In this electronic world, keeping documents and records should be simple. It’s all there on our computers, easily searched and retrieved.
But proper record-keeping isn’t always easy. Compatibility issues mean electronic documents aren’t necessarily there when you want them. Lost laptops and dying hard drives can mean disaster. And, anyway, paper still plays a significant role in our working lives.
Given that, one reason many businesses don’t have a clear plan for archiving information is that they make the task more complicated than it really is, says Kamel Shaath, chief technology officer at KOM Networks Inc., an Ottawa archival software vendor.
You keep documents because you need them to run the business, because government or regulators say you must, or in case you need to produce them in a court case, says George Goodall, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
Canadian tax law requires that records be kept six years from the end of the tax year. The guideline for financial transaction records is five years. The requirements are different for other documents. For instance, if a transaction is reported as suspicious, records need to be kept five years from the date of that report.
Many small and medium businesses have a simple retention policy, Mr. Goodall says – “we’re going to keep everything forever.”
This can work. But can you find records if you need them? In litigation, it’s acceptable if records have been destroyed according to a clear policy of keeping them for a set length of time. If you still have them, though, you must produce them. That could be costly in time and money if you don’t know exactly what you have and where.
Privacy law may also forbid keeping personal information – about customers or employees, for instance – longer than necessary. Mr. Goodall says some businesses start with a “keep it forever” policy but make exceptions where privacy is an issue.
Never deliberately deleting anything doesn’t guarantee keeping everything. Laptops get lost – if a file exists only on that laptop, it’s gone. Files may be accidentally deleted, or altered, which can be a problem if regulators or lawyers want the file as it existed at a certain date.
All files that need to be kept should be copied to a dedicated server with provisions to ensure they remain secure, says Brenda Prowse, manager of professional services and information management for Prima Information Solutions Inc. in St. John’s. Prima, which helps its clients with records and information management, transfers its own Microsoft Office documents and key records to such a server, managed by archival software called TRIM from Hewlett-Packard Co.
Businesses can choose from among many such archival systems. KOM Networks’ software lets a business specify how long documents are to be kept and then destroys them automatically and irretrievably when the period expires, Mr. Shaath says. Documents can be protected against unauthorized alteration or deletion.
Whether you use such specialized software, Mr. Goodall says, no important document should exist only on a laptop or desktop hard drive. It should go to network storage where it will be backed up and secured against tampering.
What about paper documents? Even businesses that are determined to go paperless must deal with some, such as invoices and receipts. “In business we’re not alone,” Mr. Goodall says. “We have any number of suppliers, we have any number of customers, and they have paper-based requirements.”
Prima scans most paper documents and stores them electronically. That’s partly for convenience – “sitting in a file drawer, it’s not going to help us if we’re sitting at home or we’re travelling,” says Ms. Prowse. But she warns businesses to scan with care. “Scanning and then shredding immediately is a no-no,” she says. “The paper should be kept until the company is sure the scans are readable and searchable.”
Then you need to decide which – the paper or the electronic format – is the official record. “Defining this and then putting in documented controls and retentions will validate the program and keep them safe if litigation arises,” Ms. Prowse says.
Prima sends its backups offsite – a protection against fire or other disaster at the head office – in encrypted form to ensure they’re secure. Ms. Prowse advises testing backups regularly – experts share horror stories of businesses that conscientiously performed backups only to find out the process hadn’t been working properly and they had nothing.
Older files might not be readable with current hardware and software. This is less of a problem than it was a couple of decades ago when diskette sizes changed every few years and popular word processing and spreadsheet programs came and went. Today’s ubiquitous Microsoft Office applications can read Office files going back many years, Mr. Goodall notes. E-mail may be more of an issue for businesses that have switched e-mail client software.
Mr. Goodall recommends a regular network storage refresh cycle, which should include ensuring that older data is still readable. When old software is retired, he says, it may be a good idea to save an image of the old system that could be restored if needed.
While there is a lot to think about, Mr. Shaath warns against giving up. Many entrepreneurs come from larger businesses and may think managing electronic documents requires a vast and complex system. They should set that idea aside and start with a blank page, he says. “We’re going back to basics.”