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Blog The Principles

The Retention Principle is really all about keeping things for the correct amount of time for federal, state, provincial, local and regulatory requirements. For instance, the normal process for retention in a records management program would be to list those records that have come up for disposition like accounting records that would be kept here in Canada for seven years based on CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) requirements. At the end of that time a list of those records that have met their chronological requirements would be created and ultimately signed off by the person responsible and at that point they would then be destroyed. The process should be consistently applied.

Retention is a very core principle in information management. The start of many consulting engagements is all about how long do we keep things and what do we do with them when the time is up.

Just to set the tone up front, there are basically two types of disposition criteria. The first is about the date of the file or document. In the previously mentioned example of disposition of accounting records, after 7 years the documents become eligible for disposition. The methods of disposition are likely shredding for paper documents and electronic destruction for electronic records. The other type of disposition is based on an event trigger such as end of contract, retirement or dismissal of an employee, etc. which then starts a clock running which eventually brings up the file for disposition. This could be something like we keep the information 10 years after an employee is terminated then destroy or three years after a contract expires prior to destruction. You get the picture. By the way, we really need to have a filing structure prior to attaching retention. These days the most widely used structure is a functional classification structure where a corporate function is defined and then activities within that function are specified. An example might look like this:

Records Management (program function)

  • Classification Structure Maintenance (sub-function)
  • Records Schedules Development (sub-function)
  • Schedule Development (activity)
  • Consultation (activity)
  • Schedule Approval (activity)
  • Schedule Dissemination (activity)

The other thing that is happening at present is that people tend to use a thing called the big bucket theory which means we lump several things into the same filing bucket that all have the same retention. So even if one of those things had a retention of a smaller number of years we would say ok to the longer period. Information management is a risk assessment process so if we have to keep information a little longer to facilitate a more minimal structure so be it.

I just have to add that records used to be the target for retention but we say today that all information of the corporation should have a retention number. So that means even if a document is not a record we will pick a retention number like 3 years and any information which is a non record will be up for destruction in 3 years. Lots to know, don’t you think?

Number 1 in the Maturity Model says that we don’t have a retention schedule and that everyone basically deletes information whenever they want to. This is a very bad position to be in. We have had many situations though when IT says to users “Get rid of some information or we will do it for you”. The usual position though is that corporations just keep buying more and more disc space since there are no rules and no orderly method to destroy information. Paper records are often stored in expensive office space or sent to record centres to sit forever since no corporate rules apply. Imagine how much that will cost over time?

Number 2 says that we still have a problem since we have a partial retention schedule but it is not complete and all departments don’t do things the same way. We also don’t update the schedule on a regular basis nor do we train our employees on the use or requirements of the schedule.

Number 3 in this Principle (the level we need to be at) indicates that we have a corporate retention schedule across the board and corporate policies and all the employees know what that means. I have to say at this point that most of the corporations in North America would be doing cartwheels if they were solid on this placeholder. If you are solidly here congratulations.

Number 4 says basically that the employees understand all of this and know where to put things away in our corporate structure. We also go over every retention code on a scheduled basis (usually every 2-3 years), senior management is committed to this and ongoing training on the retention schedule is available and scheduled.

Number 5 is where we get rid of all the information in the corporation and not just records (usually about 5 – 10% of the information is records). Senior management is really happy with all of this and everyone is doing everything really well and we are generally feeling good about everything.

I personally think that you should try to get retention on all the information in the corporation sooner than number 5 and likely as early as number 3. Why you say? Because information is growing at an exponential rate and we just have to make a stab at getting rid of it sooner.

Disposition is next and last of the principles.