Establishing Records Management at Brandeis—The First Eighteen Months

May 28th, 2015


George Despres, University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

What a year and a half it has been! The Brandeis University Records Management (URM) program has much in front of it, but some solid foundational accomplishments behind it. As we know, developing and growing a records program is challenging:

  • most people don’t get our objectives despite the fact that records, their mismanagement, and associated risks are ubiquitous—witness the daily news.
  • “volume, velocity, and variety,” along with fast and fluid enabling technologies, make electronic records control or IG increasingly difficult—let’s be honest, we are reduced to mitigation (realist, not defeatist).
  • the many fronts that records touch within the organization make us feel like we need an army to even chip away at solutions. And of course, we’re all fully staffed, right?

While the inaugural eighteen months for the URM program here have not been perfect, a broad retracing of them may be helpful to others planning or beginning to execute programs at their institutions.

Learn the Institution

It begins with fact-finding: gathering information, learning the institution, meeting with stakeholders from various functions. We held over fifty stakeholder meetings between October of 2013 and April of 2015. These ranged from one-on-ones to a surprise fifty-person audience of administrators for an entire school (my meeting invitation indicated eight people attending, and I walked into a function hall—should have cased the joint). We were proactive with offers to present on the program at any venue. We made early acquaintances with Legal and Information Security leaders. Socializing the program, covered in an earlier piece, consisted of walking through stakeholder needs and processes and offering helpful services, so that our stakeholders were initially treated like clients, not delinquents. First impressions are everything and best made by offering assistance. Another point to consider is stakeholder busy seasons—I learned the hard way that it was unwise to request information from our registrar before commencement, when he is slammed verifying student credentials. An equivalent would be asking Procurement people to collaborate at the end of the fiscal year.

The institutional intranet is gold: manuals walk through key functions and records transactions; departmental service pages enable you to prepare for stakeholder meetings in advance and hit the ground running with targeted questions; organization charts tell you who is where and under/above whom while bunching institutional functions for the schedule; online forms enable you to begin compiling the document type inventory and to determine what paper forms can be replaced by electronic ones; policies and procedures trace processes, roles, governance, and how things should be done; and institutional mission and values help you to align the communication themes of your program. Books on institutional functions, like finance, law, student records, HR, advancement, etc., in higher education (substitute your vertical market) were invaluable not only in getting up to speed with the industry, but also in empathizing with various university functions and their professionals. It’s about points of view.

Services and Stakeholders

Our initial client service engagements—managed offsite storage and retrieval, secure document shredding, digitization, and, recently, electronic redaction—began in March of 2014. Since then, we grew to over forty-five service engagements with departments and people from across university functions, academic and administrative. Most of these engagements were outcomes of the initial stakeholder meetings, but several came to us by word of mouth. Many are ongoing. We’ve placed over 1,000 boxes in managed offsite storage, and we’ve sited twenty secure, sensitive-document shredding bins across campus, emphasizing the difference between these and open recycle bins. January customer satisfaction survey results, though modest in size (twelve respondents), showed that 100% would recommend our services to others in the university. Yes, my management chain is aware of this.

Supporting and maintaining these services has been clumsy at times. Visiting vendor drivers don’t know the Byzantine campus layout. I’ve frequently compensated by shoving boxes into my car and shuttling them to and from client buildings within the labyrinth (and losing my precious parking space). Substitute drivers from our shredding vendor (which, oh, by the way, just merged not seamlessly with another vendor) need to be manually escorted to all of the secure shredding stations on campus, since the directions couldn’t possibly be written or verbally communicated (“go by the big oak tree and kind of bear right… well, it looks like one building but there are really two named buildings within one….” etc.). In one case, we had an oversized vendor truck get stuck between a building, a ledge, and a tree for about twenty-five minutes. Another challenge has been queuing up boxes for vendor services—some of our clients have asked for services but lacked the resources to prepare their own records for storage or scanning services. We enlisted student assistant labor to address some of these instances, but there have been “we’re too-busy” bottlenecks delaying opportunities to get boxes out the door and to the vendors.

Electronic Stuff and Leadership Buy-in

I understand that all of this talk about boxed physical records will make many twenty-first-century records professionals cringe. So: with document scanning services, we were digitizing for clients, but then in some cases being asked what to do with the digital files. Alongside legacy Google Drive and Dropbox environments, Brandeis has established a Box environment as a competitively secure, yeoman’s, cloud-based file sharing and collaboration option, with some lightweight “document management” capabilities and architecture, like task assignment, open APIs, a growing app plug-in environment and a promising roadmap with respect to information lifecycle management.  ILM was absent from, false, or shabby in many last-generation electronic document and records management products.  And we communicate directly with Box product reps who will responsively speak with you even if you’re not part of a Fortune 500 company (no, I’m not on Box’s payroll, and much remains to be seen from them). Again, it’s mitigation, if not a 100% elegant solution.

