The Information Media Continuum

By John Phillips posted 06-21-2011 22:35


When will we all become paperless? Never! Despite being a proponent of managing and storing records in electronic format (most of the time), I am continually amazed at the solid entrenchment of paper as an information creation, storage, and management media. Most of us making our living in a “technology enhanced” professional world and generally assume that if information is managed in electronic format, it is much more readily available, accessible, and useable. But, we are continually presented with the reality that hard copy information creation is still common and “the normal course of business” for many individuals and organizations. We need to remind ourselves that the term is “paper-less” not “paper-free”.

Two current areas of current interest to me – small businesses and international corporations – have both reinforced the perspective that paper based information is a fact of life that will never really disappear. In looking into the realities of small businesses I recently attended several professional meetings where I assumed my perspectives on electronic records management would be welcomed and relevant. Welcomed? Yes. Relevant? Not as much as I would have thought. Although most small businesses are moving toward the use of technologies to create and manage records, there are realities within which they must operate. These include cost of conversion to electronic systems, office cultures often more comfortable with paper-based records, and a huge volume of still used legacy records in paper format. The same is true for multinational corporations, especially once one looks at their overseas operations.

The legacy information content recorded on paper media will never go away completely, and any records and information management plan that ignores this body of information content only does so by allowing redundant information retention systems – one for paper and one for electronic. Archivists will be among the first to support the idea that paper-based records are legitimate information containers to be properly managed for many years. Their sentiments are supported by both librarians and records managers that regularly deal with users of valuable older documents in paper formats. In many cases, information users are creating paper-based information, and they are typically forced to receive and accept a lot of it. It has often been said that one can go paperless when everyone else stops sending paper. After all, UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service seem to have people dropping off tons of hard copy on them every day for shipments around the world. And Iron Mountain, Recall, and other records storage vendors have no problem with a constant flow of paper-based records directed toward them.

Why the paper? Because it works. Think about the last time you went to a restaurant or retail store and purchased something. Did they ask if they could download your receipt to your Blackberry or iPhone from their wireless network? No, they just printed a simple, reliable, readable, and easily preserved receipt and handed it to you. Paper is an easy to generate low tech means of information exchange. It is still the most common way for small business to exchange information. Dry cleaners, fast food restaurants, gasoline stations, car rental services, taxi cabs, hotels, retail stores, or other merchants are unlikely to have much available capital for investment in a complex computer system that their customers have no interest in interacting with. They might have internal digital accounting systems that help manage their operations, but those systems will often generate paper records for many purposes.

My small business H&R Block tax advisor still enters all of my data into their computer system and then generates a paper copy of my tax filing for me, though they file it for me electronically directly to the Internal Revenue Service. And even though I scan that paper tax return document into a PDF file, I still keep a paper copy filed in my office with my back up receipts. Why? Because then I can send an electronic copy of the tax return to someone if I want, but I can also avoid scanning all those received paper receipts documenting my expenses while filing the complete physical Tax Return in one place – along with all of the other paper-based “legacy” tax return records. For many reasons, when preserving records or sharing information, paper works simply and inexpensively.

Ironically, we find the same sentiments often still rule the day internationally. Several years ago, I was asked to conduct an Electronic Records Management seminar for an international banking institution, and many records managers from around the world converged on Washington DC for my presentation. I started off talking about digital file formats, email policies, and ERM software but was getting a few blank stares. After questioning the attendees about how they were using e-records, I was shocked to find that most of them had only a personal computer or two, used the bank’s remotely accessible systems to communicate, and otherwise interacted within their local countries by using paper records! They were attending a seminar on electronic records to learn some basics when I had assumed they were as automated in their operations as the bank’s operations in Washington DC. Needless to say, I did some quick reconstruction to the information communicated in that seminar!

I am finding the same is true in many cases today internationally. Large corporations that leverage IT systems within the US or technologically advanced European nations often have divisions in Asia, Africa, or Pacific regions where paper records are predominant outside of the corporation’s in-house computer-systems. Although e-mail, social media, and centralized content management systems may serve as a unifying framework internally, local contracting, purchasing, and even many local site operations often are using piles of paper records every day. For this reason, planning for records management solutions must include in any requirements definition the existence and role of multiple forms of recordkeeping systems in an organization. Unfortunately, compliance, retention, and privacy issues become much more complex when there is a continual concern about which records are being managed in which media centric systems. International laws and regulations may address or even specify one form of media or another, while ignoring the existence of duplicative records that exist in multiple formats. Are we to recommend that entire nations convert their paper records to electronic files?

Data capture is another area where paper records can assist organizations challenged with the costs of automating everything. When one visits a doctor’s office, a government bureau, or applies for many entry level jobs, paper data entry forms are handed out. Certainly in some cases, organizations have transitioned to Web sites for data entry or locally accessible applications that gather data for use in a database. However, two of the primary impediments to universal adoption of electronic medical records are the cost of automating patient information gathering in a primary care physician’s small office and the cost of conversion of backlogs of medical records residing there. Whereas insurance companies have driven the use of computers for medical billing, and these are often seen as a form of medical records, they are not of any significant value to patients with respect to documenting their actual health. Here again we see a mix of electronic and paper records due to the low perceived return on investment required to go paperless.

Failure to address the balance of paper and electronic records in organizations creates extreme danger for the integrity and credibility of a comprehensive records management program. Most ERM software systems can at least point to the existence of electronic records, even if the full set of metadata required to manage that records format is not available. Off-site records storage vendors can supply basic information about records they retain for inclusion into an ERM systems database. There are often in-house “databases” in Microsoft Word, Excel, or Access that “track” physical records. If these informal systems are responsible for “recordkeeping” activities, they must also be queried during attempts to respond to litigation-initiated discovery requests. Would it not be best to map these records’ existences into an overall plan for managing all records and information in an enterprise?

The next time you attend a professional meeting and someone asks for your business card, try telling them that you have “gone green to save the trees” and do not print business cards anymore. Tell them your Web site address or twitter user ID. I will bet they reach for a pen and paper to write it down. Of course it’s just a temporary record!

John Phillips



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