Digital Recordkeeping

It is clear that since the early 1990s there has been a quantum leap in our ability to create digital information. It is also clear that we don’t know how to manage it.

Despite our best efforts the digital backlog is largely unmanaged, noisy and it continues to grow at a phenomenal rate.


Information explosion - It's simple math. There are more people producing more information in more formats. Employees are suffering from information overload and so are our traditional recordkeeping teams. There is just too much information to manage using traditional approaches!

Lagging technical systems - While tools for managing information are now being deployed they lag the tools that have been in employees hand for creating information by a substantial amount.

The first electronic records and document management systems (edrms) in Canadian government departments were introduced almost 10 years after public servants began creating digital records. It has taken a full 25 years to reach anything like a broad deployment of these tools.

Information culture - When EDRMS’ do come online they are faced with a culture challenge. Users are hesitant if not resistant to managing their own information. Nor do they necessarily understand “how this new technology helps them do their work”

The most important reason for our current predicament is that: We continue to manage digital records as if they were paper.

Disposition is all about paper

The central if not the defining element of the recordkeeping lifecycle is disposition, the process by which decisions about what business information to keep and what to delete are made.

Only the most valuable records are kept and the rest are deleted in order to clear the shelves of old paper and to free up space for new paper.

Without a robust disposition process, it is believed, the information backlog would soon exceed our limited space in storage cabinets and records rooms. This is undoubtedly true in the paper world and in the digital world it is true IF WE PRINT IT OUT.

Digital is different

But, digital information is not paper. It does take up shelf space. Digital memory has the capacity to store information and to contain the information explosion. On a single terabyte of information one can store 400,000 copies of war and peace.

Yet, even though digital information does not take up physical space, it takes up digital space. It is argued that, given the digital information explosion, even terabytes of storage won't be enough to keep up. The limits of digital storage will be pushed and the costs of incremental storage would spiral out of control.

There is something to be said for this. Buying fully costed storage (TCO) with backup and recovery factored in, can be tens of thousands of dollars per terabyte. Based on this alone, disposition remains a necessary element of the recordkeeping lifecycle.

The opportunity cost of disposition

But a rationale for disposition based on cost of storage alone ignores the much higher costs of running a disposition program.

When we consider the costs of setting retention schedules, identifying the Redundant, Obsolete and Trivial information in our systems and deleting it. The costs of purchasing incremental amounts of digital memory pale in comparison.

Cleanup days

A simple cleanup day scenario illustrates this point. Putting aside ongoing investments made in disposition across the board and throughout the year, we can create a scenario comparing digital storage costs with the cost of a just one cleanup day.

Cleanup days have been a long standing go-to for departments coming to grips with managing their backlogs. Ideally, every employee from top to bottom would spend the day sorting their information and throwing out ROT. At the end of the day and from then on the department would have a well managed information base...ideally.

For instance a cleanup day at a medium-sized federal government department with 5000 employees if you assume an average daily salary of 300 dollars per employee would be 150,000 dollars.

An estimate of the cost of storing new information assuming approximately 3 terabytes per year of fully costed storage would cost the department 30,000 dollars based on recent and admittedly rough estimates.

So the cost of disposition for a one day cleanup would surpass by a substantial amount the cost of buying several terabytes of fully supported storage annually.

The keep everything principle

This means that instead of implementing large scale cleanup programs and complex disposition authorities with even more complex governance, it makes more sense to keep everything.

Not everything everything but at least the information that is or ever was of business value to the organization: the ‘O’ IN ROT.

Getting rid of the Trivial and the Redundant still has some value in reducing noise and improving findability. And of course, where mandated by privacy and security legislation we will still need active disposition programs.

But the opportunities afforded by a keep everything principle are significant and can help to redefine the future for recordkeepers, information and knowledge management professionals

Resetting digital recordkeeping

Disposition, a process firmly rooted in a paper world, has distracted information professionals from alternative, relevant and more effective management and curation processes. Here are 3 things that we can do to add substantial value to the information management domaine:

  1. Manage digital information not paper. This may sound simple but it requires coming to grips with the properties and potential of digital information. It also requires understanding how established processes remain rooted in the paper.
  2. Rethink what to keep and what to delete. The keep everything argument doesn’t mean keep everything. Shoes, jokes, and transitory information should probably not be kept. It means keep everything that is or was of business value. In other words keep everything O and explore disposing of the R and the T.
  3. Define a curatorial role. One that looks to improve the findability of our business information through versioning, classification etc. and by fostering digital knowledge creation. A role that takes ownership of born digital tools such as search engine and AI systems as key curation tools.

Rather than spending resources on determining the future value of information and throwing out what we believe to be obsolete we treat all business information as valuable. And, we spend our energies on cleaning it, building information architectures and preparing knowledge for the coming AI revolution. A revolution that will be based in large part on the all those records and documents we had to throw out in the past.

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