Electronic and Physical Records Management: Why a Combined Approach is Best Practice

By Mark Mandel posted 04-21-2014 10:40

When many organizations make plans to implement Records Management, they focus on electronic records exclusively. Other organizations that are heavily paper based may focus on physical records management. Best practice using current technology is to combine both approaches into a common Records Management platform.
The ideal paradigm is one that allows users to search for records without regard to file type or media.   If the result is an electronic record and the user has the correct permissions, the file can be retrieved and viewed immediately. If the result is a physical record and the user has the correct permissions, the user can initiate a check out process to have the record delivered; the system will track the checked out record until it is returned.
All records, regardless of media or file type, including email, should be governed by the same records retention rules.   Your records retention schedule should be media independent so that there are no unique rules for paper records versus electronic records.
What is included in Physical Records Management?
A Physical Records Management solution is much like an inventory control system or a warehouse management system.  It includes locations: building with address, room, row, shelf, and bin where boxes of records are stored.  Locations and boxes are barcoded for rapid data entry when boxes are placed in a location and for checking out boxes for records requests.
When records are placed in a box, the box identifier is entered into the system so that if a user requests that particular record, the specific box is known.
When records are accessioned, they are typically accessioned in bulk as a group of boxes. These boxes must be stored on shelves, ideally in contiguous space in the same area in the file storage area,  onsite or at a remote records storage facility. A key feature therefore is “Space Management,” which calculates the amount of storage space needed for the accession, providing available storage locations.
When records are moved from one location to another, groups of boxes are typically placed on pallets for shipment.  Another key feature therefore is the ability to “containerize.”  This feature provides the ability to group records into boxes, boxes onto pallets, and so on so that the pallets can be tracked from one location to another, with visibility into which boxes are included on each pallet.
When a user requests records, the solution sends a notification to the records center.  Notifications are often batched together into a “pick list,” much like a warehouse management or inventory control system.  The pick list may be sorted by location to make it easy for the staff to retrieve the requested boxes.  The staff uses barcodes to inform the system that the box has been checked out and the system records the requestor, request date, fulfillment date and time.  Reports provide lists of all checked out records and any due dates for return.
This solution can be used to track any physical objects, not just boxes of records.  It can be used for evidence lockers for law enforcement, for storage of data tapes, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives, file cabinets, historical artifacts and so on.  Tracking of location, check-out and check-in, and so on applies to these functions very well. 
For paper records stored in boxes, each box should include an inventory sheet that indicates the content of the box.  Ideally each individual record has an entry in the Records Management system with the same information that an electronic record would have, plus the Box ID for the container in which it is stored.
An Electronic Records Management system is a solution that uses software to manage all records, electronic and physical.  If you are considering implementation of a solution, you should consider what features are supported for all media types.  A separate solution for physical records versus electronic records is not best practice, and ultimately this approach will lead to higher costs and policy that is inconsistent at best.

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