eRemembrance or eOblivion? International Conference on Society’s Memory Functions in the Digital World, University of Tampere, Finland, Tampere 23-24 November, 2015
Record-keeping professionals’ perceptions of users and use of functional classification systems in the Finnish public sector
The amount of information created in the course of organisations’ business activities is constantly growing. Management of that information, whether it is in the form of tradi-tional paper records or maintained electronically in document- or record-management systems, requires powerful organisation methods. Records management is concerned with the records necessary in business and their identification, capture, storage, retrieval and destruction (Rowley and Hartley, 2008, 283). It is the records managers who are responsible for it; however, it is an important part of almost every employee’s work today (Shepherd and Yeo, 2003, 1). Records are organised for purposes of facilitating their later use. Today, the records created and accumulated in the course of business activities are often organised in line with the organisation’s functions. Functional classification connects records to their functional context (Shepherd and Yeo, 2003, 74). It is an internationally accepted and widely used method in records’ organisation. However, applications and uses of functional classification systems differ between record-keeping cultures (Kilkki, 2009). In Finland, function-based schemes constitute the predominant approach to records’ organisation and functional classification systems are an integral part of public-sector record-keeping (Packalén and Henttonen, 2015).
In a trend that is only going to continue, organisations’ employees are increasingly involved in creating and managing records, participating in electronic records’ processing and adopting computerised administrative routines. Xie (2007) characterises this as a new phenomenon in records management, ‘shared RM [records management] responsibility’. Convery (2011, 199–200) describes the engagement with a user who is not a passive participant as a paradigm shift in the digital world.
Recently, there has been a growing interest in the study of functional classification. Researchers have noted conceptual ambiguity in the definitions of functions (Alberts, Schellinck, Eby and Marleau, 2010; Foscarini, 2012) and problems with usability (Calabria, 2006). Various difficulties in maintenance and use of functional classification systems among record-keeping professionals have been acknowledged in the Finnish context also (Packalén, 2015).
Internationally, terminological and usability issues have received some attention in the context of creating functional classifications (Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012; Myburgh, 2009; Todd, 2003). In Finland, the focus in planning of functional classification schemes has been on meeting the needs of the organisation and demands entailed by preservation of cultural heritage. Traditionally, record-keeping professionals operate the record-keeping processes from a central registry office. They are the ones responsible for classifying records. Other users, such as clerical staff, have received considerably less attention. Changes in practices applied in digital records’ management by computerised administrative routines have led to a situation wherein the distribution of work related to records is blurred. The role of individual employees in management of the digital records they deal with is constantly growing. Today, there is no commonality in the extent of users’ contribution to record-processing across various organisations. It is not even known who the users of functional classification systems in the Finnish public sector are, let alone how they use these systems.
Hence, the study described in this paper was motivated by the lack of clarity as to the various users of functional classification systems in the Finnish public sector. To facilitate wise use of functional classification in organisation of records, one first should identify the users and their various potential contributions to the use. On account of record-keeping professionals’ essential role in record-keeping practices in Finland’s public sector, the study took their knowledge and perceptions as its starting point.
This paper reports the results of a study that focused on users and uses of functional classification systems in the Finnish public sector. The study was conducted from the record-keeping professionals’ perspective.
Records management is a ‘field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records’ (ISO 15489-1, 2001, definition 3.16). Providing several benefits to the organisation, records management covers the practice of anyone in the organisation who creates and/or uses records in conducting business (ISO 15489-1, 2001, 1, 4). In modern organisations, most of the employees are concerned with the creation, use and maintenance of records (Kennedy and Shauder, 1998, 1).
Function-based methods in the organisation of records have become more popular from the 1980s onward with the increasing volume of records created in the course of business activities and use of electronic record-management systems. They represent a method that today is widely used and accepted internationally; however, the essence of the approach is not new. Schellenberg (1956) presented his functional model back in the 1950s. Now, several decades later, the function-based approach predominates in records organisation, overshadowing classification based on subject/theme, the organisation’s structure, hybrid approaches (Smith, 2007, 54–55) and record types. Also record-keeping professionals prefer functional classification (Orr, 2005; Packalén and Henttonen, 2015; Smith, 2007, 54).
