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Personal business records in an electronic environment.

The transition from paper to electronic recordkeeping has drastically affected the records we maintain personally in our offices and cubicles. We correspond via e-mail, often with reports, schedules, meeting notices, and policies as electronic attachments, all of which are filed electronically. Hard drives with multiple-gigabyte capacity, recordable CDs, and 100 MB zip diskettes have replaced our personal file cabinets and the physical filing space for which we once fought. We may still print the documents we need to review, but we toss the paper in the trash once the matter is closed.

Yet, even with such extensive changes, the records management rules for handling the paper-based files in our desks and cubicles now apply to files electronically created and stored. Three of these principles have proved especially applicable:

1. An organization owns all records, individual as well as shared, that are created or maintained through its resources.

2. Abstain from filing records needlessly and purge or archive the ones we do file as soon as they become obsolete or inactive.

3. Logically organize the records that we do keep so that the same record cannot be in two places.

Organizational Ownership

That an organization owns all records created or maintained through its resources is the concept that legitimizes the fundamental component of any records management program - the organization's determination of how, where, and for how long each records series is retained. Organizational ownership is what precludes storing company records in employees' garages or automobile trunks, and prohibits employees from assuming that the records they have created or filed are their own personal property, to purge, save indefinitely, or take with them when they retire.

In an electronic environment, ownership rules do not really change, but, for several reasons, they are less clear-cut and more difficult to enforce.

Electronic records are easier to copy and transport than paper. Also, many employees do much of their work at home either via modem or through a synchronized copy made using Microsoft Windows' Briefcase feature. Some employees take copies of applications they have developed or used when they transfer to new companies. So long as such copied data contains no trade secrets and gives the new company no unwarranted competitive advantage, no one is really concerned.

Finally, there is a sense that office PCs are exactly what the name implies: personal computers. They contain records that their owners alone have created, selected, and organized without collaboration or assistance. If someone decides to keep files longer than a retention schedule specifies, or to take a copy home for personal use, who is to say they are wrong?

However, the reasons behind the organization's ownership do not disappear if records migrate from file cabinets to PCs. The company is liable for the release of any incriminating, sensitive, or confidential information that these records may contain. It will still suffer - perhaps disastrously - if the records are not properly preserved or disposed of in accordance with the organization's records retention schedule. The company still has a right - and sometimes a real need - to freely access those records.

To satisfy all these needs for the company to assert its ownership requires numerous technical modifications to currently independent PC hard drives, and PCs must be networked into an enterprisewide, comprehensive, electronic document management system. Even more important is the need to change our mind-set.

Information managers in the past had to campaign to convince coworkers that the content of desk files and two-drawer lateral files were truly company property, which they could not deal with as they pleased. The equally important - but more difficult - challenge is to persuade colleagues to take a similar view of the files in their PCs.

Saying "No" to Document Accumulation

The primary role of 20th century records management has been to control the growth of business records, reduce the expense of storage space, and reduce the burden of excessive or obsolete records on office productivity. Today, lack of storage space for departmental and/or personal files is no longer a significant problem: standard PC hard drives are commonly 4 GB-6 GB.

But the link between office productivity and the control of record growth is as valid in the electronic era as it was in the paper age. A clerk requires much less time to find a document in a file with only one year of relevant information than in one containing 10 years' worth especially if the larger file includes junk along with what is valuable. Anyone who has spent long minutes staring at a blinking hourglass or "searching" message has verified this lesson: a PC's search time, no matter how fast its processing chip, is proportional to the number of records through which it must search.

In some respects, the problem of uncontrolled records accumulation is even more critical with the PC than it was with stored paper files. As users continue to save and duplicate files, they do not have the visual cue of a geometrically expanding heap of paper to remind them of the need to control accumulation. Indeed, many electronic records are "hidden," temporary files generated by the operating system in order to accommodate the system's limited random access memory, or by other applications that generate additional files as a necessary part of their operation.

