Good records and document management are essential for any organization to be successful. Records and documents provide the foundation for decision-making, legal compliance, operational efficiency, continuity of operations, organizational learning and knowledge sharing.
Without good information practices and policies in place, an organization will be less responsive, effective and cohesive. Records management is the practice of identifying, organizing, preserving and disposing of records, as well as providing access to them when needed.
Part 1: What does poor records management look like?
Records need to be managed throughout their entire lifecycle, which includes four parts: acquisition; custodianship; distribution; disposal. Here’s what good and bad information and records management look like at each stage.
Acquisition – How do you get your information?
Acquisition is the first part of the lifecycle of records and documents, and it is a critical step in making sure that information management practices are effective. Records acquisition entails the identification, selection and collection of records – both physical and electronic – with the aim of capturing as much relevant information as possible while distinguishing it from unnecessary, irrelevant information that won’t be helpful.
Collection can be either passive, as in making it possible for people who want to send you helpful information to do so, or active, as in researching and seeking out valuable information to inform executive decisions and organizational policy.
Bad Acquisition either involves not enough collection or collection of the wrong information (or both). When it comes to passive acquisition, organizations need to try to minimize barriers to incoming valuable information while creating and strengthening barriers against useless information.
So, for example, it should not be difficult for customers to volunteer information to enhance their shopping experiences, such as their preferences or contact information. Or what if a business partner wants to send you documents and information about an exciting development in your partnership?
Not only should it be easy for either to give you this information, should they choose to do so, but the means by which you passively collect it need to be secure and well organized. The customer entrusts your organization with this information under the implicit assumption that you will be able to keep it safe and that it will be used to their benefit. The business partner needs to be able to rely on the security and responsiveness of your shared communication channels to be confident in the partnership. None of this is possible if either of these kinds of information gets lost in a disorganized information management system.
But good collection practices aren’t merely about ease of receiving information. You wouldn’t want a random stranger to be able to get a hold of members of your leadership team to waste their time. You also don’t want to be flooded with an endless amount of useless information. Not only would this waste your storage space and time, but it also makes it harder to identify and access important incoming information.
Good Acquisition = high quantities of high-quality information + low quantities of low-quality information + high-quality organization of that information.
Custodianship – How do you store and protect your information?
Custodianship is the second pillar of information management, and it refers to the practice of storing, protecting, and maintaining records and documents within an organization. It can involve both physical and digital storage, as well as backup strategies for protecting against unintentional or malicious destruction of information.
Records custodians are responsible for ensuring that all the information an organization has acquired is secured, organized, and accessible when needed.
Bad Custodianship can lead to a few different types of disasters for organizations. Records get lost in an unorganized storage system due to poor indexing or failure to establish procedures for the retrieval of information. Records can also be lost due to a lack of information security and backup strategies. Records can also become inaccessible due to technical problems, such as an inability to retrieve them from storage media.
These risks are especially heightened if an organization is storing records in multiple physical and digital formats, which can lead to different access and security protocols for different types of records. Records can also become vulnerable to unauthorized access and manipulation if they are stored on unsecured servers or networks.
All of these risks can lead to an inability to respond effectively, both internally and externally. Records may be lost or tampered with, leading to legal trouble or a lack of trust between parties. Records become inaccessible, leading to delays in decision-making or communication. Records may also be erased due to negligence or malicious intent.
Good Custodianship = secure storage systems + robust access protocols + backup strategies that include both physical and digital media.
Distribution – How do you get the right information to the right place?
The third pillar of information management is distribution. This refers to the process of getting the right information to the right place, person, or group in an efficient and secure manner. Records management systems enable organizations to distribute digitally stored documents and records quickly and securely while also ensuring they are signed off on by the appropriate personnel.
Distribution processes that are badly managed can lead to a few different types of issues. Records may be sent to the wrong person due to inaccurate or out-of-date addresses and contact information. Records may also not reach their destination if they are sent via an unsecured medium, leading to data leakage or theft. Records may not be tracked properly, leading to confusion over who has access to the information and where it is located. Records may also not be signed off on by the appropriate personnel, leading to potential legal issues or miscommunication.
One way to think about any organization is as a decision-making machine. Members at every level of authority, from executive leadership all the way down to front-line employees, are constantly making decisions about the best way to achieve their goals and get their jobs done. Poor distribution of information within an organization starves each decision-making unit of the information they need to make the right choice, forcing them to delay or make poorly informed choices.
This also means greater disunity and poorer coordination as an organization. If lower-level decision-makers (i.e. employees and middle managers) have to make decisions without good information or delay a decision until the information reaches them, it makes them less predictable to upper and executive management. Without knowing what circumstances and choices confront your subordinates, your leadership will be less decisive.
Good Distribution = accurate contact information + secure data transmission protocols + efficient tracking systems.
Disposition – Where does your information go when you’re done with it?
The fourth pillar of information management is disposition. Disposition refers to whatever happens to a record or document once it has outlived its usefulness. Destruction of the record is a common choice, so common that the two terms are often used synonymously. But choosing to archive a record for posterity also counts as disposition.
Organizations collect information for specific purposes, and once this purpose expires, it can be easy to forget about it. Many organizations have hard drives or filing cabinets filled with an increasingly disorganized array of old documents, much of which could be disposed of without sacrificing any important information.
As already stated, archiving old documents which are no longer useful is a legitimate choice for disposition. However, passively accumulating an ever-growing collection of files because no one takes the time to organize them or separate them from more current information is not archiving; it’s hoarding.
However an organization chooses to dispose of their documents, its solution needs to be active and informed.
Active and informed disposition policy means re-evaluating a record and whether it should be retained before it becomes a problem. One way to do this is to make setting a review date for each record part of the standard acquisition process.
Active and informed archiving of old records means separating them by degrees of relevance so that those kept merely for posterity don’t crowd out those that may need to be referenced in the near future. It also means maintaining an organized archive with helpful metadata conventions.
Active and informed destruction means understanding the retention policies and regulations of your jurisdiction and when those legislations allow you to destroy the record, as well as why this record will not be useful to the organization in the future. Once the decision to destroy a record is reached, it also means ensuring and confirming that the destruction is total so that information security is not compromised.
The costs of poor disposition practices are information security vulnerability and storage inefficiency, one of which is far more troubling and urgent than the other, and for good reason. However, neglecting the health of your information storage for a long enough time can lead to serious problems too.
When thinking about poor information management in the abstract or in another organization, it can be easy to think of such problems as merely the result of poor decision-making and negligence by an organization’s leadership.
If that were the case, all you would have to do to avoid those problems is pay attention and make better choices.
The unfortunate reality that many organizations eventually find themselves in is that information management problems often arise due to factors outside of their control.
A limited budget prevents onboarding more staff; honest and unforeseeable mistakes create new problems or worsen existing ones; or unexpected crises arise, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which challenged every organization in new ways.
No matter how well your organization has handled information throughout its history, the future is unpredictable, and responsible leaders need to take steps to prepare for whatever may come their way.
One way to enhance organizational resiliency is to move to a strong digital information management system. Systems dependent on paper involve longer and more frequent delays, greater space requirements, greater risk of information loss, and greater ongoing costs in paper and printing.
Digital systems are more secure, require far less space to store large amounts of information, and allow you to send and receive files instantly or work on them remotely. All of these features save you resources and give you and your team more options.
If your information management system is dependent on paper or if your archives are buried in outdated microfilm formats, digitizing these files with Consentia is a great way to increase organizational flexibility. Leverage all the benefits of digital information systems by getting in touch with one of our experts today.