Records Management Workflow Tips for Going ‘Paper-Light,’ Not Paperless

0514CanonFor the past several decades, companies of all sizes, across nearly every industry, have realized the need to implement a proper records management program to ensure legislative compliance, minimize their litigation risks and streamline document-based storage requirements.  However based on our experience, in many cases, companies simply do not have the resources available internally to effectively create and maintain a records management program.

In fact, a survey conducted by Forrester Research and the Association of Records Managers and Administrators in 2013 found that fewer than 10 percent of companies admit to high levels of confidence in their approach to the governance of digital information. According to the survey, the records management function is typically understaffed and undermanaged due to an outdated or lack of retention schedule, insufficient records staff and non-standardized use of technology.

Similarly, research conducted by Canon Business Process Services found that just 15 percent of companies have the essential records management program components in place—including an updated records retention schedule, cost-effective and efficient long-term storage, a records policy that is supported by senior management and communicated to employees, and a sufficient number of well-trained employees who are dedicated to the records management function. Less than a third of respondents indicated that they maintain records for the time prescribed by law, and just 34 percent said that their companies periodically remove obsolete or redundant data.  All this, despite the fact that 75 percent of the companies we surveyed have a senior executive who is accountable for recordkeeping.

So it is not surprising that many companies that adopt a records retention program resort to a “scan everything” approach for ease and simplicity. However, this approach can lead to significant long-term issues, putting companies at the same risk as not creating an effective records program in the first place.  For example, by not identifying what should or should not be kept—based on an easy-to-understand taxonomy and corresponding retention schedule—companies can create a “digital chaos.”  This situation is more difficult to manage because naming conventions are not standardized and there is no version control to clarify which record should be referenced for the most accurate data. Additionally, employees begin to create their own copies of electronic documents because they do not trust what can be located in the company’s repository due to the sloppy and inaccurate way the images were loaded.

Despite these and many other potential challenges, some companies resort to the “scan everything” approach because they are simply overwhelmed and do not know where to start when creating a records management program. And other times, there is a practical reason behind this impulse, such as moving offices or skyrocketing offsite paper storage costs.

The new approach to record keeping: “paper-light,” not paperless

Our view is that going completely paperless is not sustainable, nor is it strategic, and approaching records management from a “scan everything” viewpoint is not realistic. Canon Business Process Services works with companies to help them go “paper-light,” not paperless. Done correctly, this approach can help companies control costs, streamline workflows and keep information secure.

For example, a legal services firm was recently moving its office to a new location and solicited our help in preparing its records. The company asked us to come in and scan everything with the expectation that they would not need to be worried about countless boxes.  However, before we created a program for them, we asked them to take a step back. We worked with the firm to implement a records retention schedule that was more strategic and, ultimately, more effective. The work we did with this firm has meaningful implications for any company that wants to adopt a “paper-light” records management program.

How can companies adjust their records management programs – or create them – with the goal of becoming “paper-light”? Many companies opt to work with an expert service provider to ensure that they are effectively executing their records management programs, especially when a goal is to be selective in which records to digitize. That said, for companies that choose to handle their records management programs in-house, that work can be replicated on a smaller scale to help create or improve their records management programs.

Before zeroing in on solutions, assess existing process with a “records needs assessment”

As we began our engagement with the legal services firm, our first step was to examine its existing records management program in order to gain a big-picture, holistic view of the problem and develop a customized solution. For any organization, investing in an upfront “records needs assessment” will reveal gaps in its current process, reveal corrective actions and help benchmark processes so they can be measured and improved upon on an ongoing basis.

Despite the numerous benefits a records needs assessment can provide, fewer than half of the companies we surveyed have ever conducted one. Partnering with a service provider can help companies obtain a more objective viewpoint into the current state of their programs and areas for improvement.

When it comes to “active” documents, a simple approach is best

After identifying the firm’s crucial documents and current record-keeping practices through the records needs assessment, our next step was to determine which documents to digitize and which to keep as paper. If a record is “inactive” – that is, eligible for destruction within the next two years – we see no reason to commit unnecessary resources toward scanning it. Keep it in its paper form!

Taking a judicious approach to digitizing records will help companies avoid a headache when it becomes necessary to dispose of records: while 41 percent of our survey respondents said that their companies dispose of physical records in a secure manner, just 22 percent said the same about their electronic records.

Identify already-digitized documents – and leave them alone

In our experience, companies that are overhauling their records management programs often do not realize that many of their important documents have already been digitized – and obviously, there is no need to rescan them. This was the case with the legal services firm, so our next step was to allocate time toward assessing which documents were already in electronic form. Ultimately, taking the time to identify already-digitized documents saved the firm valuable labor and storage costs.

Similarly, if a document is already in electronic format and has been declared a record, the company should stop sending it offsite to be stored. The records needs assessment will reveal which documents are being sent offsite, and why, so that companies can be more diligent about containing escalating offsite storage contract costs. We have found that making this simple adjustment is the most effective way to prevent future, unnecessary paper storage costs.

Leverage Others in Your Company

The importance of a solid records management program may be underestimated by many companies, but records have a symbiotic relationship with departments that typically receive much more attention, such as IT, legal and compliance.  At the same time, our research finds that most organizations do not involve outside departments in their records management programs: for example, just 28 percent have interviewed appropriate employees to determine how long records are needed to be kept to satisfy business requirements. During this legal services engagement, for example, we partnered with those departments to ensure that they fully understood the requirements for effective recordkeeping practices beyond labor or scanners.

Becoming “paper-light” does not happen overnight; rather, it is a gradual process that can be broken out into clear, actionable steps. Many companies struggle with managing existing paper documents as information moves interchangeably between paper and digital formats. Because the volume of information companies have to organize is overwhelming and constantly increasing, document management processes, including recordkeeping, must be flexible enough to adapt to changes. While the temptation is to digitalize everything in fear of not being compliant with company record guidelines, there is a better way: a few simple steps can help companies take control of their records management programs to maximize their effectiveness.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Workflow

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Melissa Carlis

Melissa Carlis

Melissa L Carlis, CRM, CIP, ermM is Director of Records Development for Canon Business Process Services, Inc., a leading provider of managed services and technology. Please visit www.cbps.canon.com for more information.
Melissa Carlis

Melissa Carlis

Melissa L Carlis, CRM, CIP, ermM is Director of Records Development for Canon Business Process Services, Inc., a leading provider of managed services and technology. Please visit www.cbps.canon.com for more information.