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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Avoid Information Disasters

Company executives are charged with the efficient and cogent management of their company’s resources. However, they often overlook the most important element of business - the creation of information - even though they expect that information to be available so that business can continue in the aftermath of a disaster.

To assure themselves of information availability, executives should consider establishing a records management program for their company that includes a vital records component. The purpose of a records management program is to identify what records a business has, their location, volume and appropriate retention period, when to dispose of them, and how to physically and intellectually manage records during their retention period.

The first step in establishing a records management program is to decide who will have responsibility for its management. The responsible person (preferably a certified records manager (CRM), archivist or librarian) should know the necessary elements of a successful records management program. The scope of such a program is governed by the needs, size, style and type of business. The program should include service in management of records, control in guiding program life and advice in problem solving. It is best if the program is pkaced within the system and management strata of the business. Furthermore, it is helpful if lines of authority are pyramidal.

Once the management status of the records management program has been determined, the professional can begin to manage the company’s records. The first step is to conduct an inventory of the company’s records.

The inventory identifies and quantifies the records created by the company and provides a complete listing of the groups of records filed together, commonly known as records series (personnel records, contracts, proposals and insurance records). The inventory can be done physically, using a records inventory form, or by questionnaire. The physical inventory is preferred because the surveyor actually sees the records and does not have to rely on someone who may not have the time or inclination to completely or accurately fill out a questionnaire.

After the records inventory is completed, a records retention and disposition schedule is prepared. This schedule provides for the systematic and periodic transfer and disposition of a company’s records. The appropriate retention and disposition of records creates a more efficient working environment by eliminating obsolete records, freeing valuable office space, providing inexpensive inactive storage for records that are nor currently used but which may be in the future, retaining records of historical value and restricting filing and storage equipment to active records.

A key consideration in retention scheduling is the records appraisal, which determines the value of a company’s records. Types of records include: the official documents of a company; duplicates or convenience copies which aren’t necessary for the daily operation of a business; inactive records which are consulted in the performance of management functions; and inactive records which are stored but rarely used.

The value of these records falls into four categories: adminstrative and operational, legal, fiscal and historical. When establishing records retention schedules, the records manager must understand the legal requirements for retaining records as provided in local, state and federal rules and regulations. Many state archives can help companies determine appropriate retention periods. For instance, the State of Washington assists companies by making available its Cities and Towns Records Management Manual.

After a records retention schedule has been established, where and how to store inactive records must be consiered. A commerical records center can save thousands of dollars a year by freeing valuable office space. However, a records center is not an archives. The purpose of an archives is to store permanent and historically valuable records for prosperity and scholarly research. Records centers store records maintained for administrative and operations use for short periods of time. If a company lacks the funds or space to establish its own records center, then it should consider using a commercial records center. In either case, the records center must have stable environmental controls, security and offer protection from fire, water, vermin and rodents.
Once the basic elements of the records management program are in place, control over active records and records creation must be established. Active records control refers to filing systems, files maintenance and filing equipment. These are important because they can standardize filing methods throughout the company - often replacing eclectic and outdated systems. The three most common filing methods are alphabetic, numeric and alphanumeric. However, some businesses use topical (dictionary), classified or geographic systems.

An indexing system is also useful because it allows easy access to all files. The filing system should have as many access points as possible so that all designations by which records are referred to are available. Files maintenance involves the control of file groups, the basic type of record that exists in business. These include general and transitory correspondence, case or project files, audio visual material, technical reference materials, cartographic records, engineering drawings, file cards, automated or machine readable records, microforms and optical disks.

Maintenance also includes the physical control of filing, such as collecting, sorting, screening, coding and cross-referencing. Finally, the records manager must determine whether present filing equipment is sufficient for the businesses needs. There are many alternatives to the standard four or five drawer filing cabinet, including circular files, suspension files, rotary files and lateral files.

A popular records management tool is micrographics. It provides inexpensive duplication of records, quick retrieval, protection of filing equipment and records permanence.

There are four basic types of microforms: film housed in rolls, reels and cartridges; microfiche; microfilm jackets; and aperture cards. Another aspect of this tool is Computer Output Microfilm, a system in which computer tapes are transferred directly to microfilm, thus eliminating paper altogether.

Accordingly, there are a number of readers and reader/printers available for reading microform. Records managers must be aware of changing records management technologies, including the popular new technology known as optical disk storage in which records are scanned and digitally encoded onto optical disks much like the compact discs sold in record stores.

The disks can hold thousands of pages, thus saving space and providing instant retrieval. While this and other technologies may be too costly for some companies, sooner or later these technologies will be the norm, not the leading edge.

Every records management program must include a vital records program. A vital record is any document or group of documents necessary to continue business in the event of a disaster.

These records include those that establish and maintain the identity, financial status or company infrastructure. But vital records can include records, which although are not necessary for resuming business, show a legal commitment the company has made. Employee records would fall into this category. Thus, vital records generally consist of documents that can determine receivables and liabilities; identify fixed assets, customer commitments, employee benefits and salaries; and meet corporate legal and financial requirements. Vital records as outline above include paper and computer generated materials and can be identified at the same time the records inventory is conducted.

When vital records have been identified, then a decision about protecting them must be made. There are several options including having a copy of each vital record sent to off-site storage. Another option is to store the records in fire proof vaults on-site. As with non-vital records, a retention schedule must be created that identifies the format of the vital record, its method of protection, frequency of deposit and retention period.
The importance of having a vital records program is underscored by the recent devastating fire that destroyed the Bellevue, Washington offices of Dean Witter Reynolds. Structural and interior damage of $1 million was reported. However, of perhaps greater consequence was that thousands of customer records on paper and computer tape were lost.

Unfortunately, the office did not have a vital records program. Only now, those with personal computers are backing up their files and keeping copies at home. But even this will not insure their safety because few homes have the security services a records center can provide. A vital records program would have made this company’s road to recovery much smoother.

Despite the level of automation in today’s offices, there really is no such thing as a paper-less office. Accordingly, businesses that do not have records management programs should institute them immediately. For assistance in starting such a program, contact your local chapter of ARMA (Association of Records Managers and Administrators) and AIM (Association for Information and Image Management).


Dale A. Stirling is library/information manager for Landau Associates, Inc., in Edmonds, Wash.

This article adapted from Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 24.

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