There are several benefits to function-based records organisation. Records are created in the course of the actions of which they are evidences. Functional classification adds contextual information about records’ creation and ties individual records together with other records from the activity in question. Context is an integral part of understanding the meaning of an individual record (Shepherd and Yeo 2003, 72–74). In the digital environment, intellectual control over records, exercised by classification, clearly is necessary (Foscarini, 2009, 63). The stability of organisations’ functions, especially relative to more fluid organisational structures, is cited as another benefit for records’ function-based organisation (Smith, 2007, 55–56; Connelly, 2007). In addition, functional classification gives understanding of the whole organisation (Shepherd and Yeo 2003, 74; Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012).
There has been growing awareness of a need for conceptual clarification and of various usability issues faced with function-based applications (Alberts et al., 2010; Calabria, 2006; Singh, Klobas and Anderson, 2007). Several functional-classification-related concepts that are open to interpretation are used in the literature, often without proper definitions (Alberts et al., 2010; Foscarini, 2012). Recently, clarification has been sought for function-oriented concepts (Alberts et al., 2010) and classification in the field of information management (Mokhtar and Yusof, 2015). In addition to benefiting daily operational activities, records classification adds other value – for example, with respect to strategic management and longevity of the business. It also must meet requirements stemming from laws and mandates. Records have to maintain trustworthiness from the very beginning of their life through to the preservation phase by authenticity, integrity and reliability (Mokhtar and Yusof, 2015).
Recent studies have increasingly acknowledged the use and usability issues of functional classification systems in a mainly electronic environment (Calabria, 2006; Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012; Packalén, 2015). Record-keeping professionals face various difficulties with functional classification systems (Packalén, 2015). Also, previous studies (Calabria, 2006; Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012) show that end users find functional classification systems particularly unintuitive and confusing. Therefore, the classification systems may not even have been used (Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012). End users find it difficult to connect their practical work processes to wider organisational functions. In this sense, the function framework is partly hidden from the end users’ view (Foscarini, 2012). Xie (2007) stresses that individual users’ needs should be taken into account as an element in the design of classification systems that is separate from general user inputs and user profiles.
People do not see a personal return on their efforts in records management, and, according to Sanders (1998), there is always a way to get out of doing the things one does not want to do. Therefore, it is worth remembering that self-interest is a better motivator than any benefit for the organisation (Sanders, 1998). A positive approach of customising records management such that it is something primarily to benefit the users is suggested as a route to success. Mas, Maurel and Alberts (2011) studied records’ organisation in an electronic environment where faceted classification was applied. To overcome the lack of motivation that plagues document classification in organisations, they encouraged the user to become a partner with the records manager in updating and construction of the classification schemes. Users’ training should include explanation of the functional structure behind the classification scheme chosen (Singh et al., 2007). Also, information-related skills and digital literacy of employees in the organisations are of great importance (Oliver and Foscarini, 2014, 92).
Users of records in administrative settings have been studied also by Sundqvist (2009). She discussed the use of functional classification in search keys in queries for records. Classification codes are not normally used as search parameters (Singh et al., 2007; Sundqvist, 2009, 115), and Sundqvist (2009, 24) also found that novices did not have the experience needed in using artefactual intermediaries and computerised systems. Computer systems’ usability is another important element in taking the users into account. The concept of organisational usability, presented by Elliot and Kling (1994), refers to effective integration of a computer system into the work practices of the organisation’s workers.
According to ISO 9241-11, usability is ‘the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use’. The user, the user’s task, the equipment and the environment are all parts of the context of use (ISO 9241-11, definition 3.1, 3.5). In the main, records-classification systems are used at the stages of filing records and retrieving them from the record-keeping system; however, the role of functional classifications in organisations varies (Henttonen, 2012). Henttonen (2015, 211) describes two phases of records organisation, each with two groups of users: in an organisational setting, the users are records professionals and other workers. In archival settings, in addition to the record-keeping professionals, the users include researchers. In the active phase in records’ life, the division of responsibilities within the organisation has a fundamental influence on how work is distributed between the records professionals and other employees. In Finland, where record-keeping professionals in central registry office form the main group of users of records systems, usability issues did not gain significant attention (Henttonen, 2015, 212) until recently (Packalén, 2015): the role of users in records organisation is not known. In other countries, more attention has been paid to users and the importance of their familiarisation with the terminology used in functional classification schemes (Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012; Myburgh, 2009; Todd, 2003).
The Finnish context of use
Functional records organisation reached Finland in the 1980s. Since then, the method has entered widespread use and gained a position as the generally recommended approach to records organisation in the public sector. For instance, it is recommended by the National Archives Service.
