Forget the Forest - Save the Trees

By Sanders, Robert L. | Records Management Quarterly, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Forget the Forest - Save the Trees


Sanders, Robert L., Records Management Quarterly


Conventional wisdom is clear. Success awaits the person who does not get bogged down in details. We admire the far-sighted traveler who does not allow the bumps in the road to distract his vision from the horizon. We venerate the sage whose eyes register nothing but trees, but whose mind perceives the forest. We follow the leader who grasps the "big picture." We look up to the philosopher who recognizes that an organic whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the holistic physician who treats the body as a living entity, not just a variety of unrelated symptoms. The virtue that all of these examples illustrates is the ability to translate complex issues into simpler, more general concepts that our minds can grasp quickly and fully, thereby enabling us to act efficiently, consistently, and effectively. Recently I became aware of the universality of this need while attempting to help my son with multiplying fractions. For the idea is very similar to the mathematical process of finding the least common denominator. This step enabled him (once he stopped complaining) to convert complex fractions into simple fractions with identical denominators, which he could then multiply to find the answer. A similar process is just as important in business. For without simplifying and generalizing, planning is impossible, monitoring becomes cumbersome, and any action is hampered by the need to deal with unique individuals rather than groups.

These observations, which appear self-evident today, arrived in the business office in the early twentieth century with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his study of process efficiency. The idea was further refined by theorists of work simplification and recently reappeared in process reengineering. For these process theorists, the forest is the basic business process while the trees are those extraneous, purposeless procedural steps that delay the process, as well as irrelevant details that add to its cost without adding to its value.

As Michael Pemberton has shown, records management is very much in the tradition of Taylorism and work simplification. Its basic thrust has been toward standardization and simplification of paper processing. Indeed, its most famous contribution, the development of record retention scheduling, is the most successful application of work simplification in the modern office. For it achieves cost effective processing by grouping a wide heterogeneity of individual records into simpler, more basic general categories. Without the development of these general categories, the ships of both business and government would have long ago foundered in a sea of paper as the forlorn office sailors tried to bail out the paper ocean page by page.

RECORDS MANAGEMENT STANDARDS

Having made a name for themselves standardizing records retention periods, records managers have applied the same sort of standardization to every aspect of records handling. They have emphasized the space and equipment savings to be gained by storing inactive records in standard records boxes on standard metal shelving. They have campaigned to eliminate legal files, in order to standardize on more efficient letter files. They have preached the labor savings and efficiency of using streamlined, standardized forms and form letters. They have used the same approach in dealing with directives and reports. Everywhere, they have tried to improve office-productivity through simplifying, standardizing, and generalizing. They have recognized that whatever is detailed, complex, or unique will take more time to understand and process, and they have known that this time costs the organization money.

MAINTAINING THE BALANCE: DETAILS VS COMPLEXITY

In the attempt already described to help my son with math, I was not too effective. He earned only a D on the exam. At least I came to learn something about simplification, in particular the difference between simplification and generalization in mathematical versus non-mathematical situations. …

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