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The Five W’s (and Sometimes How) of Efficient Records Retention: Part One

Do we still have that?

For any organization, this question is one that can spark anxiety, annoyance and even chaos. Typically, when someone in your company asks this question it means one of the following:

  • An important document you need access to is lost, misfiled, stolen, or destroyed and people are unsure of policies and rules regarding company documents.
  • There is business risk, whether litigation, HR issues or compliance concerns that need to be addressed.
  • A record you no longer need is still sitting around taking up space, collecting dust and potentially exposing expired, confidential information that should have been discarded weeks, months and sometimes even years ago.
  • Someone was given the not so pleasant task of cleaning out the office fridge.

If you keep hearing this question asked in your workplace, it’s likely time to revisit your records retention and destruction strategy.

What is records retention?

Regardless of the industry you work in, every organization creates, processes and eventually discards a variety of hard copy and digital records. Retention is the continued possession and control of these records throughout their lifecycle, from their creation through destruction. In essence, records retention is the backbone of a solid information management strategy. It is a strategic plan that governs how records are created, how they are stored and processed, when they must be destroyed and how.

Not only are businesses creating vital information for their company, but they also process confidential data of their employees and customers. This information is protected by a variety of industry and federal rules and regulations that are constantly changing, which makes retention more difficult than meets the eye.

In addition, more and more companies are turning towards paperless solutions and taking advantage of the economics of digital storage. While hard copies persist, new types of records like emails, social media and more are also being generated at an exponential rate. Organizations can no longer rely on retention schedules designed with just physical records in mind.

Merging the Digital and the Physical – An All-Inclusive Retention Policy

An extensive records retention policy provides businesses with a clear organizational model that makes it easy for employees to find, use and store information, plus it offers a clearly defined, set of rules for destruction. It will also take into account strong information governance best practices, including those that deal with electronic communications such as emails, tweets and social media posts, text messages and more.

Because your organization creates and manages a variety of information and records, and because every industry, country and even business is different, your retention schedule will vary depending on your organization.

If you’re reevaluating your retention and disposition schedule or just getting started, make sure you ask the Five W’s (and sometimes How) of records retention:

1. WHO?

Who will be evaluating your current retention schedules and developing the new strategy?

When possible it’s best to establish a team of records and information management (RIM) specialists focused on both records management and information governance to ensure the new strategy meets all industry and government regulations. Ideally you would also have representatives from key departments like finance, HR, legal and operations engaged. These representatives will serve as liaisons, offering critical information about the records and information their department utilizes. If RIM professionals are not viable for your company, then your legal team, outside counsel and/or other trusted advisor with the required knowledge should be consulted before you finalize your information governance policies. Outside RIM providers may also be a resource to you in setting your guidelines.

This team will be responsible for:

  • Obtaining support and approval from senior management to ensure the proper retention strategy can be established and maintained.
  • Identifying what services will be done in-house and which, if any, will be outsourced to a RIM partner.
  • Conducting research on the records and information created by each department.
  • Determining how to approach developing a new retention policy as well as the appropriate timeline for implementation.
  • Proposing the final retention plan to the decision makers at the company who are tasked with reducing risk and who will champion the cause and/or control the budget.

2. WHAT?

What information does your organization create, process and store?

Before a new retention strategy can be developed and implemented, you need to know what types of information your organization creates, processes, manages and destroys. Your established RIM team must complete a records inventory to identify which documents your organization creates and how they fit into the following categories:

  • Records
  • Non-Records
  • Vital Records
  • Archival Records

By placing all your organization’s information into the appropriate categories, you can identify the records that hold higher importance, as well as the necessary retention schedules needed to ensure compliance. Categorizing your records also makes them easier to find, access and discard at the end of their lifecycle.

Ready to take the next steps?

For answers to the where, when, why and how of an efficient records retention strategy, be sure to read Part Two of our blog now!