Does Document Management Apply to Fish? The Answer is More Complicated Than You Might Think

February 18, 2021

Document Management

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that a fish is not a document. While this might seem like an absurd problem for one of the most powerful legal organizations in the world to consider, the idea behind it is an important one that might have an impact on how you do your job. On August 23, 2007, John Yates, the captain of the fishing boat Miss Katie, was fishing off the coast of Florida when he was found to have caught and kept a number of red grouper fish that were under the legal minimum size limit of 20 inches. The field officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission instructed Yates to return to port and keep the fish for evidence. Instead, Yates threw the fish back into the sea, effectively destroying the evidence against him.

In response, the Department of Justice charged Yates with violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 2232(a) and 1519 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This act, brought in as a response to the accounting scandals at Enron, includes a provision that bans the destruction of “any record, document, or tangible object… with the intent to obstruct an investigation.” According to the Department of Justice, the fish in question were tangible objects that served the function of documented information in relation to the crime.

Yates appealed the decision, and, in October 2014, SCOTUS agreed that a fish is not a document or tangible object as defined by Sarbanes-Oxley. Yet while popular media has had great fun pillorying the seemingly arcane ruminations of the Supreme Court, knowledge management specialists might recognize an important principle that sits at the foundation of the concept of documentation. In 1951, French librarian and historian Suzanne Briet—also known as “Madame Documentation”—wrote a pivotal work entitled Qu’est-ce que la documentation? or What is Documentation?. Briet, a dedicated and seemingly prescient modernist, challenged the prevailing notion that a document is a book, a piece of paper, or any other text-based object, posing instead the idea that a document was any indication—concrete or symbolic—that reconstructs or proves a physical or mental phenomenon. As an example, Briet describes an antelope that is caught, studied, preserved, and written about. As an object of study, the antelope is a document, and the articles and photographs of the antelope are actually secondary documents. In other words, if Briet had been sitting a member of SCOTUS in 2014, she would likely had dissented from the majority opinion that a fish is not a document, since it fits the parameters of her definition of a document that preserves or reconstructs a phenomenon.

For knowledge management, this is more than just erudite philosophizing in the style of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Instead, it relates to pivotal questions about what constitutes organizational knowledge, how we capture it, how we organize it, and how we make it accessible to people who need it. For many organizations, knowledge is contained in text-based artifacts that need to be managed and controlled by information governance policies. A document control application that provides organizing schema, security, and access is therefore a fundamental pillar of every enterprise organization, particularly those in the field of environment, health and safety, and quality. According to this perspective, documents are text, video, or sound files that contain information about the organization and are stored in a document control application.

Yet if we consider Briet’s definition of a document, we can see that pivotal information can exist in far more places than simply text-based documents. For example, tacit information that resides inside the head of an employee suggests that, in this context, a person is a document. In a quality environment, perhaps a process is a document. In complex system like an enterprise organization, documents can be any of the people, processes, or tools in which organizational learning resides.

This makes the concept of document management much closer to the broader field of knowledge management. While document management applications will continue to provide the backbone of the way an organization organizes its artifacts, we might consider the larger document management application to be the entire management system that integrates the knowledge contained in people, processes, and tools, particularly if it is an integrated management system (IMS) across multiple practices. Document management, therefore, moves from being a standalone application that collects and organizes text-based documents to one element of a larger integrated knowledge management system that acknowledges the multiple ways in which documented knowledge exists.

In summary, while you might not be incorporating fish into your document management system, you probably need to expand your idea of what constitutes a document and consider how document management can move from being an application that ticks a box for your audits to being a fundamental pillar of an integrated knowledge management system that collects knowledge and learning from every “document” in your organization.