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The World's First International Records Management Standard.

Professional records management practitioners are about to receive the first-ever international standard for records management. The International Organization for Standardization, a worldwide federation of national standards bodies based in Geneva, is about to issue ISO 15489-1 --Information and Documentation -- Records Management -- Part 1: General. The document prescribes technical guidelines for recordkeeping in all organizational settings, as well as practical guidelines for records managers throughout the world.

This column is a general introduction to ISO 15489.

ISO 15489: Its Overall Significance

The underlying significance of this milestone event can hardly be overstated. Organizations throughout the world have one thing in common: They create records and information. This is true whether they are public or private, large or small, technically sophisticated, or primitive in their business practices. Yet, in the thousands of years that organizations have kept business records, there has never been a single set of technical guidelines prescribing how those records should be managed -- until now.

Despite glowing sentiments, a "reality check" is in order: With this new standard's issuance, the budgets of organizations throughout the world will not suddenly overflow with money for new records management initiatives. Nor will senior executives suddenly be convinced that records management is now the most indispensable new management objective they must pursue, however long they have permitted it to languish in their own organizations. Moreover, remember that ISO 15489 is a voluntary code of practice -- compliance with it is entirely at the enterprise's discretion. Unlike the ISO 9000 quality standards, there will be no special audits by external parties to determine compliance or to recommend revised practices if organizations are out of compliance. Finally, the records management vendor community will not need to develop hardware or software solutions that are ISO 15489-compliant, as the standard requires no technology compliance. These factors effectively weaken the standard as a document, which will revolutionize the world's recordkeeping.

Notwithstanding these realities, ISO 15489 is the most significant thing ever to happen to international records management because it has the effect of legitimizing records management as a global management discipline. In many countries, the term records management is barely understood, let alone widely adopted as a management practice. ISO is the world's pre-eminent international standards setting organization; for records management to receive one of its standards definitely adds a stamp of legitimacy never enjoyed before. Also, the new standard provides an officially sanctioned benchmarking model for global emulation of best professional practices. These two benefits are truly significant, and the new standard has the potential to elevate the records management discipline to the next level of professional practice.

Background / Evolution

Seen in its broadest context, ISO 15489 is the latest development in the global best practices movement that has been gathering momentum during the past 15 years. Many factors have spurred the development of this movement: the enactment of new international trade agreements, the concomitant rise of global business activity, the global architecture of the Internet, and the movement from proprietary to open systems supported by standards such as SGML, HTML, XML, and others. All these factors have given business managers everywhere a strong desire to implement best business practices, regardless of origin, in order to build organizations that are truly world class in quality. World-class status requires world-class recordkeeping systems. This is why ISO 15489 will be well received in international circles.

The Archives and Records Management Subcommittee (SC/11) of ISO TC/46 Information and Documentation actually developed the standard. The subcommittee comprised representatives of 11 countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The North American representatives were Catherine Zongora, information management analyst with the National Archives of Canada; Diane Carlisle, CRM, director of professional resources for ARMA International; and Lewis Ballardo, deputy archivists/chief of staff, of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The standard's first draft was published in 1997. A final draft, issued in May 2000, has been extensively reviewed by the participating countries during the past year, and final edited versions and accompanying documents have been circulated and approved by ballots from representatives of the member countries. Publication as an ISO standard is to follow this fall.

The Australians played the key role in the early development of ISO 15489. Shortly after AS 4390 was published, the Australians began working with ISO and key players in, the global records management community to internationalize the standard. In fact, an early draft of ISO 15489 stated that the standard was developed "in response to worldwide agreement to internationalize the Australian standard as the basis for international best practice in records management." [italics added] The extent to which the content of ISO 15489 reflects Australian best practice as contained in AS 4390 is debatable. AS 4390 was indeed the starting point, but the final draft reflects, appropriately, a strong degree of internationalization; it is a fine standard worthy of global application.

A Truly Global Standard or Just One Methodology?

Even though the United States was not a driving force in this standard's evolution, the country nevertheless made noteworthy contributions to its development. The most significant concerned ISO 15489's essential nature as the global standard reflecting best practices, as opposed to a document reflecting one methodology for managing records and information in organizational settings. The U.S. representatives argued successfully in favor of the former position. In comments on the Technical Report, which contains supplementary details to the standard, the U.S. summarized its position as follows:

We agree with the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) concern that these revisions are represented as the best practice and will be understood as being applicable everywhere. Clearly, this was not the original intent of the Technical Report. Nor is it safe to say that this is a best practice that will work for all ... we cannot recommend an affirmative vote on the TR unless the Introduction and Scope statements are modified to reflect that the TR represents one example of best practices.

To address this critical issue, the U.S. recommended the following substitute language, which became part of the Technical Report:

This technical report provides one methodology for implementing the standard. However, it should be noted that national standards and legislation may dictate other factors and requirements for legal compliance.

