Taxonomy and Records Management

Taxonomies, as hierarchical vocabulary structures, clearly define relationships between words and concepts. If a taxonomy is implemented and governed properly, there is a high degree of control over how terms are added, modified, and deleted. Terms used for content tagging can also be controlled in how they are selected and applied. Similarly, records management is a discipline requiring high control over documents meeting legal compliance. An ARMA fact sheet defines records management as “the systematic control of records throughout their life cycle.”

Strangely enough, taxonomies and records management remind me of the Panopticon, a prison imagined by the English social theorist, Jeremy Bentham. Let me explain. The Panopticon is a circular architectural structure with an observer in the middle able to keep surveillance over many prisoners at one time without the prisoners knowing who was being watched at any given moment. This allowed for great control at great economy.

As a liberal with world views shaped by films of the 1980s riddled with paranoia about governmental control and espousing an anti-Orwellian future as imagined in 1984, the concept of control of any kind stirs my blood. The Panopticon could very well be the source of Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron, presented in film as aloft in a tower—a kind of all-seeing eye with a 360 degree view. However, and here’s the connection, the control of records in an organization supported by a taxonomy structure can mean the difference between being fined millions of dollars and providing information during a legal discovery process. This by simply managing which information should be retained, retrieved, and/or disposed of properly and in a timely fashion. There is the bridge between the Panopticon and taxonomy and records management; now to build the bridge between taxonomy and records management.

Taxonomy typically is associated with information architecture, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see the connection between structured disciplines and architectural structures. A very good article I read online summed it up as follows: “As the foundation architecture for managing documents within an enterprise, a taxonomy is the foundation architecture for records management” (Chosky, Carol E. B. Information Management Journal. Nov./Dec. 2006. This article is a thorough overview of establishing a taxonomy in light of records management.

Taxonomy can touch all aspects of content management, including the specific task of managing records. For example, the creation of a records management retention schedule is similar to the creation of a taxonomy. Records are categorized into “buckets” based on organizing principles such as document type, business unit, or, less often, retention period. The terms used in records management are also terms in the taxonomy structure, applied to documents at the time of creation based on the tagging needs of the organization and the technology employed to manage records. Although there is blanket regulation affecting the documents held by organizations in industries such as finance and insurance, the specific business processes and company goals will influence the way the taxonomy is organized and implemented and how records are managed.

Another example, and oft overlooked (as information architecture is mainly electronic), is the use of taxonomy in conjunction with the records management retention schedule to track physical documents. Whether it is because documents have not been converted to electronic format or because it was required to keep them in physical form, boxes of documents must also be accounted for in records management and can possibly use a format or location type term to be found in the taxonomy, such as “print,” “box,” or “storage.”

Challenges that organizations typically face for both taxonomy and records management are

  • the lack of a taxonomy or record retention schedule
  • existing taxonomies or record retention schedules not used effectively
  • taxonomies and record retention schedules which have not been aligned

This is a brief introduction to taxonomy in the context of records management. In future blogs, I will discuss the above challenges and other considerations when implementing taxonomy to support records management.

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