Sometimes a simple process generates many files that we do not need to retain, but often forget to delete. For example, every month I prepare a file of presorted addresses compatible with the Post Office's automated equipment in order to mail a newsletter to area businesses. The desired recipients are selected from a database of vendors and exported as a .DBF file for address correction and presorting by Postalsoft, a specialized application that creates its own .MDF file, with corrected, pre-sorted addresses. The .MDF file is exported to another .DBF file that can be read by the contractor who will actually mail the pieces. A Lotus Approach application, which not only creates another .DBF file, but also its own .APR format and .APX index files, accomplishes this. When the file is finally exported to the mailing vendor, I am left with Goldmine, Postalsoft .MDF, two Approach files, and two .DBF versions. I did this each month, bliss-fully unaware of the redundant garbage I created until I was shocked to discover the "My Computer" folder overflowing with valueless address files.

Many have undoubtedly had the same experience of creating extensive working electronic files without realizing the mess left behind. Clearly the records management principle of deleting temporary working files as soon as they have served their purpose is more applicable to the easily replicated but easily overlooked - electronic files than it was to paper.

E-mail worsens the problem of keeping electronic files to a manageable level. Memo writing never reached the popularity of composing e-mails. People are more prone to write e-mails because there is no need to labor over composition or bother with addressing envelopes. What is worse, with a few keystrokes, they forward the messages they receive to countless other people. Even deleted e-mails get saved in the deleted folder and archived monthly to a .PST file on the hard drive. In many cases, companies store copies of all this communication on tape indefinitely.

Finally, there are miscellaneous electronic goodies gathered from various sources: demonstration programs of file tracking applications never bought; data files from old applications that will never run again (dBase2 and Samna word processing files, for example); and plug-ins downloaded from the Internet to read some file no longer remembered. PCs may still have a gigabyte of unused space - however, the effect of electronic collection mania is not too different from the practice of packing every last inch of file drawers with paper, then building piles of it on desks, bookcases, and floor: Although there is "always room for one more page," neither staff nor their computers are productive in such an environment.

Traditional records management has a two-part solution to the records accumulation syndrome: (1) abstain from duplicating, transmitting, or filing records unless necessary, and (2) dispose of what must be filed as soon as possible.

Part one of this solution for paper records appeared in the General Services Administration's influential records management manual Records Operations, which set the first and most important maxim as avoiding any unnecessary duplication or filing of paper. The manual advocates not filing convenience copies, extra copies, and transmittals, as well as any document unlikely to be retrieved, nor any available from somewhere else. Records Operations points out the absurdity of filing something because we do not really understand it and do not know what else to do with it.

Substitute "saving" for "filing" and the advice fits the electronic environment. It is especially applicable to e-mail and information collected from the Internet. Saving these triples the work of later having to find and delete them. Unfortunately, the decision not to save an e-mail or Internet search is more complicated than just tossing a paper in the wastebasket. E-mail requires removal from the Deleted Folder and destruction of Internet items involves removing the file from the Temporary Internet Files folder.

The solution's second part involves adherence to the organization's retention schedule. Unfortunately, most organizations' retention schedules treat desk and personal files with, at best, an admonition to "annually review and purge the obsolete." It is questionable whether many actually followed this with regard to paper files until the file cabinets could simply hold no more.

The reason for purging electronic files is not space shortage but the need to improve productivity, so it is not realistic to wait until the hard drive is totally full. Before that point arrives, users would be wallowing in a surfeit of information and the PCs would have ceased to function.

Organize Rationally

Even if we eschew saving everything, there is the question of what to do with what remains. Unlike the rules for handling paper records, the first step is not to segregate the documents by record type (e.g., audio, graphic, text document, etc.),(1) even though this approach is encouraged by applications that provide default directories associated with the application software. The PC's capacity to intermix all sort of files (FoxPro, Excel, Word, TIFF, HTML, etc.) in the same directory makes segregation by document type unnecessary. It is more practicable to ignore file type and group files together by the topic to which they pertain.

