Vol.21 No.150

Monday 4 October 2004    

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Editorial
Ignore Records Management At Your Own Peril

Editor
10/3/2004 5:18:47 PM (GMT +2)

At one point, the Enron scandal captured the imagination of the public and the press. The interest was so incredible. The American press dubbed it the mistake of failing to know what to keep and what not to keep. The reputation of the company is now in question. Crucial records were destroyed unofficially to try to distract attention from the disappearance of millions of dollars.


The focus was immediately on records management. What went wrong? How come accountants failed to find the right answers? The question certainly lies with what records professionals call Retention and Disposal Schedule. Was it hijacked or unintentionally overstepped? Whatever the guess, the crux of the matter is that never underestimate the management of your records. If you do, be warned that it is like sitting on a silent time bomb?

Deciding how long records should be kept is mostly a matter of judgement and risk management. Whoever makes the decision must understand the purpose and the importance of the records in question, be well informed on the issues and the risks associated with retaining or destroying them and have the authority to commit the organisation to the potential consequences of the decision.

In short, the Retention Schedule is simply a timetable summary of the records life cycle, showing how long to retain records in an organisation, what type of records to retain. This is an official document or policy drawn and authorised by all the managers and senior executives in the organisation. This really lacked in the Enron hence the scandal. In this case, who is to take the blame and on what basis?

Recently there was a national crisis with the new Government Payroll System. Basically it did not completely serve the purpose which it was designed for, precisely because the computerised system lacked certain accurate (input) information. Hence the output was unreliable and inaccurate. Records Management has all the answers. The Data Quality Management is basically the quality management of the paper based information. Was the Quality Data accurate enough to warrant automation? What information gaps existed in the manual systems prior to the computerisation?

Then there was the Land Commission which was set up to investigate allocations of land in Gaborone. The issue of records management cropped out at the commission. It emerged that the department in question at the time had serious deficiencies in records management systems. There is no doubt at least to me that the perception of the role of records management in this country is still assumed to be part and parcel of the administration management both in government and private sectors. No wonder some even subscribe to the view that in fact, records management professionals are mostly talking to themselves. Some are even cynical to the extent of asking whether it is a profession in the first place.

One might be tempted to ask; what are records and what are they for? Records are products of the activities of which they form a part. They arise naturally from the functions, activities, processes and transaction of the creating organisation. Records include not only written material but those conveying information by any other means.

Of course there are a number of contributory factors in this regard. First, there is lack of proper knowledge about the effective management of records in the country. Records management has even been relegated to the lowest status in all the professions. In addition, professional career development is also lagging behind because the present system is unable to attract able recruits. Rather it has become a dumping ground for staff without career prospects. Overtime, registries become severely congested with older records since there were no guidelines and rules on how the control of records was to be done. Nobody knew what should be kept and for how long. Staff are in most cases reluctant to authorise destruction. They have limited training or experience with record keeping work and as such, record keeping was allowed to deteriorate and eventually collapse.

The fact of the matter is; despite this popular assumption, records management is gradually becoming a force to reckon with as it is demonstrated by the prevailing scenarios. In light of this traditional view, records management is basically perceived as an administrative operation that has attracted a lot of administrative personnel. This eventually became a breeding point for most administrative personnel, sometimes with limited or even no professional qualification in the field.

However with time, this proved that records management as an activity has been going. Another factor that contributes to the larger part of the problem is that file classification and indexing systems originally designed to meet the record keeping requirements could no longer meet the needs of the modern government and private business. There are still little incentive to maintain effective record keeping systems or storage.

Although users are now becoming aware of the severe problems in information retrieval, they do not know what solutions are required. They do not appreciate the complexities of establishing and maintaining records systems. Often they fail to recognise the connection between the breakdown of records systems and the larger problem of public administration. The whole picture therefore needs a rigorous understanding of the importance of record/information management. Modern records management practices still need to be introduced. Because of the information explosion, records management is increasingly becoming an area of concern in many workplaces. The mass accumulation of paper records is increasingly becoming an area of concern to many organisations due to the changing nature of their functions and operations. The rate at which this accumulation is taking place poses a serious threat to the management of records. The uncontrolled accumulation of these records can cause a lot of problems to many organisations.

In many developed countries there have been important advances in the field of records management. In most case many African countries' failure to create and maintain effective records systems is motivated by the desire to conceal financial and other irregularities including fraud and theft. Can Botswana avoid this record time bomb? Time will tell.

Bruce W. Kojane, Records Manager, Librarian and a Teacher at Moshupa Senior Secondary School.

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