What Unicorns and Electronic Records Management Have In Common

By Jeffrey Lewis posted 09-08-2013 14:51



When people think about innovation two things typically comes to mind 1)The paperless office and 2)The read-option offense.  Ok, maybe I am in the minority when it comes to thinking about the paperless office as much as I think about the NFL.  The truth of the matter is that the paperless office is much like the unicorn, i.e. something that does not exist.  The closest we will come to the paperless office is becoming paper-lite or having less paper, but we will never be free from paper.  There are many different reasons for this and I believe it is a good thing that paper will always be around as there are lessons from the pre-digital age that we can learn as we strive to go paper-lite.

Lesson #1 - Think before you send

When I was in undergrad a good friend had a crush on a girl and he decided to make his feelings known via e-mail.  In the same time that it would have taken him to write a letter he had the letter typed out. The difference is that instead of having time to think about the letter as he walked it to the mailbox or her door he could just hit send without any second thoughts. Almost instantaneously he asked himself the question, why did I send that?  When we use e-mail it is easy to send an e-mail that we find ourselves asking, "Why did I send that?"  The reverse can happen where you send an e-mail to the whole organization or a list and people ask the question, "Why am I receiving this?"  Before e-mail, if you had to type out a memo you would think twice before making copies to put in everyone's mailbox.  Part of this is due to speed, because during the time it took to go to all that effort you would realize that everyone didn't need that information, but when all you have to do is hit send you don't think about who the necessary parties are.  

Something else to consider in the digital age is even though something might be pertinent to the whole organization, there are other means as well that can be used to communicate this information such as Sharepoint, shared drives, etc.  I've seen many corporate e-mails that have a signature line that says, "please consider the environment before printing."  Before you send that poem of the week to your whole organization (yes, I've been at companies where this happens) please consider your e-mail servers and inbox sizes before you hit send.

Lesson #2: Retain what is necessary, dispose the rest

In E-Discovery and corporate litigation the death blow to many companies can come from over-retention of information. Electronically stored informtion lends itself to over-retention of records or retaining non-records due to several factors.  One of the most common reasons is because even though an e-mail might not have significant business value and is only considered transitory, an employee can still drag and drop it into the electronic records repository for the wrong retention.  When sending a letter, it is human nature to think twice about photocopying outgoing correspondence and filing it for recordkeeping purposes. Human nature also makes people into narcissit who believe everything they do is of significance and that every e-mail they send needs to be filed, especially when it is as simple as dragging and dropping into an electronic records repository.  

For this reason, we need to be fanatical about training and change management for any paper-lite initatives.  Reducing paper is not just about having the right technology in place, but it is also about equipping your staff and training them on how to govern information.

Even though reducing paper is not an easy task, it is well worth the effort. Consider the following from the Laserfiche blog:

Currently, the New York State Constitution dictates that Legislative bills must be printed out and on legislators’ desks for at least three days. At that point, they are typically tossed, unread and unopened, into the recycling bin. The whole process costs the state up to $53 million a year in paper, ink, printing, storage, and recycling costs...

Ohio has reportedly saved $1.5 million per year since its switch to paperless. Hawaii’s Senate launched a Paperless Initiative in 2008, which by 2011 reduced paper usage by 80 percent. “During the 2010 session, only 1.5 million pages were printed, compared to 8.3 million pages in 2007,” as well as saving half a million dollars in purchasing paper and copy machine expenses, reports the Legislature. The Hawaii House is now working on a similar initiative. And Florida’s Legislature has progressed from putting together legislation every year using a cut-and-paste method -- literally, with actual scissors and actual paste -- and hauling away several tractor trailers of paper every Legislative session.

I'd love to hear from you and any thoughts that electronic records management practices can learn from paper records management processes.

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