Establish different directories for Personnel, Budget, and Procurement, and not directories - at least not at the same level - for Excel, Word, FoxPro, Access, and Lotus Notes. This avoids the problem of whether to save a document by type or by subject (e.g., whether to save the budget worksheet under Budget or Excel).

Another possibility is to separate according to administrative files and programmatic files. Administrative files may be easily scheduled according to their date; programmatic files must be purged according to their continued value. Into the former would go budget preparation schedules, housekeeping memos, and personnel records that support the organization in pursuing its mission. Into the latter would go the correspondence and subject files directly documenting the organization's pursuit of its mission.

Why Organize at All?

The Find command can locate any folder or file based on an indication of the keywords in its title. Why not just save the programmatic/subject files to their default settings and not worry about establishing multiple, logically arranged directories? There are three main problems with using the Find command to access a file:

* It consumes too much time.

* Given the abundance of synonyms, users may forget even the barest indication of the keywords in the title.

* Multiple Find operations lose the train of thought.

Effective access of electronic records requires applying organizational principles that records management developed for paper. The principles apply remarkably well to electronic directory trees. Underlying them is one overriding goal: There must be only one place to save each file. Achieve this goal by recalling several records management guidelines.

First, distinguish files pertaining to a particular geographic location, person, project, vendor, or department (i.e., case files) from those dealing with general subjects like Human Resources, Budget, Records Destruction, and Records Retention (subject files). If, for example, there is a directory called Vendors and a subject file for Procurement, where to place the response to a potential vendor's inquiry?

Directories of case files are relatively simple to organize, usually alphabetically by person, place, geographic location, department, or project. Subject file directories are more complex, and to arrange them logically requires adherence to three additional guidelines. First, don't mix primary subject headings with subordinate subject headings at the same level (e.g., fruit and apples). If there are two directories named Records Retention and Records Management, there are two places to place the records retention schedule.

Second, do not place different types of headings at the same level. In particular, do not mix headings referring to things (e.g., equipment) with those naming a property, quality, or condition (e.g., safety). The general subject heading of Transportation should not contain sub-headings of Transportation Safety, Train, Bus, and Highways, otherwise there is confusion on where to file safety reports of train accidents. Avoid combining functions and departments at the same heading level, for example, Procurement and Budget. That there are usually departments with names like Budget and Procurement can also be confusing when it is not clearly determined whether the headings refer to departments or to functions.

Lastly, as with paper files, electronic directory trees should not extend beyond three levels. The space for tab positions at the edge of file folders and dividers dictated this rule for paper files. The excessive number of mouse clicks required to open a succession of directory icons and then to close them when finished - dictates the same rule for electronic files.

Meeting the Challenge

Records management principles apply to PC files, but their application presents a new series of records management challenges:

* As with paper records, it is important to assert the company ownership of all PC records created or maintained with company resources. However, the application of this principle to the extensive, archived files on PC hard drives, floppies, and Zip diskettes is rarely addressed or even considered.

* It is still important to limit the accumulation of records. But how to remain conscious of this when it is so easy to add storage space to PCs and when gigabytes of electronic data now fit so easily within the most modest cubicle?

* Organizing records logically is as important as ever, but more difficult to practice because of confidence in the ability to locate files with Find. Consequently, users unconsciously lose the overview of their hard disks' contents until the day arrives when Windows Explorer displays an unending array of unrecognizable names.

With regard to all three of these records management principles, the challenge is to accept, implement, and obey rules that are still basically valid in an electronic environment, but no are no longer so inescapably obvious as they were in the era of paper.

Robert Sanders, Ph.D., CRM, is the manager of Records and Mail for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He was previously an associate professor of history, director of records and registration, registrar, and archivist at peperdine University. He may be reached at skeelgorli@aol.com
COPYRIGHT 1999 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Perspectives
Author:Sanders, Robert L.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:2546
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