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Issue Date: November 2003 (es)

Wanted ... shred or alive

1 November 2003

Document management may not be the most exciting topic of conversation or project an organisation can undertake, but recent events clearly demonstrate that the lack of effective record management can leave a reputation in tatters. Paul Mullon, marketing director of document and records management specialist Metrofile, expounds.
Paul Mullon, marketing director, Metrofile
Paul Mullon, marketing director, Metrofile
The White House is instructed to make all its documents available to the FBI to assist with investigations into the recent outing of Secret Agent Valerie Plame. The day-to-day activities of government come to a grinding halt as a consequence, as administrators and other officials stop their daily duties to find all their documents and e-mails, with no guarantee that they will find all the documents they need.
The Speaker of Parliament recently publicly chastised certain politicians for inadvertently shredding important documents. Given the scrutiny government officials find themselves under and the current allegations of corruption, it is no great stretch of the imagination to ascribe all sorts of under-handed motives for the destruction of the files.
What these problems demonstrate is the dire need for a stable, easy-to-use document management policy in government. Many departments already have certain document handling policies in place which can be used as starting points for an enterprise-wide record management solution, but there is still no overall policy for use across the board.
Good government demands checks and balances to ensure all official documents and correspondence are logged and indexed as soon as they are received and that their movements are constantly controlled. Better yet, if, as a matter of policy all documents were scanned as they were received, electronic copies could be circulated and used where required.
Instead, it seems as if a fragmented system of keeping paper documents in whatever location is convenient has been adopted, with copies being made whenever necessary - and with no supervision of the copies either. Given that Reuters estimates that US workers generate 2,7 billion new sheets of paper each day (and South Africa should weigh in at about 1% of the US volume, about 27 million new pages per day), an electronic records management solution makes sense. In addition, at a conservative cost estimate of between $0,06 and $0,12 per copy, many taxpayers would probably appreciate their hard earned money being put to better use.
An effective records management solution would firstly prevent any documents from being shredded unless the destruction of paper documents was prescribed in the policy - a realistic option given the ECT Act's legal recognition of electronic documents. Of course, even if the physical documents were inadvertently put through the grinder, as it were, the electronic copies would still exist and the dilemma of lost information would not exist.
Then there is the question of productivity. Gartner has found that management of paper in daily processes reduces office productivity. The research group says that staff members waste a total of eight hours a week in paper document management activity. It breaks the numbers down further:
* Finding documents wastes one hour.

* Difficulty sharing documents wastes another.

* Distribution and storage consumes one more.

* Archiving and retrieval wastes half an hour.
Gartner does not mention how many hours are lost destroying the wrong documents and wasting yet more time having to make excuses and apologise for the mistake - not to mention wasting the Speaker's and Parliament's time.
Yet, just as one person can not break a well designed electronic document management policy, one person or department can not make and enforce the policy across any organisation. Bits and pieces do not make for a good system of records management, as there will always be holes through which documents, correspondence or contracts can slip and eventually even vanish completely.
Management is the main culprit in this game of 'Find the lost documents'.
Experienced clerks know that the first place to look for documents that have vanished is the department manager's desk. In the rush that makes up most of our corporate lives, documents are placed on a desk, covered by other bits of paper and subsequently forgotten. An easy mistake when one considers that 90% of corporate memory exists on paper.
Once again, efficient records management will ensure this does not happen, or at least that buried documents are traceable to their last known location.
Making fun of the unfortunate shredding incident is easy, but in the real world, especially in corporate environments where new governance requirements demand tighter control of corporate records, incidents such as this can cost directors their jobs - or worse, their stock options.
Records management, when implemented correctly, takes the problem of looking after bits of paper out of human hands and places it into the capable hands of technology. Tracking and tracing documents becomes easier and technology adds an almost unbeatable layer of security to the traditional organisational paper chase.
For more information contact Metrofile, 011 458 6300.

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