In Finland, record-keeping in public-sector organisations typically follows a proactive strategy. Public-sector record-keeping is strictly regulated and must follow a specific record-keeping plan that is mandated by law (Archival Act, 23.9.1994/831). Although authorities are not obliged to use functional classification – after all, it is only a recommendation by the National Archives Service – it is widely accepted, and, in fact, record-keeping professionals perceive it as a self-evident part of organisations’ record keeping (Packalén and Henttonen, 2015). A given entity’s record-keeping plan, registry system, other administrative systems for records’ control and sets of archival records all share parts of the same functional classification scheme. Hence, functional classification forms the basic structure of the core systems used.
Documents created or received by the organisation in question are classified and registered. Registers are used in listing receipts’ and records’ movements in the course of their active use (Henttonen, 2012). The role of registrars as presented in a Swedish study by Kallberg (2013) applies in the context of the Finnish public sector as well. Registrars are responsible for capturing records in the early phase of records management, when the records are created. Registration takes place as the first part of an administrative process. After that process is complete, the file is closed and constitutes records of the process, as presented by Sundqvist (2009, 78).
Because of the registration practice, record-keeping professionals in the Finnish public sector have an essential role in records’ organisation. This may be partial explanation of why the user perspective on records organisation has not garnered the attention it has elsewhere (Henttonen, 2015, 212).
The study was designed to create better understanding of users and use of functional classification systems, with the aim of ascertaining what kinds of users and use record keeping professionals perceive functional classifications as having in the Finnish public sector.
These research questions are addressed:
- What kinds of users do record-keeping professionals perceive functional classification systems to have in Finnish public-sector organisations?
- What perception do record-keeping professionals have of the use of functional classification systems in Finnish public-sector organisations?
The data used for this study come from semi-structured interviews of 22 record-keeping professionals performing various record-keeping duties in three separate Finnish public-sector organisations: a municipal organisation (A), university (B) and government agency (C). I conducted the interviews between February and May 2013, using three media: face-to-face interviews, computer based conferencing and interviews by telephone. I conducted some of the interviews as personal interviews, the others with groups of two to three interviewees at a time.
In Finland, records managers and archivists are understood as one group of workers with duties in archives’ and/or records’ management. In the context of the study, this group is referred to as record-keeping professionals. Record-keeping professionals perform various duties and have various assigned roles, such as records manager, registrar or archival secretary.
In the Finnish public sector, the registration practice entails record-keeping professionals being the primary users of functional classification systems. The study was designed to identify their other groups of users. For the purposes of the study, a user is defined as an employee in the organisation who, in conducting his or her work, uses the functional classification scheme or the systems wherein it is embedded.
I analysed the data with qualitative methods. I recorded the interviews and transcribed them verbatim, excluding verbal tics. Then, I immersed myself in the data by reading and listening to the material. I coded the data to categorise elements from the transcripts. The analytical strategy for the study was supported by my use of qualitative data analysis software, ATLAS.ti. In organising the data, I used software to implement a code-and-retrieve strategy (Coffey and Atkinson, 1996, 170). I marked interview segments by attaching codes to the segments, to make the data searchable. Segments identified by the same code can be retrieved and collected readily. Beyond coding and categorising the data, the process of generating and using ideas and of generalising involved analysis informed by writing analytic memos and creating lists of various users and uses of functional classification. I considered the data through a researcher’s eyes in terms of research questions 1 and 2, presented above. In this paper, record-keeping professionals’ perceptions are exemplified by loose translation of excerpts from the interviews. The notation for the excerpts uses the letter A, B or C (denoting the organisation) and a number that, in combination with the letter, uniquely identifies the interviewee.
The record-keeping professionals perceived functional classification mainly as a record keeping tool used primarily by record-keeping professionals themselves. They were responsible for maintenance of the functional classification scheme and its applications. They also had responsibility for guiding others in using the functional classification systems. However, most interviewees indicated that the classification scheme in one or another of its embodiments in the organisation was supposed to be used by all employees who created or handled records in their work. The record-keeping professionals were aware, though, that the electronic records management systems were not always used to the fullest extent possible. The level of use varied between the organisations studied and even between units within them. Poor usability of electronic document- or record-management systems, other technological features and users’ personal attitudes were mentioned as perceived reasons for non-use of functional classification systems.
B2: It [the electronic records-management system] is underused right now. In some units, it is used well, and in some other units it is used very little. Whether it is used or not depends on the persons working in the unit.