In terms of program growth, a key turning point for us was a records program briefing to our senior leadership arranged by my CIO last June. We are very fortunate to be developing the program at a time when many changes are happening and are relatively well received by key decision-makers.  One highlight of the leadership briefing was a picture slide that showed a 1994 student paper headline about confidential records found in an open recycle bin. Next to this image was a photo of tumbled boxes from one of many basements we are surveying after fifty years of boxed records drop offs. The images won a collective gasp from the leadership team.

Any institution with decades of minimal records management will have similar photo ops, and no sane and responsible person wants to be associated with or dismiss these images. Pictures are powerful, and the outcomes were significant. Deans of the colleges were especially receptive—we initially thought that the independent academic units in a distributed institutional culture would be tougher to engage on the subject of records control—but I was almost immediately put in touch with people who gave me audiences in all of our schools, which now constitute half if not most of our service engagements. To be fair, some luck and right-place-at-the-right-time has assisted us in advancing the program. Full support from my management and a reasonable operational budget have also been key. We can’t assume that these pieces are in place at other institutions.

Communication Tools and Policy

Underlying communication tools were leveraged early in the game to support the program: a “LibGuide” (Library Guide) reference page with an overview of the program and guidelines, an email service account, a listserv, to which I push a highly selective and small subset of records management news kindly brought to us by Peter Kurilecz and many others, a more formal intranet presence, under construction, and this blog. All of these get the URM word out in one way or another. Others, like brief and bang-bang, YouTube-style training videos, are planned.

Our retention schedule is one area in which I am disappointed with our progress. We’ve populated a few items, but other program activities have occupied the bulk of our time expenditure, and some collaborators have, with reason, delayed the process. We will be focusing on filling it out over the next phase of our work, as retention policy and getting people to follow it is core to the program. Collaborating with stakeholders to build their respective departments’ policies will help to ensure compliance, since they sign off before final legal review, and our services have already established bonds with many of them. The bottom line is that we can’t do everything, especially when our dedicated staff consists of one part-time student assistant and me. But retention policy is one area to catch up in order to keep the evolving program balanced.

The Way Forward, and a Challenge to Colleagues

Other next steps include forms management, especially eradicating paper forms; knowledge management guidance; TAR/text mining to cluster legacy content for disposition; Gmail curation; and developing needs assessments, requirements, and use cases for electronic document and records management systems, piloting with our Advancement department (vendors: please hold off for now). Our approach is obviously to plan but to also look for relatively quick, point-to-point wins that don’t require lots of posturing, hot air meetings, rabbit holes, plans of the plans, and 100% perfect conceptual frameworks that are never realized.  This approach has served us well to date.

So, that’s where we are. I hope that some of this will resonate with, if not help, colleagues fighting the same battles. I believe that we need less generic “Big Data!” “BYOD!” “ROI!” sales-type and corporate-heavy rhetoric and more institutional case studies and stories in the open RM literature (and outside of the expensive RM conferences). We need more tales from the trenches that can scale or be adapted to other institutions, including modest ones. What are we doing now, on the ground? Where are YOU at?

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Our Turf?

February 21st, 2015


George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

Last fall, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, was released in the United States. This book passed under my radar until a kind colleague pointed out that, in one chapter, Kondo dispenses personal record retention and categorization guidance. Kondo is “an organizing consultant and author.” The book, translated from Japanese to English, reads like rather quaint, Emily Postian, self-help prose, and it is no info governance (IG) monograph. However, this bestselling title sold over 2 million copies worldwide (as of last year), with releases in Korea, Germany, the UK, the US, and probably elsewhere. So, Kondo has reached more people with her specific retention advice than most if not all of us will likely advise in our professional lifetimes.

Yes, there is a distinction here – we advise and act on institutional records at professional organizations from the IG standpoint, while Kondo addresses documents in private closets, trunks, boxes, letter holders, drawers, racks, and cabinets, on coffee, dining room, and end tables, countertops, in bathrooms, basements, attics, and elsewhere. Maybe in car trunks, too. And anyone can write a book about anything. Still, as a records professional, I’m left feeling like this “organizing consultant” is somehow stealing my (our) fire. I hope that you’ll see why below.

About the Book

Kondo’s personal record advice appears in a “Sorting Papers” section of a chapter titled, “Tidying by Category Works Like Magic.” As her chapter title indicates, Kondo emphasizes categorization as a means of getting through personal records and papers. Okay, so far. Her first categorization splits records to be saved from records requiring action. Everyone, she says, should keep a “needs attention” box for the action files. This box should be kept empty, echoing David Allen’s anti-procrastination approach to clean email inboxes in Getting Things Done. Kondo advocates Big Bucket practice, telling readers to “refrain from subdividing” their main record categories. That said, she recommends subdividing papers “to be saved” based on their expected use frequency.

