Can Records Management Save the World?

No, but it can help.

"Records management?" you say. "It seems so last century—racks of boxes of paper, as far as the eye can see. Records management might save us from lawsuits, but how can it save the world?" Consider this thought experiment: Connect two apparently unrelated dots named "Records Management" (RM) and "Green." Here are two questions about the first dot: What is a record? Do you know and understand your firm’s records management policy?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s restrict the experiment to only electronic records. Definitions vary, but most of them include these elements: recorded information, independent of binary format, created or received as evidence of important historical events, and meeting regulatory or legal obligations. Given the proliferation of information formats, electronic records include not only conventional office documents but also webpages, audio, video, instant messages, email, and too many others to name. Don’t confuse documents with records. Some documents are records because they meet the criteria. Working drafts of documents, by contrast, are usually not records. Most records are documents, especially if you define "document" broadly to include rich media objects and messages of all kinds.  Thus even a podcast can be a record.

The vast majority of the clutter on local and network drives may contain records, but most are drafts or orphans that nobody recognizes and nobody dares to remove. Besides, it doesn’t cost anything to leave them there, beyond the difficulty of sorting through the clutter, right? When I use document management systems, I create versions frequently so I can see the history of changes, even though—truth be told—I very seldom need to do that. But again, my versioning practice doesn’t cost me anything, and most document management systems have a search facility, even though other repositories may not. This has led to a need for responsive cross-repository searches called e-discovery that is now emerging.

How much storage space do electronic documents occupy? I’ve tracked these trends for years, with consistent findings: The growth always increases, and the growth rate is exponential. Since governments everywhere continue to enact regulations of all sorts affecting records, in almost every line of business in virtually every enterprise, exponential growth applies both to records and files. Managing this growth and reducing legal exposure requires understanding and following your records management policy, yet this is difficult. Many RM policies are rooted in the paper world.

Upgrading these policies to include electronic formats is like chasing shadows away from the lamppost—never catching up as new formats emerge. Most of us resist abiding by policies we don’t understand or that seem irrelevant, even when the policy recommends deleting documents and emails that are not records and are no longer needed. Even good records management and file housecleaning policies are often inconsistently followed.

Yet no tree grows to the moon, and exponential growth is inherently self-limiting. That truism leads to the second dot: green, shorthand for an emerging environmental consciousness as well as concerns about limited resources of all kinds, including fossil-based energy and electronic storage. And yes, "green" can also mean "cash," and saving cash is always in style. Cost savings, even without other shades of green, make it easier to connect the dots.

Part of a growing green problem has been the sheer success of technology. Systems are running faster and storage capacities double so often we take them, like electricity from wall sockets, for granted. However, the cost and energy constraints to create, maintain, and back up all those draft documents and electronic records may themselves  be reaching a tipping point. I’m noticing an increasing chorus of estimates suggesting that within a year, up to 50% of all data centers will have insufficient power or cooling capacity to keep running reliably. That percentage seems high, but even if it is only 5%, the implications are shocking: unreliably managed or delivered content, records, and otherwise.

So can records management save the world? Following good records management practices—including deleting unnecessary files—can reduce the demand on data storage and information management systems, thus reducing their impact on resources of all kinds. If the tipping point of power outages or data centers at capacity does occur, the importance of records management will change from a good legal strategy to a business-continuity imperative: Connect those dots!