While there is a good case for both positions, the revision is significant. Although it may appear on the surface that "one standard worldwide" should be ISO's goal with this standard, it must be recognized that different legal requirements for recordkeeping do, in fact, exist in different countries. Regulated parties are obliged to comply with legal requirements in good faith, regardless of whether they are compatible with ISO 15489 or not. As a voluntary code of practice, ISO 15489 cannot supersede existing country laws, nor can these laws be ignored in recordkeeping practices. But none of this denigrates the standard's quality or significance. Indeed, legislative bodies throughout the world should incorporate appropriate provisions of the standard into new laws and regulations. Professional associations and societies should use it as a starting point to develop their own national standards. These organizations should also develop specific guidelines designed to facilitate compliance with the standard.

A Brief Content Review

With respect to scope, the standard

* applies to the management of records, in any format or media, created or received by any public or private organization, or any individual, in the conduct of its activities, acting as evidence of those activities

* provides guidance on records management in support of ISO 9000 quality records processes

* provides guidance on the design and implementation of a records system

The standard is intended for use by organization managers; records, information, and technology management professionals; and all persons who create and maintain organization records and information. The content can best be characterized as consisting of generic requirements or general methodologies for designing, operating, and managing records and recordkeeping systems. Organizations should use these generic guidelines as a basis for determining more specific requirements for recordkeeping systems.

The standard places heavy emphasis on policies, procedures, and practices that are designed to ensure that adequate records are created, captured, and managed properly. Adequate records are those that are complete and accurate, authentic and reliable, compliant with applicable regulations, and useable for any and all business purposes. The standard's 11 major sections are

* scope

* references of related standards

* terms and definitions

* benefits of records management

* regulatory environment

* policy and responsibilities

* records management requirements

* design and implementation of a records system

* records management processes and controls

* monitoring and auditing

* training

The Accompanying Technical Report

The accompanying Technical Report, ISO/PDTR 15489-2: Information and Documentation -- Records Management -- Part 2: Guidelines, provides additional practice guidelines related to the standard, and it is nearly twice as long as the base standard. Intended for records management specialists, this document presents "one methodology" for implementing the standard and reflects that national standards, country laws, and other factors should also be considered by organizations wishing to achieve compliance with ISO 15489. The report's major sections include

* scope

* policy and responsibilities

* strategies, design, and implementation

* records processes and controls

* monitoring and auditing

* training

The section on strategies, design, and implementation reflects a methodology for designing recordkeeping systems based primarily on Australian practice. The methodology is clearly expressed and sufficiently generic to be of general utility. The section on records processes and controls is the conceptual heart of the document. It provides practice guidelines on the major areas of records management practice -- classification systems, security and access, document registration, storage, and retention/ disposition.

Implementing the Standard

Achieving compliance with ISO 15489 is certainly a worthy goal for multinational businesses and the government sector. Records specialists in these organizations should make ISO 15489-compliance a top priority in their long-range strategic plans. Assuring senior management that organization records are managed based on best global practices (i.e., in a way consistent with ISO 15489) would be a good thing for records managers. However, exactly what would it take for this to occur? As was noted, because no external auditors will emerge to perform ISO 15489 compliance audits, actual compliance will have to be based on self-assessment methodologies. Also, because the standard and its accompanying technical report reflect a single general methodology, the specific criteria for compliance will have to be developed, either by ISO and/or by national standards bodies, by professional associations, or even by records specialists on behalf of their own organizations.

All this will take time -- for large organizations, three to five years would not be unrealistic. But at least there exists, for the first time ever, an international standard for records management. The standard is the most significant thing ever to happen to international records management, and those who have labored mightily for so long to make it a reality deserve undying admiration and gratitude.

Chronology of RIM-Related Standards

* 1987 -- ISO 9000 Standards for Quality Records -- The world's first truly international standards that prescribed records management practices, although they were limited in scope to "quality" records maintained by organizations seeking certification under ISO 9000.

* 1996 -- AS 4390 Australian National Standard for Records Management -- The world's first "general" standard for records management. Although limited in scope to a single country, AS 4390 was the major factor leading to the development of ISO 15489.

* 1996 -- UN Model Law on Electronic Commerce -- Developed by the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, this is the world's first global legislative model prescribing legal standards for recordkeeping in "all digital" environments. In various forms, this model low has been widely adapted by national governments throughout the world, including the U.S.

* 1997 -- DoD Standard for Electronic Records Management Applications -- Issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, this is the world's first standard prescribing functionality requirements for electronic records management software applications.


International Council on Archives. ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description. Second edition. Ottawa, 2000.

ISO 690-2 Information and Documentation. Part 2: Electronic Documents

ISO 5127:1983 (all parts) Documentation and Information

ISO 5963:1985 Documentation (Methods for examining documents, determining their subjects and selecting indexing terms)

ISO/IEC DIS 11799 Information and Documentation (Documentation storage requirements for archive and library materials)

ISO 9000; 14000 - Quality Records

Stephens, David O. and David Roberts. "From Australia: The World's First National Standard for Records Management." The Records Management Quarterly. October 1996.

Editor's Note: See James C. Connelly's related article on page 26.

David Stephens, CRM, CMC, FAI is Vice President for the records management consulting firm of Zasio Enterprises Inc. He has been a consultant in the field of records management for more than 18 years and has published books and articles about information management in the United States and abroad. The author may be reached at
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Title Annotation:International Organization for Standardization
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Previous Article:Knowledge Management and Its Influence on the Records and Information Manager.
Next Article:Moving forward. (From The Editors).

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