Why do you need to worry about managing electronic records? Because, every business has an obligation to manage its records properly, including paper records and electronic records. There are both common sense and legal reasons for doing so. Try destroying all of your corporate records and then surviving a tax office audit. Try destroying all of your corporate records and then trying to find out who owes you money and why. Try destroying all of your vital records and then rebuilding your business after a fire or flood. Try destroying all of your corporate records and then winning a court case. Apart from criminals and con men, there can’t be anyone who doesn’t believe in managing corporate records and who doesn’t think that it is a smart, sensible and prudent thing to do.

So, what are corporate records, (note that vital records are an extremely important subset of corporate records without which your business can’t run), and what is their relation to electronic document management?

The records management standard, AS 4390, defines corporate records as:

“recorded information, in any form, including data in computer systems, created or received and maintained by an organisation or person in the transaction of business or the conduct of affairs and kept as evidence of such activity.”

AS 4390 also defines documents as:

“structured units of recorded information, published or unpublished, in hard copy or electronic form, and managed as discreet units in information systems.”

So, what does all this mean? Put simply it means that every business should be managing all of its records and that these records include paper, electronic documents, emails and images.

In my experience, most organisations do a fair to middling job of managing paper records and an abysmal job of managing electronic records. Is this because electronic records are less important?

Given that electronic records would include quotes, contracts, replies to complaints (all possible key elements of future litigation or disputations), facsimiles of paper information received from customers and suppliers (i.e., scanned paper documents), it sounds to me as if electronic records are very important indeed. We are also told that emails now comprise 80% of greater of all business communications so it makes sense to include them. Certainly then, electronic records are at the very least, equally important as paper records. So, why don’t most organisations manage them as well as paper?

Again, in my experience, electronic records aren’t managed as well as paper because organisations think that it is:

  1. too hard;
  2. too complex; and
  3. too costly.

Given today’s sophisticated software, it is actually none of the above but the software vendors haven’t yet managed to convince enough people of the significant advantages of managing all records, regardless of format. In reality, it actually costs far less to manage an electronic record than it does to manage a paper record. The ‘human-time’ and storage costs of paper records are enormous. The cost to capture and store an electronic record in a database is miniscule by comparison. Try comparing the cost of moving a paper record across town to the simple act of providing electronic access to that same record to an employee across town.

Now let’s address the question of ‘ownership’. Paper records are often considered to be wholly within the domain of the records manager. This makes it easy to implement a paper records management system. Electronic documents however, are usually considered to be owned by a multiplicity of people and vertical organisations within any one company. It is therefore often very difficult to get one person or one department to assume responsibility for all records when applying the AS4390 definitions.

In essence, this translates to an absurd situation whereby people in an organisation think that paper records belong to the records manager but that all other electronic corporate records (e.g., emails, Word, Excel, PDF, etc.) belong to individual departments and managers. Many organisations are thus a victim of their own illogical practices.

Having established that it is no more difficult, no more complex and no more costly to manage electronic records than paper records, we now need to address this issue of ownership.

The contention that the ownership of electronic records is a barrier to running an effective electronic document and records management system is a furphy. It actually doesn’t matter who owns them. The process of managing them is quite independent. It is the task of getting someone in authority to accept overall authority for the whole organisation and ‘sign-off’ on the process that is difficult. You can’t leave this important question with the numerous line managers in your organization because they will never agree, it is politics 101.

In most cases it is only difficult to get approval to manage all electronic records because we approach the wrong person (or people). Ownership in and authority over all corporate records can only vest in the Chief Executive Officer or President or maybe the CIO. If you convince one of these senior managers of the benefits of managing all corporate records, regardless of form or content, then there are no barriers whatsoever to implementing an enterprise-wide electronic document and records management system.

If convincing them of the benefits doesn’t do the trick, try explaining the risks and penalties they face for not managing all corporate records; they can be significant including jail time and massive fines and there are plenty of industry examples. If you have a cohesive business plan and have convinced a quality senior executive, you will end up with a quality electronic document and records management system (EDRMS). Good luck and good governance.

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