We all have heard that the introduction of computers will reduce actual paper documents. Sadly, this turns out to be false. We are creating even more paper records than ever before. But even worse, for every paper record, there is now also a digital record (or more!). Digital is easily duplicated. You send it on to a colleague, who saves a copy. Or what often happens, you cannot find the record, and retrieve it from your sent items and save it again on your computer (where the original file lay hidden from you). Or you keep on downloading the same file from the internet because you forgot you have done it already. This can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of records on just one computer!
But how can we manage this digital mess?
We do it through Electronic Records Management (ERM).
What is Electronic Records Management?
According to the article Electronic Records Management 101, ERM can be defined as “the management of electronic files and documents as records. The key difference between ERM and the traditional records management of physical records is the focus. ERM captures records as part of a digital business process. You are preserving the original digital records, not paper copies that pile up in boxes in storerooms or warehouses. This enables you to create efficiencies by improving the automation of your business activities, providing accurate auditing, and applying your records schedules reliably.”
2. Why is Electronic Records Management important?
The most important reason for ERM is the introduction of the Protection of Personal Information Acts in various countries (POPIA in South Africa; The Data Protection Act in the UK; etc.) Most of these acts introduce hefty penalties for non-compliance, meaning that Records Management should form a critical part of your business strategy.
ERM is also essential to manage all digital files and records to avoid duplication and save on storage space. Capturing metadata helps to identify and categorize records and helps with efficient retrieval.
Proper filing of electronic records avoids duplication of digital records as well as fast and efficient retrieval. By using a naming convention (a standard for the naming of all files) and creating a logical file plan, files can be easily stored and retrieved, and duplication minimized.
The creation of file-sharing environments enables all members of a team or group to access all relevant records. Thereby removing the need to store copies on their own computers. These environments can be controlled by restricting access and user permissions (Full Access, Read-only or Contribute only). This can be done for example by creating Shared Servers or using an online service like Sharepoint. Being an online service, Sharepoint has the big advantage that it can be accessed from anywhere remotely if you have data and internet. What I also like about working on Sharepoint, is that you can access all records in Windows Explorer, enabling you to work as if directly on your PC.
3. Electronic Records Management Policy & Procedures
The ERM policy defines all critical aspects relating to Electronic Records Management, such as:
- what information your company must keep
- how it will be managed
- how long it will be kept and
- the procedures to ensure secure destruction.
Hand and hand with the policy documents are the ERM procedures. This describes the steps that need to be taken to reach the targets set out in the ERM policy. For both to be effective it is important that proper training is provided to employees, and that they understand the importance of these procedures. ERM cannot be confined only to a specific department or individual but is the responsibility of every employee in the company involved in creating or working with digital records.
4. What is the purpose of the Electronic Records Manager?
The ERM Manager streamline processes, provide training, and ensure that the policies are implemented. Together with management, they are responsible for the drafting of the ERM policy and establishing the procedures to follow. It is important to allocate specific tasks to specific individuals. However, in the policy, a specific role should be indicated, as people in the organization change with time.
The ERM policy indicates who is responsible for the approval of the policy. But it should also appoint an Executive Owner – someone who understands the requirements and ensure that the policies and procedures are implemented.
The best way to ensure compliance is by explaining the reasons for ERM. It is important to be specific and provide access to all sources relevant to the policy since this will explain the rationale behind the requirements. It will also create an institutional memory, which is essential to ensure continuance when key persons are replaced.
5. How to implement your Electronic Records Management policy?
The ERM procedures determine the How of your ERM implementation. The ERM Manager needs to do due diligence within the company, to establish the specific steps that need to be taken to ensure compliance. In co-operation with heads of departments, a workflow can be established that details – step by step – every action that needs to take place to manage all electronic records from creation to destruction.
5.1 Records Retention Schedule
An over-cautious “Save All” approach cannot be followed, as it leads to a waste of resources and noncompliance with the relevant acts.
The Records Retention Schedule provides a list of records within the organization and how long it should be kept from an operational and legal viewpoint. It is created through performing an inventory of all electronic records, establishing a record classification system, and by researching all federal, state, and local requirements. Outdated records should be disposed of in a timely, systematic manner.
5.2 Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures provide a standard for compliance with the ERM system. It should include the management of all records and media types (e.g. email) and should cover areas like record retention, active and unused files, email, and other areas as relevant.
Communication is key to ensure consistent and successful application throughout the organization. Thereby reducing your risk of non-compliance and loss of important information.
Accessibility, Indexing and Storage
Accessibility is important for the effective daily functioning of a business and its employees. Records need to be accessed quickly and effectively when needed. Indexing is an important part of ERM to ensure efficient retrieval, using parameters like date, subject matter, creator, and location of the record.
Electronic records can be stored and retrieved from an online document management system. Records that by law needs to be kept in physical form, can be stored offsite by using the services of an offsite record storage facility. They provide secure and climate-controlled facilities. Ensure that they also provide scan-on-demand services, for when you need to quickly retrieve records – if the physical document is not required.
Regular audits should be performed to ensure compliance by all employees, maintenance of historical records as well as the destruction of records in a timely, well-enforced manner throughout the organization. According to the VRC website article 5 Essential Records Management Procedures, an ERM audit should include the following components:
- Retention schedule complies with up-to-date laws and regulations
- Indexing accuracy and accessibility of documents
- Training and communication among staff and departments
- Protection and preservation of records
- Timely and consistent destruction of inactive files
Disposal of obsolete records
Why is it so important to dispose of obsolete records? From my experience, it is often exceedingly difficult to get approval for the destruction of records, out of fear that information might be required again at a later stage. Although this is perfectly understandable, keeping records for longer than required poses a risk of data breaches and hefty penalties for noncompliance. Timely destruction of records will save the business the risk of potential audits, legal risks, and storage costs.
Although fast and accurate retrieval of records is essential for the proper management of a business and productive employees, records management often seems to be a low priority for a business.
But considering the stiff penalties of non-compliance (Fines of up to R10 million and even a jail sentence of up to 10 years – POPI Act in South Africa), shouldn’t your business start to take ERM seriously?
If you are a small business owner without the necessary knowledge or resources, I can assist with scanning of paper records, as well as creating a file plan and naming convention to streamline efficient retrieval of electronic records.
What will you do today to start implementing an ERM system for your business?