With All of This Data, What Must Be Retained as a Record?

By Susan Goodman CIP, IGP, CRM, CIPP posted 10-04-2011 14:50


Most records managers will tell you that the retention of information content must be determined by the company’s retention schedule – and this a correct. However, as we know, the same or similar content is often stored on multiple media and in diverse formats - and not all data is equal or constitutes a record that must be saved beyond its business use.

Information content often exists in one or (usually) more of the following media and formats:

  • Electronic notes retained by use of an electronic device (e.g., on a  laptop).
  • Handwritten notes on hardcopy (e.g., paper)
  • Hard-copy documents (paper, fiche) as output by an electronic system or received from third parties
  • Hard-copy documents that have been annotated (electronically or manually) after creation
  • Electronic documents generated or received in electronic form and saved only in electronic form – e.g., as an electronic report, spreadsheets, MS Word docs.
  • Electronic documents that have been annotated
  • Data retained in spreadsheets and databases (i.e., source data used to generate routine or adhoc reports – or just for queries). These often have electronic templates associated with the reports that are generated. They also have or don’t have the ability to regenerate the output (e.g., report)
  • E-Mail that contains an attachment of an electronic document (above), with additional explanatory information included in the e-mail cover
  • Others

Additionally, electronic data (and records) may be unstructured (e.g., a document created through word-processing, a spreadsheet or a report) or structured (e.g., database tables) and the same or similar content may be in both forms. There are also often multiple versions and copies of the above documents, data and retained output.

Which of the above must be retained and for how long? What constitutes the “record?”

Here is my non-legal (but experienced Records Management) perspective:

The simple answer is that the final, complete or signed document that is evidence of a decision or transaction is the official record - and that is considered records management best practice. However, in our ever more complex electronic records world - it's simply not that simple. There are many complexities. our electronic record-keeping systems mature....I believe that a more granular view is needed. Several of my technology friends who "get" records management - and with whom I've discussed this - have expressed the same opinion.

In short - we must take a look at the specific content to ascertain its value and the requirements surrounding it. Final assessment of requirements must be reviewed and approved by a firm’s Legal counsel.

Here are two use cases/"rules of thumb" for you to chew on: 

1. You have various versions/drafts of a document/report (hard-copy or electronic), the document/report in paper form, the electronic document, AND underlying data for the same content

Potential Decision: The electronic document can be declared the official record, and the other documents and underlying data can be considered duplicate data, as long as the following conditions exist:

  • The electronic document was captured and maintained in a manner that makes it “authoritative” per ISO 15489-1 (2001)
  • There are no unique regulatory, contractual or risk related requirements to keep the hard-copy
  • The underlying data is not needed to prove the reliability of the documentation (e.g., the IRS requires electronic data underlying tax returns to be maintained) or to recreate the output

Note: If a firm’s Legal Counsel has stipulated that a Preservation Hold requires that some or all of the shorter term documentation and data be kept, then these must be kept as well.   

2. You have underlying data, the template used to generate reports and the ability to regenerate the reports.

Potential Decision: A copy of the output (document) may not need to be kept because the ability to regenerate the record may suffice.  Legal and Compliance should make this determination.  Note: In some cases, a copy of the generated electronic or hard-copy report may need to be kept.

Regulatory requirements often state that records with specific content must be maintained. In other cases, the specific content is not dictated, except that records must be retained that provide evidence of certain activities. The latter is called a principle based requirement (very common in Canada). There also is often no stipulation that the final record (and not the source data) needs to be retained.

It is important to determine the records that must actually be created and maintained to satisfy regulatory as well as business requirements. Some source data may (depending upon a given firm’s interpretation) be considered no more valuable than as a means to generate the records. Other source data will be considered records to be maintained for the full required retention period for the “record.”

This is an emerging topic…We all have a long way to go in this arena...Your thoughts?

The opinions expressed here represent my own, and not those of Bank of America (BAC) or AIIM

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