June 5, 2017

Introduction to Classification, Taxonomy and File Plans – Foundational Elements of Information Governance: Part 2

By: Charmaine Brooks, Certified Records Manager, Partner

There are three typical classification types for business content:

  • Subject – based on the topic or subject terms, generally arranged in alphabetical order, such as vendor name; typically developed within a business unit. Results in extreme duplication and term-confusion; difficult to use across business units.
  • Organizational – reflects the organizational structure, is familiar to users and often mimics the paper based filing structures. Results in duplication and term-confusion; difficult to use across business units.
  • Functional – based on the high level purpose or responsibility managed by the organization to fulfill its goals, the activities or major tasks performed to accomplish the functions and transactions or tasks to group and identify document and record types.  Results in clear, concise terms and stable across time.
  • Best practices for records and information governance and management recommend seven (7) to twelve (12) top level (functions) with no more than three levels below the top level functions. Human ability to comprehend a “list” breaks down with more than fifteen (15) levels. Beyond just three levels our ability to make sense of structure and navigate it begins to breakdown.

It is a simple process to make things complex, but a complex process to make things simple.

Let’s talk about functional classification in more depth.

Functional Classifications Schemes

Classification of business activities is a powerful tool for the management of records (content) and to understand the relationship between a business and its records. Classifications related to business functions provides a systematic process for records and information management. Developing a functional classification scheme identifies the organization’s activities within the business framework of its mission or purpose – a representation of the organization’s functions, activities and transactions.

Benefits of functional classification schemes include:

  • More stable, not affected by organizational changes
  • Provides linkage between individual records to provide a continuous history of activity
  • Ensures consistent naming of records over time
  • Improves retrieval of all records relating to a function or activity
  • Easier and more logical way of identifying security and access requirements
  • Identification of responsibilities and actions required to meet those responsibilities
  • Retention periods are easily linked to the right level in the classification allowing for efficient disposition actions – nearly impossible with subject—based filing schemes in shared drives.

Classification schemes provide an organization with a tool to:

  • Organize, describe and link its records,
  • Link and share records, either internally or externally, and
  • Provide improved access, retrieval, use and disposition.

Classification schemes promote consistency of filing and facilitate retrieval and use. Classification schemes can be used to support a variety of records management processes in addition to facilitating access and use; for example, storage & protection and retention & disposition. Using a functions based approach for classification recognizes that records are defined by their relationship to the activities they document. This gives content meaning and context.

How powerful can functional classifications be? One of our clients had a subject and location based file plan with 10,000 records series.  We moved them to a functional classification of less than 300 record series.  As a user would you rather look for retention rules in document with 10,000 entries or 300?

Classification schemes are usually supported by tools such as file plans, thesauri and disposition authorities (record retention plan).


A Thesaurus is a controlled list of terms linked together by hierarchical, associative or equivalence relationships of terms. It is a tool that supports the classification and management of records, usually at the file level to ensure classification terms are used consistently throughout a recordkeeping (filing) system in a specific business context. The terms are structured by the relationships between terms. Examples of relationships include broader term, narrower term, related term, preferred/use and non-preferred/use. Thesauri are generally an alphabetical representation of the classification scheme.

Thesauri based on business functions enable records to be classified according to the context in which they are created and used. In contrast to a subject approach, records are classified according to why they exist rather than what they are about.

Vocabulary controls are developed to meet the complexity of content being managed; they identify organization-specific definitions or usage of terms. Controlled vocabularies provide the ability to cross‑reference terms (such as related terms, synonyms, preferred terms) and identify terms with greater precision.  For example, a preferred term of “toilet” would have non-preferred terms of “bathroom”, “head”, “loo”, and “john”.  Thesauri are particularly useful to localize languages (e.g. British and American English) and to standardize usages after mergers.

File Plan

A File Plan is a tool for classifying content to bring together records with common characteristics. The File Plan is derived from a Business Classification Scheme to provide a framework for classifying records according to the business functions and activities which generate them. Often these are developed at the organizational level such as a division or department. The file plan determines how the record/documents are filed and the retention requirements that apply. The two need to be linked at the right level to be able to apply retention.

There are three compelling reasons for having a File Plan.

  1. Provides quick and easy access to records and information relating to the same function and activity irrespective of which business units produces or receives them. A subset of the classification scheme based on the categories applicable to a business unit create a very user friendly file plan.
  2. Provides consistent retention and disposal of records – across all record formats and in all digital and physical locations. A File Plan derived from the classification scheme can be easily integrated with a Records Retention Schedule by assigning retention periods to classification categories. This makes it easier to locate and remove records which are time or event based, minimizing the need for complex and time-consuming review and weeding processes. It is difficult to apply retention rules to subject files.
  3. “Case files” are not identified in Classification Schemes or Taxonomies. They are included in File Plans and Retention Schedules since they are aggregations of documents/records.
  4. Links to the Disposition Authority so that disposition criteria are at the user’s fingertips.

Steve Krug wrote “Don’t Make Me Think” [1] as a common sense approach to web usability. When designing your classification structures keep this simple concept in mind. Your end users will thank you!

[1] https://www.sensible.com/dmmt.html

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