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The Secrets to Delivering Document Retention that Keeps Business Stakeholders Smiling

The Secrets to Delivering Document Retention that Keeps Business Stakeholders Smiling

Document retention may be the most basic element of an information governance (IG) program. It’s the least exciting element, and also the most likely to put the IG at odds with the business. If it’s bungled, of course. This post will explore how to avoid that fate.

Building the document retention schedule with the business will provide what you need from your documents. It will also keep you on a good footing with your most important stakeholders.

Here are a few suggestions when working with the business to calibrate your document retention plan.

With document retention you’ve only got one option for adjustment – longer

It might seem obvious, but when you change the retention to fit business requirements, you can only lengthen them. You can’t go shorter. If Federal statute requires you keep a class of documents for seven years, but your business wants to keep them for five, that’s not going to work.

But, if your business wants to keep things for longer, you can accommodate that request. The danger here is that you must be sure to apply that in the same way to the entire category of document. You can’t deviate within a category.

You can break up the category into smaller ones if the business requires a longer document retention. Take care here, as you don’t want your document retention schedule to get complex (which will make it hard for the users to classify).

The business considerations of document retention

What kind of considerations might drive a longer document retention?

We’ve seen a few good use cases and some that are unique to organizations. We had one client find an old insurance policy from the 1960s which showed they were covered from an Asbestos claim to a company they had acquired. This led them to decide to keep insurance policy explanation of benefits for life of company. I think that made perfect sense.

Others may see a business reason that is more ambiguous. For instance, many clients find there being some benefit for reference purposes. I would be cautious to keep documents on the basis of convenience reference, there are some instances where you might be warranted.

The important thing to do here is to assess the business needs and be responsive to them. Document retention is one element to an information governance strategy. It should serve the organization. To ensure this, be sure to include your business stakeholders in the conversation.

Extending the retention does not need to be the only solution. You can build knowledge management tools to keep important reference materials without extending retention.

Judging important from not

It is important to focus on the extension of document retention to only those things that have a genuine business reason.

For others (e.g. reference) it would be best to try and manage the documents through knowledge management or another solution. Remember, you have many options available to you. The document retention schedule is not your only tool.

Be sure to listen to your stakeholders, but also guide them with your knowledge about how to manage document retention. Inform them of the need to keep the retention schedule as consistent and reflective as possible. But don’t be dismissive of their concerns or motivations.

How to incorporate stakeholders in the process

It’s best to incorporate the feedback of the business stakeholders early and often. Explain what you are doing and why. Ask them questions about their processes so you understand their drivers. That will make it easier to adjust the document retention schedule in a way that reflects business need (or try something else).

Make sure they understand as well. This isn’t a formality; this should be a constructive process. Include them in the early process and you avoid them feeling that you are dictating what they should do.

Follow the opt-out process

One lesson that is easy to miss is that it is best to ask people where they object to retention, rather than asking their opinion on each one. It takes a stronger opinion to have someone object when unprompted. But if you ask business users for feedback on each, you might find they object to each one.

They may not realize how tepid their objections are when your questions are more pointed. If they present a weak objection and you push back they might develop a more entrenched viewpoint.


A stellar document retention strategy will get you nowhere if you can’t get the business to accept it. To get a well-implemented plan follow change principles and design that includes your stakeholders.