As for specific documents, Kondo urges her audience to keep all product warrantees in one clear container, avoiding complicated subdivisions, since they will be infrequently referenced anyway. Expired warrantees should be weeded only when one happens to be spending the time reviewing a warrantee in the collection, or adding one. Kondo prescribes one year retention for holiday greeting cards “to confirm the sending address the following year.” She instructs us to throw away most product manuals, which can be found online or simply be ignored by fixing the product yourself and “fiddling with the [affected] machine” (!): “Take a look at them [manuals]. Have you ever used them?” We’ll store this tip in the chuck-it-and-cry-tomorrow bin.

One flimsy appraisal lynchpin underlying Kondo’s advice is to keep records and things only if they “spark joy in your heart” (yes, I’m serious). This premise is highly subjective and relative advice that a hoarder or crazy person or perfectly sane person might construe as “all records,” including their 2003 cinema ticket stub for Dumb and Dumberer and the takeout menu from a deli that closed in 1986. Can you imagine instructing your C-Suite executives to maintain only the records that spark joy in their hearts? Even as a prescription for personal records in the home, this advice is murky at best and the efficiency equivalent of peeling raw carrots with a dull butter knife at worst. Conversely, Kondo goads her readers to “limit yourself at first to sorting papers that give you no thrill at all,” as if that button is simply turned on and off, and as if “joy sparking” records will never be interfiled with “no thrill” records in the first place. Furthermore, something that sparks joy on a Tuesday could easily find the no thrill trash bin on Friday, depending on one’s mood. The operating mentality is to let emotion or lack thereof drive personal record prioritization, categorization, and disposition. Huh.

While hoarding (compulsive or indifferent) has been at least acknowledged by the IG community (e.g., here and here), some of us tend to stop at this point and view it as an annoying fait accompli, and organizing professionals and psychologists tend to take over this space. Although we may advocate for record destruction (even this may be changing), many or most of us don’t expend much energy on the psychology of why people want to keep things “just in case,” in order to combat it. Our job is to say: “You can’t / shouldn’t over-retain it, period” (perhaps a couple of hoarder psychology questions would be in order for Part 4 of the CRM exam?). To her credit, Kondo takes on this over-retention tendency by encouraging destruction of some junk. She argues (though without much supporting evidence) for destruction of most conference material: “People often insist, ‘I want to restudy these materials sometime’ but most never do.” She forcefully implores readers to delete credit card documents, used checkbooks, and pay slips, without any acknowledgement of the need to securely eradicate the PII therein (whoops). To be fair, shredders are mentioned elsewhere in the book. Kondo refers to hoarding “lawyer clients” she had who kept asking, somewhat out of professional character, “What if this document is needed in court”? They were eventually cured of their malaise. The more I read through Kondo’s instructions, the more I came away with the notion that this or some of this is our business, or that it should be.

Professional Ownership?

Kondo’s book is popular and successful, and her home “records management” prescriptions are intended as part of a broader life organization and cleansing effort. There is a therapeutic subtext in her book that is, I think, remote from the main thrusts of our profession. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Her Sorting Papers advice and mis-advice demonstrate that much of our knowledge and expertise have not reached the personal record self-help arena and that, conversely, the mass market fails to refer to us when we can really help or better advise.

Perhaps we can take some of this space under our wings by dispensing personal record guidelines to our institutional communities as a bonus service, if we haven’t yet. Some of us, as the retention experts, may have already received informal water cooler requests for guidance on office colleagues’ personal papers (speaking of tax season in February). As if IG program development, big data, text mining and predictive analytics, IoT, mobile/BYOD, FOIA, eDiscovery, PII security, cloud, and social media aren’t enough to track, we should boldly expand our agenda in order to cover the massive – no, ubiquitous – range of topics that records management actually covers. Records are everywhere! Now, that should spark joy in our hearts.

Snapshot: College and University Retention Schedules

February 5th, 2015


George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

Shortly after joining Brandeis to establish a records program, and being new to RIM as it applies to academia, I realized that it might be a good idea to review retention schedules from other colleges and universities (CUs) as part of my research. Higher Ed is an industry that generally encourages sharing of open information, in this case providing a view of retention schedules in the aggregate. Searching the Web with different browsers for published CU schedules, I built a document linking to over 40 CU schedules from various institutions. This document provides a novel, if small, glimpse into CU retention schedule trends and will hopefully be useful to other CU records managers and their colleagues who are establishing or reviewing schedules of their own (the Brandeis retention schedule is in its infancy). Each institutional schedule has its unique merits. If your CU retention schedule is published online and missing from this list, please send me a current link (, and I will be happy add it to, and improve, our document.