In addition to record-keeping professionals themselves, several other users of functional classification systems in each of the organisations were mentioned. Also, all employees participating in administration and decision procedures or in handling of matters were identified as users of these systems. In their duties, these employees created or handled records mostly in some electronic document- or record-management system. They worked as officials, specialists, administrative managers, secretaries or other clerical personnel. All of them had local responsibilities for records or needed to use the electronic system to accomplish their work tasks in handling of certain matters.
C10: I think it is mostly us, people who work here in the registry office. I mean record-keeping professionals as a whole. And, well, the secretaries use it at the point of registration of outgoing mails. But they don’t really need to know the classification, since we are the ones who select the functional class. We give them a number, and they just use the number at the point of registration.
Many of the professionals expressed a hope that other employees would be more aware of the organisation’s functional classification scheme and the record-keeping plan. However, some interviewees stated that other employees do not need to know the classification system that well, stating that they had other, more important duties to take care of. Some of the professionals interviewed were of the opinion that functional classification should be abstracted from users’ view in the electronic system as much as possible – for example, by way of automating the records’ grouping.
C1: Well, I think it would be desirable that it would be used more widely. But, then again, we come to that point of what the added value is to the work of some employee from knowing the classification. I’m not sure...
The record-keeping professionals differed somewhat in their views on how much users should use functional classification for classificatory purposes and even whether they should do so at all. Many interviewees wanted to encourage users to file records themselves, while others expressed concern about the filing errors that could result from this. Concerned record-keeping professionals did not fully trust in users’ abilities to handle a complicated classification system themselves without strict guidance. Some of the professionals offered the opinion that it was better that only record-keeping professionals use the classification structure in selecting the function class, to ensure that the right class is always selected. Also, some expressed the view that other users appreciate clear guidance in when to use a certain class or record type and which is the right one to choose in an electronic system.
Describing another context of functional classifications’ use, some of the record-keeping professionals stated that every employee in the organisation had an opportunity to browse the record-keeping plan, which covered the functional classification scheme. The plan may have been presented on the corporate intranet or in traditional paper form. However, the record-keeping professionals seldom mentioned browsing the record-keeping plan as a use of the scheme by other employees. Some interviewees stated that users were not interested in browsing the functional classification scheme or navigating the tree-view folder structure to seek information.
B3: I think, nobody wants to browse this [scheme]. They want that there would be a list of records to put in class XXX and those for XXB, that someone would tell them where to file the records.
In most cases, record-keeping professionals in the registry office were selecting the right function class for new matters to be handled. Using the functional classification system after this selection is made was not perceived as demanding: after the right class had been selected, users were obliged only to select the record type for the record they were adding to the electronic system when handling a certain matter. Most interviewees thought that the users had to use only a few function groups and therefore knew them well. Because of this, the record-keeping professionals indicated, it is not hard for users to select the right record type from the list in the system. There were differences between the case organisations in how strictly the users were guided in use of the functional classification system. In general, the interviewees perceived users as able to use the functional classification scheme at the level necessary for conducting their duties.
A2: We use the same grouping in registration practices. The thing is that when there is a matter and its records, there are only a couple of options you can choose from when you add an attachment to the record in a specific group.
In principle, the record-keeping professionals were of the opinion that every user of an electronic document- or record-management system should be capable of using the system him- or herself. However, they knew that, in reality, secretaries sometimes had to operate the system on behalf of employees who did not want to do so or could not use it by themselves.
B3: The person who creates a record may give it to someone else to enter in the electronic system and classify.
The record-keeping professionals were aware that not all users followed the instructions on use of the electronic systems for filing documents. They perceived it as difficult to find a way to supervise the use. One of the organisations was about to start monitoring the system’s use to ensure correct filing.
A3: For example, we have described in the record-keeping plan that some records should be filed in the electronic document management system. But if the user does not follow the instructions but keeps the records somewhere on his hard disk or somewhere else, we won’t be informed. They don’t have problems in using the system. They don’t feel their records are missing or have problems like that. So they won’t tell us. So, how could we know it? But when we start monitoring the use, from now on we can also fine-tune our own course of action if needed.
Some record-keeping professionals reported negative attitudes of users towards using the organisation’s functional classification system. Some users had reported that they did not want to use or even learn to use the classification structure, which they viewed as complicated. Some users were perceived as thinking that it was the job of secretaries or a registry office to use the electronic record systems and to classify records.
C10: Here it just has not succeeded. People think that it is not their job – for example, the job of specialists. They don’t want to do a job they think is for secretaries, and they just didn’t take it up.
