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Platform Problems Face Business Records Managers

By Kelly Carson Reprinted from Business Journal Magazine

Business records managers face a tough challenge at the turn of the century--deciding how to best store vital records while maintaining accessibility.

Rapidly changing technology forces records managers to peer into crystal balls to determine if the format used to store records today can stand the test of time a half decade from now. "When companies migrate from one system to another, there can be significant problems reading something that is judged to have historical significance," said Jim Booth, executive director of Professional Records and Information Services Management International in Raleigh, N.C., a trade organization representing much of the records storage industry.

"If you don't have a recorder that can read magnetic tapes, then suddenly you can't read your documents," he said. "In no case are you able to interpret the document using only your own human body without a machine." He used the popular eight-track tape analogy. If the eight-track player music didn't get transferred to a cassette tape, it became useless with no player.

One solution: store paper copies of all vital documents, he said. "The problem is not that technology is advancing so quickly, but that people don't understand the technology behind the tool," he said. "If you are building a house, you may want to have a nail gun that shoots nails really fast. But if you are hanging a picture, you don't really need one of those. You need the right tool for the job." To save businesses from getting buried beneath a paper avalanche, Booth said companies must establish paper retention requirements and destruction schedules.

Amy Rand, past president of the Delaware chapter of the National Association of Records Managers and Administrators in Prairie View, Kan., said vital records should be stored off-site in a fireproof and waterproof location. "Vital records are things that establish a corporate identity such as bylaws, board meeting minutes and certificates of incorporation," she said. "A second category that should be kept with the same degree of care are those things needed to recover from a disaster, or as we call it, a `business interruption.' "

That category includes copies of account payable and receivable records, corporate letterheads, blank checks and cash. Also, she recommended safely storing personnel records, financial records and capital assets such as vehicle titles and building deeds. " ... Records retention is no trivial issue," Rand said. "How long to keep records is never cut and dry. Many laws -- state and federal -- contradict each other, so informed decisions need to be made."

With thousands of regulations governing records retention, Rand also suggested seeking expert advice. And she said once a company decides on a retention schedule, including a time frame for records destruction, managers need to stick with it. "Those records that last too long are just as dangerous as those records you need and don't have," she said, using as an example an e-mail written that landed a computer giant in trouble with the federal government. "The record was kept beyond its usefulness, and it bit the business in the bottom," she said.

Once a company decides what to keep, where to keep it becomes the next decision. Booth and Rand suggested storage facilities that belong to professional trade organizations and adhere to industry standards. Records managers should focus on these issues: 24-hour, year round access; the necessity of employee confidentiality agreements; measures taken to protect information from fire; on-site review and copying; magnetic media storage; facility and transportation vehicle climate control; turn-around time for pick up and delivery; emergency delivery service; inventory tracking systems; and the document destruction process.

"When evaluating an off-site information management company, pay close attention to the company's disaster plan, security system and fire prevention measures," Booth said. "Also consider the location of the facility and how the company selects and trains its employees."

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