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Selecting software for managing physical a electronic records: although most records are created electronically, physical records continue to proliferate and demand that organizations seek software solutions that meet the requirements for effectively managing records in both media.


During regulatory audits and litigation-related discovery activities, electronic records are a major focus of requests for information. Recordkeeping requirements, such as those prescribed in the revised United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 17, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, indicate records in all formats must be managed appropriately.

For these reasons, properly managing electronic mail, office documents on personal computers, website pages, and reports derived from software applications demands the attention of everyone in an organization.

However, despite the exploding creation and consumption of information in digital formats, physical records created on paper media still dominate many workplaces. Paper-resident correspondence, memoranda, reports, drawings, charts, presentations, invoices, and travel expense itemizations require organizations to properly manage current and historical physical files.

In addition, many small business and technology-deficient nations still employ paper as their primary means of information exchange because of the low infrastructure costs and minimal computer system requirements needed for a paper-based business model.

Paper-based systems are used not only because they are cost effective, but because paper works for most everyone. In many instances, organizations must interact with the public in a manner that allows anyone to participate in the information exchange, and paper is still the best medium for many of these environments. For example, visitors to a school or doctor's office usually sign in on a paper roster (record) because it would not be reasonable to expect individuals who don't have computer keyboard skills to log into a public terminal when they enter.

While personal computers are often employed for document creation, physical printouts may be used for reading and filing. Depending on the document management and information exchange culture of an organization, paper-based filing systems are still the preferred method of communication for some law firms, doctors' offices, tax consultants, engineering organizations, construction companies, and a variety of government agencies.

Organizations also often use paper records for long-term retention due to the expense of implementing full scale integrated electronic content management/electronic records management (ECM/ ERM) systems and the lack of universally accepted long-term solutions or standards for preserving electronic records.

Differentiating Software Features for Managing Paper vs. Electronic

The backlog of paper records retained due to long-term legal and regulatory mandates that needs to be managed is enormous. Considering the volume of records received today in paper format from business partners, customers, and the public at large, even very technology-enabled organizations must continue to plan for the retention of some physical records (p-records).

Shared Features

Software for managing physical and electronic records share some features. Metadata must be used to describe all information objects, and each object, regardless of format, will have an expected workflow for appropriate records processing. All records must be subject to retention policies, legal holds, and disposition instructions. A universal file plan that can be used to organize information is needed, and an organization's security model must be applicable to all records types.

Unified Query Interface

Information and records must be located and retrieved due to customer inquiries, litigation-related discovery requests, auditing requirements, or operational needs. In any case, the format of the record is usually of secondary importance to ensuring all relevant information is retrieved--and the important issue for information users will be the speed and accuracy of retrieval.

Rather than incurring the expense and delays associated with duplicative document searches across two information indexes and stores--paper warehouses and electronic repositories--most organizations would be best served if the file plan and indexes to documents in all formats were searchable through one database query and one information retrieval interface.

For this reason, many ECM/ERM software vendors offer a unified approach to managing records in all media formats through one consistent browser-based query interface as can be seen in Figures 1 and 4. Software features required for managing different media will differ because physical media are simply tracked, whereas, electronic records are both tracked and stored within the software system as can be seen in Figures 2 and 3.

For example, the metadata used to manage and track paper and electronic correspondence is similar with respect to the author, date of origin, title, or descriptions of subject matter. However, the information filing, storage, retrieval, and workflow associated with these different information formats diverge considerably.

E-mails are typically filed by keyboard data entry into logical directories within a central ECM/ERM computer-based repository, whereas paper records must be filed manually into hard copy folders, filing cabinets, or records storage centers. For paper records, much of the object management activities occur outside of the tracking database in actual box and rile folder processing.

Unique Features for Physical Records

Examples of p-records management-specific software operational issues that affect software system features include:

1. Bar code labels and bar code reader integration

2. Printing of paper container labels for folders and boxes

3. Transmittal slip and records retrieval (pick) list generation

4. Shelf or storage container specific numbering conventions

5. Accounting reports for invoicing records services users

Unique Features for Electronic Records

Examples of issues primarily that affect e-records system features include:

1. Auto-classification of e-mails and personal computer files based on metadata identification and content analysis of the record during filing

2. Automatic application of records retention rules at the moment a records creator declares and files a record into the official electronic records repository

3. Integration of the records creation system user interface with the e-records repository to facilitate storage and eventual records retrieval

4. Data format standards to enable long-term preservation and viewing of records by anyone needing access to the records in the future

5. Networking technology infrastructure and information security policy considerations that can affect access to e-records

Differences in Accessioning

P-records and e-records workflow and procedures can vary greatly. A major question for systems that integrate the management of both physical and electronic files will be how to implement the traditional accessioning phase of the records life cycle. Accessioning for paper records is the process during which records center personnel typically evaluate materials sent for potential storage in a records center. This workflow component is the phase when records management value is added to overall operations. The staff determines if records transferred to the records center are unique record copies of information or duplicate records of the same basic information from different departments.