Many of the interviewees reported a perception that users did not understand the function arrangement in the classification scheme. They also noted that users might not even have been thinking about function-based classification when handling the records. The registration number was just a number they needed for handling the records and conducting their work. Also, when specifying a record type or when searching for a record in a system, users might not even have realised that they were using a functional classification scheme that was in the background, embedded in the system.
A1: [When they are selecting a record type] I am sure they don’t think that they are using functional classification […] it’s just something that is needed for going ahead.
The study provided insight into Finnish public-sector record-keeping professionals’ perceptions of functional classification systems’ various users and the systems’ uses.
The study generated description of the use of functional classification systems from the perspective of record-keeping professionals. They were responsible for the use and for user guidance; however, the findings illustrate that functional classification is seen not only as a record-keeping tool for records professionals but as for all employees who handle records in their work. The informants interviewed for the study worked at three separate Finnish public-sector organisations utilising various record-keeping systems. There were some differences between organisations as to users, the level of use, and the systems in use, but some patterns could be observed in salient characteristics.
The first research question was aimed at finding out what kinds of users record keeping professionals perceive functional classification systems to have in the Finnish public sector. The findings show that record-keeping professionals were the main users of each scheme and of all systems in which the classification scheme was embedded. The ambition of shared records-management responsibility, presented by Xie (2007), could be observed from the interviews. However, it seemed far from the reality of the case organisations’ current record-keeping. The other users utilised the relevant functional classification scheme to a lesser extent and only parts of it. Use varied from one organisation to another by unit, duties, and personal attitudes toward record-keeping. Overall, functional classification systems were used by all employees who handled records in their work. However, total rejection was reported too. This is in line with Gunnlaugsdóttir’s (2012) study, which found non-use of the systems when they are not perceived as usable. Users might also lack motivation (Mas et al., 2011) and a personal reason to use the system (Sanders, 1998).
With the second research question, I sought to find out how the record-keeping professionals saw the use of functional classification systems in Finland’s public sector. The findings indicate that the functional classification systems were underused in part. The registration tradition and centralised registry practices might have an influence on the amount of attention paid to the users of functional classification schemes (Henttonen, 2015). A tradition of user participation in records organisation is largely absent from the Finnish public sector. Registry offices have been responsible for tracking records.
On one hand, the record-keeping professionals hoped for users’ greater familiarity with record-keeping plans and the functional classification scheme. This is consistent with Convery’s (2011) view of a non-passive user. On the other hand, they perceived the function-based structure as hard to use and hoped for automated classification of records. As earlier studies (Calabria, 2006; Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2012; Singh et al., 2007) show, the function-based structure of the classification framework is not self-evident to users. Users were perceived as sometimes not even being aware of the classification embedded in the system. In a previous study, even professionals saw functional classification in concrete terms, not as an abstraction (Packalén and Henttonen, 2015).
Recently, users’ responsibility for processing records in their area of work have increased. Hence, users should be capable of managing these records and of using the systems for records’ organisation. However, the methods of organising the records do not seem to meet the users’ needs.
One limitation to the study is that the record-keeping professionals’ perceptions of the use of functional classification systems could not be clearly separated from their perceptions of how users used the electronic record-management systems in general. Where users were viewed as having difficulties in using the functional classification scheme of an electronic document- or record-management system, I was unable to ascertain whether the problem might have been in the users’ understanding of the classification scheme and in difficulties with use of its structure or instead in the computer systems’ usability. In addition, users apart from record-keeping professionals of functional classification systems were not interviewed. The paper has, however, met the objective of identifying various users and the extent of use of functional classification systems in Finnish public-sector organisations from the record-keeping professionals’ perspective.
The study extends understanding of functional classification systems’ use in records management. I succeeded in determining the various users and exploring their use of functional classification systems. Accordingly, the study provides new knowledge of the users and use of functional classification systems in the Finnish public sector.
The findings highlight a gulf between, on one hand, the aims of efficient records management in providing benefits to the organisation and its employees and, on the other, the methods developed for records organisation, which do not properly speak to the users’ needs. More attention should be paid to users of functional classification systems, record-keeping professionals’ various and partly contradictory expectations with regard to users, and the contribution of both groups to the use of functional classification systems.
In addition, more research focusing directly on users’ experiences in use of functional classification systems is needed. For example, shadowing users as they carry out their work with records’ processing could be a fruitful approach for a wider study.
The study is part of the author’s dissertation project. The author thanks the Memornet Doctoral Programme for funding the associated doctoral studies.
About the author
Saara Packalén is a PhD Candidate in the School of Information Sciences, 33014 University of Tampere, Finland. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.