This is an excerpt from "Managing Organisations Electronic Records" by R. E. Barry, an article that was published in Information Management & Technology, the journal of Cimtech, Vol. 26, No. 3, May 1993, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of CimTech. Click here if you wish to view the entire article.

Informal E-mail Exchanges

Not all systems fit the mould of the classical applications system such as a pay-roll or personnel system. A corporate E-mail system, for example, may yield many organisational electronic records. Many important records are in informal exchanges or in papers over E-mail. What happened in an organisation and who is accountable for it is often less obvious from reading the final documents than it is from the debates which led up to the decisions and the alternatives which were discarded. This is the kind of information less likely to be found in formal memoranda than it is in E-mail files, most of which are either not accessible at the corporate records level or are routinely destroyed. E-mail is a communications medium rather than an applications system. It does not, therefore, lend itself to the same kinds of electronic records treatment as do most applications systems.

Applications systems usually adapt well to decentralised electronic records management for they are transaction-oriented, contain highly structured data and information about a single application or subject area and reside on a mainframe computer with controlled and limited access. By contrast, E-mail is not usually transaction-oriented, contains unstructured text and information potentially about all applications or subject areas and is widely accessible. Thus such a system may be more suited to centralised electronic records management.

A corporate records and archives system also provides better security, checks and balances. Official organisational records must prevent accidental or intentional alteration or destruction. It may be that keepers of official records are less likely to have a self-serving interest in altering or destroying them than those producing the records. For example, would it be safer to hold records in the place where they are created or in a separate, ‘impartial’ place? There is no single answer that will be right for all organisations all the time. It will depend on the scalability and level of integration (word processing, electronic mail, incoming paper mail) of the EDMS the organisation selects. In many cases, a hybrid approach will be best. The question is: what architecture is appropriate for the many electronic systems generating official records in an integrated system? It is a question that every organisation should address and, for many, very soon.