One of the services we provide at Leppert is document shredding for clients from the local Hamilton, Burlington and Oakville communities. We recently have done a project for a local charity that encompasses their records from 2005. This is obviously a file clean up that matches the statutory seven year retention period mandated by the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency).
In thinking about this situation I realized that for organizations which had adopted electronic filing using a properly designed document management system this need for periodic clean up and shredding changes dramatically.
By setting a retention schedule as part of the document storage component of the filing system every document entered into a specific indexing setup can be automatically flagged for the required retention period. Once the retention deadline is reached the system 'knows' that a document is ready for deletion.
By doing a monthly purge of documents slated for deletion based upon their required retention schedule it is easy to keep the record system clean. No longer is there a need to manually go through the boxes of paper records selecting those due for destruction and once selected deal with arranging for a shredding service to destroy your old files.
One question that is often asked is why is destruction important, especially if the files are held electronically?
A records manager colleague of mine answered this question for me some time ago. He advised that keeping records beyond their mandatory date just opens the organization up to potential problems in the event there is ever any litigation in the future. While this possibility might be remote the costs of production of records in a case looking back many years can be a big part of the legal bill. If records have been purged following government mandated schedules then there is no requirement to produce such documents, as long as you no longer have them. This can reduce the costs of a case and perhaps save a law suit completely.
While retention management will not be a single determinant on the benefits of an electronic document management system, it will become a great tool which the more structured system will provide and which can reduce the hassles associated with cleaning the records.
Many organizations just ignor the need to purge and files accumulate over time and the next thing you know there are many years of paper records which are just held when there is no longer a good business reason to keep them. After all, this is the kind of task that no one is assigned as a primary duty and gets designated to someone when the collection starts to overwhelm. In many instances the files are kept in some dirty, dusty, remote warehouse location and the out of sight out of mind syndrome kicks in.
Not all records need to be kept for seven years. Many documents which are not mandated by government can be destroyed much sooner. Do you really need to have five years of sales quotes on file? Is correspondence necessary to hold for long periods or could it be cleared in a couple of years? Managing these varied schedules is a challenge in a paper system but easy with a properly setup document management structure. Managing them in a poorly designed electronic system can also become a problem.
Careful readers will note that in referring to the electronic filing and retention schedules I describe it as a proper document management system. Not all electronic filing systems are the same and many home grown methods that people have deployed will not include such tools as retention setting rules. Filing to a shared hard drive on a network server is a good example of what some people call electronic filing (it is but is not structured) but that does not include such features as retention scheduling.
With the number of options available for document management designed for electronic record keeping building your own home grown system is really not necessary or advised. There are just too many good cost effective options available that can simply do it better.
Is document retention and destruction an issue for your organization? How old are your files? Is it time to clean the closet?