Granted, this sample is bound by my non-exhaustive search engine results, and it excludes schedules from some well known CUs that elect not to share such information online. Hence, “snapshot.” Some CUs have a records launch page with no schedule posted or linked. There’s also a preponderance of state CUs in our collection with regulations that would not apply to a private university like Brandeis. I don’t imply that you can just pick retention policy off the trees and plug it into your institution. Yet, while a schedule for college X would not necessarily apply to Brandeis, getting a broad profile of retention practice across many Higher Ed institutions is proving valuable for framing our own schedule, subject to internal iterations and final review.  For example, we found that no CU retained applications from prospective students who never attended (“non-matrics”) for more than 7 years. Unless Brandeis had some exotic arrangement that would require us to retain these longer – something that would be verified by our own research and standard, final authorization with our legal counsel – it’s a good bet that our retention period needn’t exceed standard practice and the reasonable needs of our admissions departments.  Each institution is unto itself. Yet, our findings show that while record category coverage varies among institutions, there is a general consistency among retention policies across most of the institutions, despite a few outlier practices.

Record Categories

One observation relates to the inclusion or exclusion of certain CU record categories. Coverage of different categories is rather varied in the schedules. Differing nomenclature could lead to a scarcity of hits on certain categories, so we tried to mitigate this factor in our searches by bundling various and synonymous names for certain categories in our survey (e.g., Copyright AND Intellectual Property; Advancement AND Development, etc.). We also performed keyword searches for specific document types (e.g., grade rosters) that might appear within certain categories, to mine applicable data.

While some of the schedules surveyed may currently be under expansion, coverage of core categories was less than expected. None of the schedules that we include are fledgling or skimpy as a whole in their category coverage, so the underrepresentation is unexplained. (Since this piece was first published, it was pointed out to me that some institutions mask certain departmental schedules while publishing a general schedule, so this may account for some of the category absences.) Athletics records are covered in only 35% of the schedules. Ironically, both library/info services categories and records management records/retention schedule are absent from 72% of the schedules surveyed, indicating that some of us info pros are not “eating our own dog food.” While safety and security record categories appeared underrepresented for such combustible record types (missing from 42% of the schedules), HR/personnel records are covered more consistently in 88% of the schedules. One might wonder how the other 12% would not have included this sensitive category in their schedules. Continuing/Adult education explicitly appears on only 21% of the schedules. However, some CUs may embed this category within the broader “student records” category, which is covered in all of the schedules in one way or another (thank goodness). In some cases, a lack of perfect one-to-one terminology mapping may have slightly skewed our results.

The following chart depicts coverage (inclusion) and exclusion percentages of selected CU record retention schedule categories from our survey collection (click to view):

Covered Not Covered

Retention Practices

While schedule category inclusion varies considerably among institutions, record retention periods are generally more uniform across most organizations. One contributing factor may have been consistent regulatory interpretations among state CUs. Federal and other codes (e.g., IRS: 7 years) also reach every institution, so this would account for some uniformity. Standard valuation and requirements for specific record types also drive consistency of practice. The following types, for example, tend to warrant permanent or very long preservation almost across the board: accreditation records, class lists, transcripts, alumni/donor files, and intellectual property and copyright records. Overlapping archival influence warrants permanent preservation of historical record groups, or portions of them. One key and common division among student records is that between records of students who enroll and prospective students who do not. Obviously, the latter category needs much shorter retention, as indicated above.

My Record Category descriptions are rolled up (generalized) to encompass various naming conventions for document families among the CUs. The following table shows retention ranges.

Table 2

Additional Observations

As with the record categories, certain metadata fields may or may not be employed among the CUs. Some go the length of stating the regulatory authority that warrants the retention policy. Others only state record type and retention period, which is understandable for employees and units who are stretched out with their workloads – better something than nothing, and less to maintain. There were surprisingly not many instances of Big Bucket corralling in the schedules that we reviewed.   In fact, some institutions are granular in their schedules, employing document type level division. There’s a propensity among a few to hold certain administrative records permanently – perhaps driven by paranoid (“just in case”) offices of record.

This is only a snapshot of a data sample, but it shows areas of consistency and variance among CU retention schedules. Along with our retention schedules listing, it is at the least a wonderfully nerdy way for a records manager to spend his or her time. At best, it can be used as a reference tool and baseline for retention schedule creation and maintenance in Higher Education – subject to local tailoring. Future batch retention schedule assessments can provide a basis for more detailed and broader studies, as well as improved professional discussion and understanding of policy trends in our trade.

My special thanks to Liana Shatova for compiling some of the data referenced in this posting.

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