Personal Business Records in an Electronic Environment

Article excerpt

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. …