents that we know will appear as part of routing business processes? Then we could report on when they’ve been filled.

Yes, this won’t work in every case, and email is the hole in the entire information management universe, but when we get right down to it, business processes all exhibit some form of reliability.

There is initiating information, information generated during the process, and then some form of output.

So why doesn’t the records system give us a place to put each of them, and tell us when it’s missing? 

Every freedom of information request has an initiating request document and decision about whether the request is valid.

Every development application has an application document, and a determination.

Every investigation has an initiating event, an investigative log, and a report.

Why doesn’t the records system tell us when these things are missing?

Do you have a plan for the most important part of Records?

The most important part of records, is records culture.

I’ve seen organisations with ten year old, poorly performing records systems keep immaculate records because it was just “how we do things here”. 

When great record keeping is “how we do things here”, staff just do it, and records managers get to spend time on projects that matter to the organisation. 

So what’s your plan for culture?

What every records system specification gets wrong.

Is that it doesn’t focus enough on quantitative analysis of tasks based on their frequency and time taken.

Think of the following two functional requirements:

  1. Must provide for storage of records.
  2. Must provide role based access.

Equal weight.

Here’s the problem.

If it takes 30 seconds to store a record.

And 4 hours to configure a users access permissions.

The cost to the organisation of storing records will still be tens of thousands of times higher over the life of the system.

So we give equal weight to factors of unequal cost and value.

And we’ll give a system that takes 30 seconds, and a system that takes 10 seconds the same score.

And then wonder about user adoption.

Thinking strategically about records and being underestimated.

Are your records good enough?

Good enough for what?

The good news, is that we all get to decide.

If our strategic goal is to tick a compliance box, “good enough” should be relatively easy to answer.

If our strategic goal is to ensure that information is only captured once and then reused, findability matters a lot.

If our strategic goal is to beat litigation, evidentiality is going to be our number one focus.

If our strategy is to use records as the foundation of competitive advantage, “good enough” will be harder still to define. Quality will matter a lot, and it’s likely that structure, placement and a hundred other things will too. 

And if we don’t have a strategy, and we haven’t made sure our organisation knows about it, whether our records are good enough will be determined by every Tom, Dick and Harriet who make unreasonable demands of us. 

And the worst case scenario is probably that they chronically underestimate us, and always get what they want because we didn’t show them a strategy that made us reach for whatever is next.

Records – why aren’t we recording the future?

I’ve been chewing on a series of posts for about a week now and I just can’t quite nail the full thought process behind them.

I have a belief that records achieves real value through a specific sequence:

  1. Record (past tense).
  2. Record in real time and drive action.
  3. Take the real time recordings and make them predictive.

Records should be catalytic.

What I mean by that is that having a record should prompt action of some kind.

The basis of this is that if it’s important, it’s a record. 

Data, information – who cares. 

Records are important.

So recording information entering an organisation, should prompt action – or else why would we bother recording it?

The shorter the window between receiving and recording – the faster the action that’s possible.

So we need to record first, and record in systems that allow the orchestration of a lot of actions. 

This is the essence of the move from Recording (past tense) to recording in real time – it’s the move from people doing things and then recording them, to people recording things so that action is then driven at scale by a system.

Simple example – a biosecurity officer who gets a notification of a bio-hazard will coordinate a group of people to perform actions – then record what happens. 

A system that records the notification in real time can drive the actions automatically, and at scale. When we do this, we remove the delay of waiting for a human to do things in serial, and we put them in a system that can do them in parallel.

I think once we reach that, the only logical step is to predict the future.

Because at this point, we know what people do with the information that comes into our organisation.

We know what the volume is.

We know who it goes to.

We should be able to harvest that information, and use it to predict capacity for the future, to analyse trends and stop problems before they happen.

Where I’m stuck, is in working out whether this is something that records SHOULD do. I feel like we’re treading dangerously close to IS/Analytics and Operations territory here. 

Should Records be advancing this area?

I’m not sure.

What I’m also not sure though, is who else is going to do it. So it’s an opportunity.

On structured data, there’s already lots of work in progress. 

In some ways, that represents a loss for records – because it’s work that could have become part of records and contributed to the value perception of records in the organisation.

On unstructured or semi-structured information, records are still the holders of the information, and very few organisations seem to be doing the work to harvest value back from it. So we could – and add another source of value to our kit bag.

But should we?

The measurement a records system needs to be effective

How clearly is a “fit for purpose” level of records system performance defined in your organisation?

One of the clearest correlations in any IT system, is the correlation between responsiveness, and usage. Systems that are responsive, get used – others don’t. 

Unfortunately there is a tendency in many organisations to buy a records system, sweat it until it breaks, and then buy it again.

The most common correlation I see in those organisations?

Is between performance and maintenance.

As soon as I hear “Our staff hate records”, I’m almost guaranteed to find a records software version that’s 5+ years old and hasn’t been maintained (if it’s been maintained, it’s often fine at that age).

There are always two ways to measure – 

  1. Listen to your users.
  2. Formally measure.

Users will tell you when a system isn’t performing – they’ll whinge. Unfortunately, whingeing is susceptible to the “it works for me” problem (who hasn’t had that from a manager before?) and is easy to ignore, mis-read, or to have management ignore.

Formal measurement is much harder to ignore. It’s also excellent because if you match system performance measures against key usage measures (ie. documents being checked in) you will find that there’s a certain point at which usage drops off dramatically (if you’re willing to let it get that far).

If your organisation understands the value of what records delivers, and gives you an appropriate maintenance budget, you’re in good shape.

Most organisations though, need to be shown that the lack of maintenance is having an impact. Measurement of records system performance will help you do that.

How to be serious about paperless office.

Remove all your printers.

Stop buying notepads and pens.

Stop paying for your PO Box.

Stop accepting information on paper.

That’s being serious about paperless.

It doesn’t say “we’re talking about this”.

It doesn’t say “change when you feel like it”.

It says “we’ve done it”.

It says “we’ve changed”

We spend so much time studying innovation, change and the latest methods for everything.

Sometimes I’m worried we overthink it.

We don’t need to solve every complex problem with a complex solution.