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Physical records management here to stay along with digital records

Some organizations, because of audience or regulatory reasons, are stuck with paper indefinitely. Learn how three organizations commingle physical and digital content.

One would think that somewhere en route on the annual march to the bigger, badder and more efficient enterprise IT -- with the greatest engineering minds and ruthlessly capitalistic tech vendors working the last three decades to replace paper records with digital proxies -- the software industry would have rooted out all the dead trees from office workflows.

Nope.

"The hybrid [paper and digital] situation will continue for the foreseeable future," said Lisa Glick, records management analyst at motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson Inc. Glick has to deal with physical records management along with the digital.

At Harley-Davidson, paper records constitute items for the company's museum as well as personnel records for some employees whose tenure with the company extends back decades. There are also mandates from some national governments, such as China, that require financial records on paper.

Paper isn't going anywhere, Glick, along with Jensen Brown, records information analyst at the Ontario Securities Commission, and Colleen MacNaughton, corporate content management team lead for the Calgary, Alta., city clerk's Law & Legislative Services office, agreed in a panel discussion at OpenText's Enterprise World user conference in July. Each panelist is leading efforts to digitize records as much as possible and move them into commonly accessible content repositories, but they've also had to make peace with the fact that paper isn't likely to go away for years, decades or maybe not ever.

Mixing digital and paper

For many companies, physical records management is still needed for numerous reasons. Among them: Some governmental agencies, to serve all citizens, must give people who can't or don't want to use digital devices the right to fill out paper forms. In other cases, some state, provincial or even national governments still require certain documents to be filed on paper or to be retained for years or even a century or more.

In still others, old paper records represent historical artifacts. Glick cited the example of a 1901 engineering drawing for the first Harley, which exists on a 2" x 2.5" hank of drafting linen. It, along with many historical photos and other images, has been digitized -- but for obvious reasons her company will never discard the original. Brown said her office is required to keep items related to its regulatory hearings for a century, so the company has some odd pieces such as Walmart branded merchandise that was part of one hearing that will have to be warehoused for nearly the next 100 years. Part of that is in 35,500 boxes of paper records in off-site storage.

People get drawn more to electronic [records] when they're looking for efficiency in business processes.
Colleen MacNaughtonCalgary, Alberta city clerk's Law & Legislative Services office

So the challenge for content management executives becomes commingling all the bits and bytes and dead trees in digital records management systems, as well as tracking paper records within digital repositories so they can be located when they're needed. Or, in cases of employee turnover, not losing them altogether. Content management technology can help public and private enterprises with physical records management, as well as track which employees access which papers in the course of their work.

But there's still a general push to go digital when it's possible. "We want employees to make conscious decisions about the media they're storing their records on," said MacNaughton, who added that through the content management system, Calgary is helping create more open access to physical records because they're catalogued and tracked digitally and therefore can be searched and made more "findable" because those catalog entries feature metadata and nomenclature standardized to their digital counterparts.

Destroying paper comes with cost

Another reason paper will be with many organizations for a long time to come is the costs of digitizing it and destroying the paper records. Storing paper is a lot cheaper, at least in the short- and medium-term. The digitization process involves more than just scanning in pages or properly photographing a physical object; it also requires finding the object, organizing the content and making sure the right standardized metadata tags make the digital proxy something employees can find and view in the digital records management platform.

For this reason, depending on the quantity of paper a company or public agency is holding on to, it makes better business sense to hold on to the paper despite the access issues and physical degradation that can happen over time with paper.

"In our storage, we store for 13 cents a box, but when we go to destroy it, it's $3. So it's sometimes hard to justify why we are doing that to those who are writing the checks because it [can be] thousands of dollars versus just letting it sit," said Glick, whose company maintains 50,000 boxes of paper records. "The return on investment is a long-term conversation … about the liability and risk of retaining those records."

For governmental agencies moving toward open-data models, like those in Canada, physical records management issues can go against those principles. So they create transparent digital records of who's borrowing which physical records, where they are, and in the case of sensitive information that needs to be protected, confirming the credentials of the person accessing it.

But in the end, these are all workarounds for the ultimate prize: everything digitized in a paper-free world. "People get drawn more to electronic [records] when they're looking for efficiency in business processes," said MacNaughton, whose office currently maintains 106,000 boxes of paper records. "But it's a gradual process."

Next Steps

Expert tips for digital records management best practices

Compliance issues govern records management for some

Records management vendor hype vs. reality

This was last published in July 2017

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