What are classification tools?

Records classification, based on functional analysis, is a key tool used in the management of records. When records are classified the management of their retention and disposal, and their security and access, is greatly improved. Classifications mark groups of records with a label, the classification, which conveys meaning to both users and records managers over time. Improved retrieval of records is a secondary benefit.

Business classification schemes and thesauruses use a controlled vocabulary as a tool to support effective records management. These tools keep information of like kind, or with shared attributes, together. They can be linked directly to disposal and security access regimes.

Functional analysis is used to identify business functions and to break these down into their constituent activities and transactions.(2) Analysis is top-down with the broad goals and objectives of the organisation first being identified. The business functions which deliver these objectives are then identified, with these in turn being broken-down into their constituent activities and transactions.

Business Classification Scheme (BCS)

A business classification scheme is derived from a detailed analysis of the unique business processes of an organisation.

It is a hierarchical classification with:

  • the top level representing the business function (not the unit name)
  • the second level representing the activities that make up the function
  • the third level the transactions that take place within each activity.

Business classification schemes should not describe the form a record takes, for example: email; file note; final report etc. Nor should they describe the business unit performing the action. This type of information can be captured in metadata about the record.

The classification should be based on the purpose or business use of the record, not the form it takes or the entity performing the action.

A BCS is a hierarchical classification scheme in which the available classifications are developed and laid out in advance, with the user selecting a classification from a list of the existing options.

Thesaurus

A thesaurus, as used in the records management industry, is a hierarchical classification scheme based on function. It uses the same terms as a business classification scheme. However, all the classifications in the scheme have not been enumerated and listed out in full. The “titling” or classification of documents is flexible and can be made up, at the time of the record's capture, using the classification terms available and the rules of thesaurus use. These rules prohibit the linking of certain terms and indicate which terms should be or should not be used together.

There are three types of thesauruses:

  1. agency specific (functional)
  2. general administrative
  3. merged (1. and 2. combined).

An agency specific (functional) thesaurus addresses records that are only created by that agency and are 'operational' or 'business specific' to that particular agency.

There are currently two types of general administrative thesauruses used in the Northern Territory.

  • The NT Government has adopted Keyword AAA developed by the State Records Authority of New South Wales, which provides a controlled set of terms for use by organisations in the classification of common administrative terms, e.g. financial management, personnel and property management.
  • Keyword for Councils, also developed by the State Records Authority of New South Wales, is designed for use in classifying, titling and indexing council records. This is able to be adopted by NT local authorities for classifying records.

A merged thesaurus combines terms from both the functional and the general administrative thesauruses into a single merged thesaurus of terms in alphabetical order.

Transposing Thesaurus Terms into a BCS format

As the thesaurus is a hierarchal classification scheme based on functional analysis, it can be transposed into the BCS format. The keyword becomes the top level of the classification; activities become the next level; with subjects forming the third level.

Existing thesaurus terms are a good base for the development of a BCS. When transposing terms into the BCS format, it is essential to analyse which thesaurus titles are in frequent use. Analysis of the current usage of thesaurus terms in the titling of records will aid in mapping out key classifications.

A BCS should not be created which merely works through the possible combinations and permutations of the existing thesaurus as this will generate many classifications which are unlikely ever to be used. The NTG has been using thesaurus classifications in TRIM for more than a decade and consequently there is much precedent to work with when transferring the terms into a BCS. Consultation with business unit staff that will be using the classifications is essential in creating a usable scheme.

Business Classification System versus Thesaurus

Both the BCS and thesaurus are hierarchical classification schemes based on the analysis of business functions. The BCS requires more work at the design and implementation stage as possible classes of records which require a specific classification are identified and enumerated. New classifications can be added later if needed, however the BCS should be implemented in as "complete" a state as possible.

For the end user the BCS requires less effort to classify a record than a thesaurus. With a BCS, a user need only select from a predefined list of options, rather than “synthesise” a classification each time from the available thesaurus terms (though once a precedent has been set with a thesaurus this is typically re-used to maintain consistency).

In TRM the BCS has the ability to have a disposal schedule attached directly to a particular classification ie. in the general set-up options of the classification, one value can be assigned to each classification as a default disposal class. The TRM set-ups for ISO thesaurus titling do not allow for this option, requiring the disposal class to be assigned to the record as a separate step.

This extra functionality of the BCS in TRM is an advantage over the thesaurus and a key reason for its increased use. However, if BCS classifications are not based on a functional approach i.e. using the pre-existing thesaurus terms, the ability to map a disposal class to the classification may not be possible. A BCS classification should be based on a functional approach, with each classification able to be mapped directly to a disposal class.

Classifications which are too broad, refer to an organisational unit, or indicate a document type will not usually map cleanly to a disposal class and should be avoided.

Limitations of thesauruses

The thesaurus option in TRM allows the controlled titling of records. It includes provision to flag non-preferred terms and provide links to the preferred term (which a BCS does not do). Thesaurus titling is open to interpretation by end users as titles are selected and developed at the time of registration - unexpected use of terminology is possible.

A term at the second level of the hierarchy can have many broader terms, and many narrower terms, but not all these broader terms make sense when put together with the narrower terms.

For example:

  • A local council is responsible for managing their fleet of vehicles.
  • They are also responsible for controlling the local dog population under the Dog Act.
  • They apply for licenses for their vehicles, and the vehicles have licence plates.
  • They grant licenses to dog owners, and give the owners tags to affix to their dogs.

The following is the hierarchy as it would appear in the thesaurus structure providing a number of options, not all of them correct:

Table showing the limitations of classifying using a thesaurus structure; at the top level are the terms Fleet Management and Dog Management; at the second level is the term Licensing; at the third level are the terms Licence Plates and Dog Tags

Using the thesaurus these are the options presented for classification:

Licensing
Broader Term: Dog Management, Fleet Management
Narrower Term: Dog tags Licence plates

What titles are allowed under the thesaurus?

  • Fleet Management - Licensing - Licence Plates
  • Dog Management - Licensing - Dog Tags
  • Fleet Management - Licensing - Dog Tags
  • Dog Management - Licensing - Licence plates

In the above example, the last two titles are invalid, however their creation is possible with the use of a thesaurus. A business classification scheme would not have the invalid classifications available for selection and the inadvertent use of these would not be possible.

The only options allowed would be as follows:

Table showing how the deficiencies using a thesaurus structure cannot happen in a business classification scheme; the top line links the three terms Fleet Management, Licensing and Licence Plates; the bottom line links the three terms Dog Management, Licensing and Dog Tags; there is no possible cross-over between the terms to create confusion.

The BCS removes the option for end users to select classifications that do not make sense, setting-out clearly and unambiguously the available options.

In addition to this, a BCS classification structure allows the allocation of disposal schedule classes in a way that is not automatically possible in a thesaurus (see 9. Align Classification with Disposal).

Recommendation

For the above reasons the NT Records Policy Unit recommends the use of a business classification scheme to classify records rather than use a thesaurus.

Last updated: 15 March 2019

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