Revising a Retention Schedule: Lessons Learned

This spring, Michigan State University completed the first phase of a multi-year records retention schedule project by revising the Human Resources Records Retention Schedule. The new schedule, which is the first major revision since 1990, aligns with regulations and best practices, is easier to read, and clearly identifies a number of active and legacy business systems as well as offices of record for each record series.

The first phase of the project took over two years to complete and involved significant support from a number of critical stakeholders, including Human Resources, Academic Human Resources, Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, and General Counsel. Before jumping into the next phase of the project (Fiscal Records, here I come!), I wanted to reflect on some lessons learned regarding retention schedule revisions.

Build Strong Stakeholder Relationships:

At my institution, good stakeholder relationships are key to completing retention schedule projects. Because there is not a Records Management Oversight Committee or an equivalent body, the Records Management program ends up working with individual stakeholder offices to create and review retention schedules. For general schedules, this can be very difficult, as the university is highly decentralized with many different offices holding one portion of the official record.

Board Game

When working with a large stakeholder pool, try to include as many relevant groups as possible. If there are too many groups than the program can reasonably manage, identify a contact or point person for each group. Maintaining a single contact person is a good way to keep a group of stakeholders involved while still keeping the project moving forward.

Keep in mind that one key stakeholder will be the legal department or General Counsel’s office. Be sure to work closely with them when revising retention schedules. They may have additional concerns regarding unforeseen legal issues.

Research, Research, Research:

Begin the project by researching the records environment. This includes both the regulatory as well as the physical environment. Review information that offices post online and read university policies. Speak with offices about where records are actually stored, and do not be afraid to ask “dumb” or “obvious” questions.

One great benefit of retention schedule research is that it creates a good starting point when speaking with stakeholders.  Many subject matter experts (SMEs) can be great sources of records knowledge, but they initially may not understand the kind of information you need. Consider creating and sharing a preliminary rough draft to help spark discussion. Giving stakeholders something specific to review, even if it is initially inaccurate, can get them thinking about records management, business processes, and their records. Specifics really help; in my experience, a solicitation for general comments results in little to no response from stakeholders.

Patience is a Virtue:

Like any project, revising retention schedules can take a long time, particularly in a highly decentralized work environment. However, it is worth it to take the time to get the right people in the same room. The HR Retention schedule project really picked up steam once managers from the 20+ HR departments were able to sit in the same room and hash out record issues. Be patient and try to accommodate stakeholder schedules. If no one seems interested in attending retention schedule meetings, try food! A breakfast or lunch meeting usually helps boost attendance.

Take additional time to double-check your records information. While SMEs are a valuable resource, be sure to review the information they provide. Sometimes SMEs focus so much on their specific portion of the records environment that they do not always fully grasp how record keeping in one office can affect another.  While double-checking takes a little bit more time at the outset, it can speed up the final review process and prevent later revisions.

Never Waste a Crisis:

Like many organizations, my institution recently dealt with a security breach. While no one wants this to happen, if it does end up happening at your organization, use it. Leverage the breach to remind upper-level administrators and executives about the importance of up-to-date retention schedules and records management policies. Have the numbers and costs of the breach handy and be prepared to share them. A real-world example will often get even the most hesitant stakeholders on board.

I expect I will end up learning many more lessons as I continue to work through the revisions of additional retention schedules. Have you completed a retention schedule revision at your institution? If so, what have you learned from that process?

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