When users of ECM/ERM applications file objects directly into a repository, the assumption is that records management considerations went into the design of the system. So, a user's records filing options foster some consistency and accuracy in records classification, filing, and retention. Unfortunately, the volume of e-records filed often makes it difficult for records management personnel to cost effectively review any significant volume of filed electronic records. Accessing may be done by executing statistical sampling of e-records being filed.

Metadata Helps Track Records

Many of the informational requirements for records tracking in a physical records management model (e.g., bar codes, transmittal slips, containers) are assumed by metadata management within an electronic system (e.g., unique record identifier, e-mails with attachments, directories/drives) for e-records. These functions require metadata to work effectively. However, when an information audit is being conducted, one system query should allow the retrieval of all types of information from one interface as seen in Figure 4.

When does a document still being revised in paper or electronic format become an official record? When and how are retention rules applied? Business rules require records-associated metadata to take actions. The organization's overall records retention policy may prescribe retaining correspondence for three years. The actual workflow procedures for retaining e-mail correspondence in electronic format (declare and file into the ECM system) will vary greatly from the procedure for retaining paper correspondence received through the postal system (place into folders labeled correspondence and transmit to the records center). Figure 5 illustrates an example of multiple options.

Terminology consistency and clarity becomes critical in systems that track records in multiple media formats. Is a "container" a box, a manila folder, a disk directory, an optical disk, or an online magnetic disk drive? Retention rules are often applied at the disk directory/folder level in electronic systems, but they are usually applied at the box level when managing physical files. A comprehensive integrated file plan that encompasses both electronic and physical records filing is needed for one software system to assist with both types of records. Metadata used to characterize records must be compatible between different object types being described.

Subject terms, such as accounting or engineering, should be useable to describe information received as e-mails with attached word processing files, as well as paper-based faxes and invoices received by postal mail. Some metadata that indicates data format or a software version used to create an e-record may have little use for describing print media-based records. Engineering drawing size or other paper sizes important in planning container size, shape, or shelf space may have no value for managing electronic versions of the same basic records. For this reason, some vendors allow the display of different metadata properties for e-records and p-records from one user interface.

Records System Protection Issues

Digital preservation and disaster protection issues will vary for paper and electronic records. For example, paper records are not usually duplicated to distribute to multiple locations for disaster protection purposes. But this idea is a common practice in the management of electronic systems, when redundant copies of data are stored regionally as a protection against local natural disasters. This accepted practice is due in part because of the fragility of computer-based data and its dependence on the technology infrastructure.

Paper and microfilm records need protection only from fire, flood, humidity, temperature extremes, and other environmental issues, such as physical security. However, electronic records are subject to additional concerns, such as electrical current reliability and stability for equipment, network access controls, and user authentication management requiring additional metadata.

The space to store physical records is much more expensive per page of stored data, and labor involved in storing p-records can be large. If hard copy records are stored onsite, software must implement in-house procedural workflow for centralization of low-use, inactive records. For example, the owner of the records often must be identified so services can be charged back. If hard copy records are stored offsite, they must be tracked to synchronize inventories with the offsite records storage vendor's system. In some cases, a certain level of integration with the data maintained by the offsite records storage vendors' recordkeeping systems may be needed to allow one global query that identifies the location of all records.

In addition, system access controls must differentiate between an ECM/ERM system user's ability to retrieve stored information objects and the need to specify the personnel who can access physical records.

Each system implementation will vary in considering how to deal with document security and expected procedures for retrieving records. For example, checking out an electronic record from a digital repository has different system security configuration issues than those activities associated with submitting a request for a record to be retrieved from an offsite, vendor-owned records center. Overdue notices are not typically sent to users of an ECM repository who have checked out a copy of a file; whereas, it can become an important feature in a hard copy records management system.

Integration Requires Consistency and Flexibility

To manage both physical and electronic records from one consistent user interface requires the implementation of a consistent view of information and processing capabilities that are independent of information type. Instead of using one module for paper records and one for electronic records, an integrated system will offer considerable conceptual flexibility and data integration capabilities.

The metadata offered for describing records will be sufficiently robust to manage retrieval and workflow for paper correspondence, but it will also allow direct filing of objects into a digital repository. This level of complexity in information management requires consistent metadata and filing conventions that are also sufficiently flexible to work across large organizations with many different business departments and functions.

The continuing attention focused on responsibly managing both physical and electronic records by organizations and an increasingly records- conscious public will only heighten the demand for effective and responsive information systems over time. Any organization considering the selection and implementation of software to manage information today will be expected to treat paper and electronic records as valuable resources and implement systems that enable excellence in managing all types of information media.

John T. Phillips may be contacted at

John T. Phillips, CRM, CDIA, FAI, is a management consultant with Information Technology Decisions. With more than 30 years of experience in many varied information and technology management professional positions, he currently assists clients in developing comprehensive records management programs, especially with electronic records management issues and technology systems selection. Phillips also serves on the National Archives and Records Administration's Advisory Committee for the Electronic Records Archive. He may be contacted at
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Article Details
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Author:Phillips, John T.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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