When records retention or information management is discussed, the conversation eventually turns to the file plan, which describes where in a hierarchy any particular record should be located. File plans originated in the paper records era, when documents were stored in boxes on shelves. To find a record, you would determine what kind of information it is, apply the file plan, and look up the resulting number. The Dewey Decimal System (for those old of us enough to remember card catalogues in libraries) is an example of a file plan.
Although they served a purpose when information had to be searched manually, the problem with a file plan is that it is inflexible. If an invoice from the marketing department, were to be filed, it would likely be classified as a financial document, belonging to the marketing department, with a record type of “invoice”. That’s all well and good if you are looking for an invoice. However, if you are looking for documents that related to a marketing campaign, this invoice would probably escape your net. Electronic records, and electronic record keeping systems, all incorporate properties about individual records (also called metadata). These properties range from the date the record was created or modified, the type of digital file, the type of record, the author, the department, the purpose of the information (such as a marketing campaign), just to name a few. With many modern systems, the number of properties is unlimited.
Using record properties to locate information allows for much better organization. If all the marketing campaign records had a property relating them to their campaign, a simple search for the campaign would include all the related invoices. If finance needs to see the invoice, a search for invoices from the marketing department would reveal it. If records retention needs to identify old invoices for disposal, a simple search of modified dates and invoice types would reveal them. There is no need to fit the invoice into a rigid file plan, it can be stored anywhere in the digital system.
Our capacity to better tag content upon creation means that we can rely more on “search”, and less on “file”. And, if you are wondering when information management designers should be dropping the file plan and moving into the 21st century with search, the time is now.