It’s time to start our ‘digital diet’

Neave's health diet (COPY 1/282 (335)

Neave's health diet (COPY 1/282 (335)

One or two of us were fortunate enough to attend the annual Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) Conference  in Brighton, on 19-20 May. One of the biggest themes running across the two days was the volume of digital information and the need to start disposing of what we don’t need.

As one speaker, Reynold Leming of Informu Solutions, put it, we are suffering from ‘information obesity’ and need to ‘go on a data diet.’ His session on how to implement retention was one of the most popular sessions that we attended (pretty much standing room only), which goes to prove that this is still one of the biggest issues we face in information management and we all are still looking for answers.

Worryingly, a joint survey carried out by Forrester and IRMS revealed that there is still a lack of knowledge about the volume of digital information. Many of the sessions picked up on the fact that keeping too much information impacts on our business efficiency, increases costs and impairs our ability to comply with legislation.

Christopher Wilcock, PricewaterhouseCoopers, stressed that e-discovery is a very expensive process, particularly when large quantities of poorly managed information are held. He argued that good information governance and getting rid of information that you no longer need can help your business run better and reduce the cost burden of e-discovery.

Enbridge Inc, who are in the process of a huge project to improve information management across the organisation, told us that they have moved away from a policy of ‘keep everything’ and have now carried out their first authorised destruction of records. Stephen Bonner, KPMG, challenged all records managers to save the day by identifying and safeguarding their organisation’s key data so that if the worst happens (a cyber-attack or data loss) they can be the hero by providing an authentic copy of the information the organisation most needs.

Whilst we all seem to agree that social media and other new content types are an important record of our business activities, the Forrester survey revealed that at present we are not applying retention/disposal to this type of information. There was concern that in not exercising some sort of governance over this information, we would repeat the mistakes that we have made in the past with email by treating it as something outside our normal information management processes. Stephen Bonner also flagged the dangers of social media to spread misinformation. This can have a significant impact when data is collated and feeds other systems – as happened when the Associated Press twitter feed was hacked and had a direct impact on Dow Jones.

So many emails, so little time

Email remains the thorniest of issues but some solutions are emerging. Often there is a need for a pragmatic and flexible approach. Several references were made to NARA’s Capstone approach where the email accounts of senior staff are kept in totality. Enbridge Inc has a policy to not keep records within their email system at all. They auto delete emails every 90 days which are then held in exchange. Staff are encouraged to tag emails that need to be kept as ‘records’ and they are moved to the ERM. They cleverly educate users depending on their preferred way of working.

James Lappin, Thinking Records, drew our attention to some work that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation have done around email. They have put controls on inbound and outbound emails and made it easy for people to select what happened to those emails, for example, whether to tag as a record. They also produce a digest each day to show teams exactly what emails have been sent/received and what had been done with them.

Often the theory of how you do things is quite different in practice, and implementing disposal will very much depend on the systems you use and the tools that you have at your disposal. Most of the speakers referred to the growing list of tools that can help – from plugins that enable retention/disposal to analytics that can help you to find out what information you have. There is no doubt that increased automation of the process is the way forward for digital disposal. Conni Christensen, Synercon, strongly felt that metadata was the answer to automating record keeping. One of the issues with traditional retention schedules is that they are designed to be read by humans rather than machines. She is currently working with the National Archives of Australia on a project to break these retention schedules down into units and make them machine readable.

So there was much food for thought and sessions like this are vital for us in keeping up with what is going on out there in the wider world of information management. We recently updated our own guidance on what to keep and disposal and will be continuing to improve and enhance this, in particular, through the inclusion of case studies. These web pages are a beta version at the moment so please do have a look and give us your feedback in the comments below.

Happy dieting…


  1. Julie Zielstra says:

    Facinating summary of the issues – and brilliant new web section for disposing of records!

  2. David Matthew says:

    Whilst I wouldn’t disagree with the issue of the amount of e-mails and digital documents, basically a very large photo-copier, that are currently kept there is the issue of destroying something that should have been kept especially on major issues, e.g. the 1901 Census digitisation project problems. It does seem to me that there is a huge difference between a private company’s archives and Central Government. One issue which TNA have been asked and which we are awaiting a response are the Disposal Schedules and making them public, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why in an era of ‘transparency’ they have not been made public, they were published in the 19th century.

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