Big Bucket Theory in Records Management

Don’t Cross This Concept off Your RIM Bucket List

The first sentence of an American Bar Association treatise* makes a simple yet compelling argument for well-managed records: “It is impossible for an organization to achieve acceptable legal compliance without an appropriate and functioning records retention program.”

The emphasis is ours, and it’s key because the greatest program around is useless if those responsible don’t follow the policies developed to implement it. Among the biggest deterrents are lengthy and complicated retention schedules that discourage already busy employees. In a 2009 survey co-sponsored by ARMA International and Cohassett Associates, 31 percent of respondents said their organization’s retention schedules had between 250 and 1,000 categories or retention series. An unfortunate 3 percent had more than 5,000. It’s no wonder 66 percent said they longed for an easier way.

Recognizing the risk of noncompliance, RIM managers are embracing a relatively new concept — the big bucket theory. Originally termed “flexible scheduling” and first proposed in 2003 by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the approach consolidates paper and electronic information into broad categories, or buckets. Rather than following a lengthy checklist, employees classify their records by a handful of groupings. Those groupings may be based on time periods, business functions, legal and regulatory classifications, or whatever makes sense for the organization and complies with appropriate laws.

In theory, the big bucket approach should greatly simplify records retention, thus improving employee compliance and reducing the risk of mismanaged files. And, in practice, it often does just that. But the big buckets do carry some considerations of their own. There’s the danger of creating categories that are too broad, which affects accessibility and the volume of records stored. Also, the documents in a single category are retained for as long as the longest retention schedule in that bucket. This means that some records may be kept far beyond the time they normally would have been destroyed.

The best advice for using big buckets is to select the categories carefully. Files tied to a particular event, regulatory action or legal proceeding should be classified separately from routine records. Documents and files that are related to the same business activities or requirements — specific products or services, for example — can share a bucket. Involving the people who work with these records on a daily basis will help create bucket categories that make sense and are user-friendly.

Some companies that aren’t quite ready for the leap from long lists to big buckets have taken a “little bucket” approach, consolidating a portion of their retention categories into smaller, narrower groupings. This reduces the complexity for employees managing their records, but isn’t quite as simple as the broader method.

Whether big or little, going with buckets doesn’t replace the need for thoughtful and rigorous records management. The files in a bucket still need to be properly identified, documented, stored and readily accessible. But implemented properly, the approach offers a potential tool to increase compliance, reduce risk and streamline records retention. And that’s not just a drop in the bucket.

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Abraxas understands the diverse approaches to records management and helps clients select the right system for their unique organization with confidence. We provide clients with tailored records and information management solutions, delivering the business intelligence that matters most — and we do it more efficiently and reliably than anyone else, particularly in highly regulated industries. To learn more, email or call us: 866.535.0016 (toll-free) or 269.226.0016.