Why SharePoint Records Management will struggle…

I recently got a lot of my old APS photos scanned, and I’ve been working my way through them all, trying to sort them out and arrange them. I’ve been doing this by, well, putting them in folders such as ‘2003-06 – French Alps Kayaking’. At the same time, though, I wanted to give my friends copies of the photo’s which they were in, and I did this by, well, creating another folder for each of them, and copying pictures into them too. Not dreadfully sophisticated.

A couple of my friends asked why I didn’t just use some albuming application, or something like Flickr, and tag the images. That way, I could browse by multiple criteria. And I’ve gotta say, it would be neat. However, I want to be able to look at these photos when I’m an old man. I mean, my grandfather was showing me pictures of when he was a kid – so that’s about 75 years ago. Does anyone consider 75 year survival times for digital media? Nope. But I suspect that file systems and JPEGs, even if they aren’t still in use, will be easier to migrate. Flickr? Well, obviously, no website has ‘Established 1932’ on it. I’m not sure I’d trust something like that to still be around. Other tagging and abluming products – again, I’m not convinced. I decided I’d stick with just folders.

This set me thinking about Record Management, and taxonomy vs tagging.

Tagging has a lot of benefits if you’re dealing with a lot of files. Essentially, you can have multiple views onto a pool of documents. That’s cool. And when we assign meta-data to a file (through use of Content Types), that’s sort of what we’re doing; enabling views onto a pool files. You can do that through either views on a list, or search, but the end result is pretty much the same.

Storing records by taxonomy alone has a number of issues – you have to be very organised, you have to make sure that people are saving to the correct location, multiple views onto the same files isn’t possible. But it has advantages too. It’s simple, and people can trust that the file is in a specific location, rather than something which may appear in a particular view.

And there’s the thing – simple, and trusted. And that’s what Records Managers like. They’re used to taxonomies of records; they call them File Plans. Heck, the practise of RM is usually doing in roughly the same way as filing cabinet, drawer, folder. The industry is used to its taxonomies, and used to things going in one location. Sure, just as tagging and taxonomy isn’t necessarily and ‘either/or’ proposition your RM system might be capturing metadata too – but for comfort and safety, Records Managers are always going to want a File Plan.

SharePoint’s record management doesn’t provide that. Sure, you can route content types to a particular library, and then place the files into automatically created folders, but that’s not really the same. And document libraries are awkward given the depth some File Plans go to. Given the idea that you’ll use search to find documents in your records repository, the position of the files in a hierarchy isn’t so important. And using search is, I think, a more realistic approach for a system with lots of records. But it means changing your approach to RM, it requires trust, and Records Managers are a naturally conservative bunch.

And that’s why I think although the technology is fine – fulfills the technical requirements and is probably more scalable – I don’t think it’ll catch on very easily. At least, not in UK Government. It’s a tough sell because it’s different, and isn’t as comfortable as simpler solutions.

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Why SharePoint Records Management will struggle…

5 thoughts on “Why SharePoint Records Management will struggle…

  1. I have come to much the same conclusions that you have.

    While digital media is wonderfully accessible, and websites more so, sites such as Flickr, and applications like Photoshop’s media manager are really only presentation applications.

    Of course JPG is not going to be around in 20 years time. Neither will Flickr (don’t hold me to these statements though).

    The problem is therefore how to store digital media long term. Somebody needs to invent a storage media that doesn’t decay (all the magnetic ones), or corrode (CDs and DVDs). I know they were experimenting with various plastics, but I don’t think any of that has got to market yet…

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  2. Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of tagging plugins for SharePoint (and thought that I could write my own too!) I think it’s a good idea, and conceptually it’s sort of how SharePoint works, given that it doesn’t do folder hierarchies well at all.

    However, I guess my point is, tagging doesn’t really fit with with the psychology of Records Managers (they like taxonomies), and there is no tagging system which we *know* will still be understood in 20 years. File systems, however, probably will be.

    Then again, SharePoint isn’t really using the file system for file storage anyway…

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