To classify or not: records management vs user management

Ever since Euan Semple inveighed with his keynote speech at the RMS Conference in April on the potential of user-controlled electronic content management systems – Digg, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Google Docs, Blogging, Discussion Forums, Web 2.0, and all that internet schnazz I’d be lost without – there’s been a right hoo-har about the relevance of electronic document and records management systems – those systems that are controlled centrally in organisations and generally by a group of experts who control user behaviour consisting at least in part by a records manager.

Will users jump out of the constraints imposed on them by these EDRM systems and start using all those nifty Web 2.0 gadgets, thus letting an organisation’s valuable knowledge slip through it’s fingers?

Let’s get back to the basics of information theory. We can generally say an EDRMS requires the use of a hierarchical classification scheme – some semblance of a folder structure. Such a stepped classification scheme is referred to as a ‘pre-coordinate’ method for locating information. The most authoritative version of this was undoubtably the Library of Congress Subject Headings. It went into great detail about the difference between ‘Art, modern’ and ‘Modern art’ for instance – the definitions of which differed by semantics I could only just grasp. Many universities and research institutions continue to use it, but after filling five massive volumes of hair-splitting minutiae it folded as the course of international information dissemination exploded in the early 20th century.

The thinking behind such a pre-coordinate system is that information resides in one area first and foremost – and in records management that’s generally one of the ‘functions’ of an organisation, then in various sub-categories below that. Here is a very short example:

- Communicating internally

Software
Best practice
Policy

- Financial management

Accounts and statements
Asset management
Audit
Benefits and subsidies

Such a pre-coordinate classification system serves records managers so well one could think they’d dreamed it up to answer their retention scheduling and access control needs with no concern for the ease of the user. You wouldn’t be far wrong – many users don’t initially understand the Function-Activity-Transaction hierarchy and put the wrong documents into inappropriate places. The National Archives recognise this and cannot recommend such a hierarchy outright in their document on compiling a business classification scheme. The RMS Local Governement Group also have a number of hierarchies, one based on subject for ease of use that maps – with some inconsistency – to the functional classification scheme.

The alternative to a pre-coordinate classification scheme is a post-coordinate scheme – often referred to as tagging. This particular post is tagged as ‘Records Management’ and ‘Classification’, for instance. It’s a much simpler version, and allows users to attach keywords to documents from a number of areas. They don’t need to find a unique location to put the document since by adding tags, they’re effectively adding multiple locations for it to go in. Web 2.0 tends to use tagging a great deal, and you can see this in a number of email and bookmarking applications such as Gmail and del.i.cio.us.

This is great for the user, but where does it leave the records manager? How can we attach a retention schedule or access rights to a particular document based on ‘tags’?

Records managers will need to look elsewhere to find answers to these questions. Chiefly, EDRMS systems need to be developed to allow Web 2.0 functionality – the ability to rate documents without refreshing the page, and tagging, for instance – whilst developing away from requiring users to ‘file’ their documents. This process needs to be done automatically based on (a) the user priviledges and department and (b) the content and properties of the document. We’ll be looking into some of these issues in the next post at the Information Handyman.

6 thoughts on “To classify or not: records management vs user management

  1. Interesting post. The question of whether we can change EDRM systems to allow web 2.0 functionality is a very interesting one. It certainly has some merit by appearing to provide users with access to the new technology they crave, whilst doing so in a safe, controlled, and centrally dictated manner that will satisfy the records manager.

    The success of such an approach would appear to be largely dependent on 3 main factors (though I am sure there are plently more once you get into the detail!)

    1. Are EDRM vendors able to adapt their product sufficiently to move in this direction? It would need a substantial revision of the basic architecture underpinning most systems and it will be a brave vendor to move beyond what the testing regimes say is mandatory in such a radical way.

    2. Will records managers be willing and able to be flexible in how they approach the management of such resources. It may well be that the kind of detailed micro-management we are used to and aspire to is not possible. Records management may need to operate in a very different way in order to be effective.

    3. Will users be willing to leave behind their favoured web.20 application/service provider and adopt the official, authorised version? The rate of development by small, agile web2.0 houses will always exceed what the organisation can deliver so there will be an inevitable sense of the organisation’s offerings always playing catch up and looking slightly ‘old hat’. Unless the organisation is also going to open up its tools for use by their staff in their domestic lives it is also likely that staff will lose some of the familiarity with technologies that they are using in both their domestic and work lives (i.e. Flickr).

    Cheers

    Steve Bailey

  2. Not sure what you mean about Library of Congress Subject Headings “folded as the course of international information dissemination exploded in the early 20th century”. This publication is published annually (2007 is the 30th ed), and is used in thousands of libraries (both English and non-English speaking). It remains the most authoritative source. It’s a little suprising you cannot understand a simple hierarchy of related terms. In your example about art, one is a preferred term and one is a non-preferred term. What could be simpler?

  3. Paul – thanks for the comment. It’s in need of a response, albeit delayed.

    I made a mistake about the LCSH – it was the series authorities that have been discontinuted. I note however in a statement adopted by the American Library Association on the 12th of May 2006 they recorded that:

    “officials at the Library of Congress were indicating publicly that the Library is actively considering alteration of other cataloging practices, such as abandonment or radical alteration of application of the Library of Congress Subject Headings.”

    I’m pleased to hear they are continuing to produce them. My example about Modern Art was similarly wrong – I think I had meant Art, Modern – 20th Century and the related term Modernism (Art) both of which have since had their almost identical scope notes removed.

    My point, however,was that there are a multitude of ‘related terms’ within LCSH that often make it difficult to classify a document into one or the other. Take for example ‘Libraries and Readers’ (about services for users involved in specific activities) and ‘Reference services (libraries)’ (which come without a scope note). How would one classify a book entitled ‘Reference services for readers’? Though after some debate I’m sure we could agree on the correct classification, such a debate just makes things difficult for the untrained user of an electronic content management system (rather than a highly trained user of the LCSH). And where the system has made things difficult for the user is a failure of records management.

  4. Good article. What do with fileplans?

    Are we assuming (this includes myself) that the fileplan is forced on us so that records managers can control access and retention more easily? From talking to vendors and search fans this seems to be the belief; ‘ordinary’ business users have to tolerate a filing structure that reflects old school archiving ways of working so that the records management community can do what they do with physical files but in an electronic environment.

    Valiant vendors may even attempt convince corporate records managers that EDRMS document profiling templates are the best way forward, and there will be some locking of horns over that. After all, who needs a fileplan when you have advance search functionality?

    I have a hunch: most users prefer to organise their documents in folders, and will even browse a fileplan to get to the information they are working on. They do however prefer fileplans they have created, ones that reflect their way of thinking (not a records managers way of thinking). Fileplans allow us to file related documents together, without having to load the document title with context, therefore, the fileplan enables us to find related documents more quickly than a search tool could.

    This habit of using a fileplan to create context (audit trail) has its challengers, who favour tagging. Do we load context into the document title, or into other metadata fields e.g. EDRMS Project – ITT – Vendor X – clarification meeting 01Jul2009, or do we just stick all documents from Vendor X to do with the EDRMS project in folder for quick retrieval, and filing?

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