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
– Financial management
Accounts and statements
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.