Implementation guideline – Principle 3: Business information is adequately described

Describe business information so that it can be found, understood and accessed appropriately when needed.

Information that describes an information asset is known as metadata.

Recommended actions

3.1 Analyse and describe what needs to be known about business information so that all needed information can be dependably found, understood and used.

Business information can be found if it contains or links to:

  • identifying information such as a unique identifier or title

  • related information such as documents linked within a file structure

  • tools which have been used to enable consistency in description such as thesauruses or data dictionaries.

Business information can be understood if it contains or is persistently linked to description about:

  • its context such as who created it, when and for what purpose

  • its history and use, such as when it was captured into a system, who has accessed or viewed it, and if it has been changed and by whom.

Business information can be accessed appropriately when needed if it contains or is linked to description about:

  • its format

  • its security status

  • rights to, or restrictions on, individual and public access.

Metadata can be used to describe an information asset's:

  • content such as its title which assists to discover and retrieve the right information asset
  • context such as its security classification which assists to control access to the information asset, or its disposal status which assists with accountable retention or destruction of the information asset
  • structure such as its format which assists with its migration and preservation

Metadata can describe actions to or on an information asset, who created and used it, and the processes that have been applied to the information asset including if it has been viewed, copied or amended. Metadata accumulates over time to provide an accountable history of the management and use of an information asset. This results in a reliable and trusted asset.

The Archives has developed a short YouTube video as part of its eLearning products on the nature and purpose of metadata titled Meta…What? Metadata. The Archives also has advice about titling information and records which includes a short YouTube video What's in a name?

Metadata can be applied at different levels of aggregation. It can describe an individual item such as a document, an aggregation of documents such as case record, or an aggregation of case records such as a case management system.

The digital environment makes it easier to automate the creation and capture of metadata. However it is necessary to ensure that metadata about an information asset remains persistently linked to the asset in the digital environment.

Key resources

3.2 Determine what level of description is adequate.

Adequate description of business information:

  • provides sufficient detail to meet identified business needs and other uses for the content, such as public reuse

  • is of good quality including that it is accurate, complete and can be understood

  • will vary depending upon the intended use and significance of the information as well as any risk associated with the business activity.

It is important when developing or upgrading an information management system to know what metadata fields are required and how these will be configured.

The Business Systems Assessment Framework (BSAF) provides a streamlined, risk-based approach to the assessment of information functionality in business systems. BSAF is based on ISO 16175 Principles and functional requirements for records in electronic office environments. Phase 2 contains a number of questions relevant to metadata.

Metadata standards assist to detail what descriptive information needs to be consistently captured so that information assets can satisfy business needs, evidential requirements and broader community expectations.

The National Archives developed the Australian Government Recordkeeping Metadata Standard (AGRkMS) as a schema to assist Australian Government agencies to consistently and systematically describe their information assets. AGRkMS is based on AS/NZS ISO 23081 Information and Documentation – Records management processes – Metadata for Records – Part 1 Principles and Part 2 Conceptual and Implementation Issues.

The Standard contains a detailed list of properties which can or should be used by Australian Government agencies to describe their information assets. There are companion implementation guidelines to the Standard which provide more information about its structure and components.

The Archives has also developed a minimum metadata set as a practical application of AGRkMS. This identifies nine properties, some of which have associated sub-properties, essential for Agency management of information assets. The set is cumulative with a core set of properties to which additional properties are added based on the value and retention period of the asset. As the set is minimum agencies should add other properties from AGRkMS or other standards to meet their individual business and stakeholder obligations.

Key resources

Digital Continuity 2020 Policy targets:

  • 31 December 2016: All business systems procured after this date will meet minimum metadata standards and will be evaluated against the Archives' business systems assessment framework to meet functional requirements for information management.
  • 31 December 2017: Business systems containing high-value and long-term information assets meet minimum metadata standards.
  • 31 December 2020: Information is managed based on format and metadata standards for information governance and interoperability.

3.3 Design or provide tools and systems that:

  • where possible automate the collection and management of descriptive information

  • enable staff to enter descriptive information in a consistent manner

  • where required, standardise description to support sharing and interchange of quality data between internal and external systems.

Try to make the capture of quality metadata as easy as possible when designing information management functionality. This could include automating the capture of metadata where possible or including drop down menus or pick-lists of standardised terms for staff to choose from, where automated capture is not feasible. Additionally you could include in system design validations checks to ensure that required metadata has been entered correctly and completely.

Standardising metadata facilitates information exchang between internal and external systems. If information needs to be shared between systems it is more efficient if metadata fields and values between the systems are compatible.

Apart from metadata standards, other tools which enable standardised description include classification tools.

A well-known classification product is the Australian Government information security classification system which provides a consistent and structured approach to the protective marking of Australian Government official information.

Agencies may choose to analyse their business activities and create a conceptual model of their business functions and activities. This is known as a business classification scheme which can be further developed into a records classification scheme and used as a titling tool to ensure consistent, contextually based titling.

The Archives publication Overview of Classification Tools for Records Management compares two classification tools developed from a functionally based business classification scheme. The first is a hierarchically arranged record classification scheme, arranged by function, activity and in some instances, topic. The second is an alphabetically arranged functions thesaurus which also contains relationships between terms such as preferred and non-preferred terms.

The National Archives has produced a thesaurus to support resource discovery by function. The Australian Governments' Interactive Functions Thesaurus (AGIFT) is a classification tool which describes high-level business functions carried out across Commonwealth, state and local governments in Australia.

One of its uses is to provide standard terms for agencies to use in the 'Function' element of the AGLS metadata property set. The AGLS Metadata Standard is a set of descriptive properties created to improve visibility and availability of online resources. It has been mandated for use by Australian Government agencies.

Key resources

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019