Most RM professionals have probably heard about metadata—but what exactly does it mean and how can it help your organization? There’s a lot of differing information out there, so we’ve put this blog post together to help you demystify and apply metadata in a way that will improve your records management.
In Part 1, we define metadata and look at real-world examples to explain it in a records management context with particular emphasis on folder structures. Part 2 of this post will explore metadata in terms of search capabilities, specifically the ongoing debate on metadata vs. full-text searching.
1.0 What is metadata?
Literally meaning “data about data,” metadata refers to descriptive information that’s assigned to specified information sources and later used to locate and retrieve those documents and files in an electronic RM program.
1.1 Metadata and records management
Chances are that metadata already occupies an active role in your organization’s RM program. While the exact application can vary widely from one scenario to the next, the basic principle is the same in all cases: when a new record is created or saved to the system, descriptive information is attached to it.
Some information may be captured automatically, such as a user ID or date and time stamp. Other metadata might require human intervention, such as the identification of records classification categories, document types, or subject keywords.
All this information can be used later as possible search terms for finding a given record.
2.0 Metadata vs. folder structures
File folders and other filing products were invented so that related records could be grouped together into manageable sub-groups. For larger files, efficiency is increased by physically sub-dividing the file with divider cards or a series of folders within a larger pocket. The same logic applies to electronic records.
Virtually every computer allows users to organize electronic documents, emails and other items into folders and then break each folder into a large number of sub-folders.
2.1 Folder hierarchies
The more records an organization holds, the more subdivisions are necessary to organize that information into manageable sub-groups.
2.1.1 Real-world example—without metadata
While any folder structure should avoid unnecessary subdivisions and strive for simplicity, the sheer volume of some organizations’ record content may require multiple folders and sub-folders. So how to you turn basic filing elements into electronic folders and sub-folders?
An ideal folder structure for accounting professionals might not be ideal for a financial analyst. While compromises are possible in folder structure design, eventually someone will have to navigate across different folders, pulling out information that’s relevant to their processes. This can result in staff copying content and grouping it together elsewhere, increasing overall records volume and introducing various financial and compliance risks.
A metadata-based retrieval system gives users the option of sorting and categorizing records in a way that works for them.
2.1.2 Real-world example—with metadata
Records are not “in” folders, so they can be organized in whichever order makes the most sense at the time they are retrieved.
For example, accounts payable, in creating and saving records, can identify the fiscal year, expenditure type, and vendor name for each item. Alternatively, a tax accountant, for instance, could pull up the monthly transactions for a fiscal year, while a procurement analyst could pull up records for capital expenditures made to a specific vendor in a given time period.
2.2 Electronic records and file-level metadata
Many electronic records management solutions directly incorporate folders as part of the metadata collection process. One common practice is to create folders, sites or other electronic containers at the “file level”.
File-level metadata is entered for each container when it is created and updated. When records are saved to a container, they inherit the metadata associated with that container. Users can also enter additional metadata specific to the individual document, thereby allowing them to sort and identify different content.
Many systems apply this concept to the creation of virtual files. In other words, the electronic files are a pre-constructed set of metadata, which is collectively attached to a record when it is associated with that file.
Incorporating metadata into your RM program requires careful planning, but also has the potential to revolutionize how you organize, search and retrieve information inside your organization, and to help in the application of RM best practices.
- Download our white paper How metadata works with records management, Part 1.
- Sign up for our OnRecord e-newsletter for updates on how metadata can be applied.
- Talk to a TAB representative about how we can help introduce the benefits of metadata to your organization.