The role of data has gained a great deal of attention recently. And so it should. Data can help organizations learn a lot about themselves and the community they serve. The first step in data management is appreciating that each document generated within an organization tells a story, your story. When organizations begin to value documents as vital records and see them as assets, they can really begin to learn and grow. A proper records management system is essential to this process.
Did you know ninety three percent of organizations that suffer a significant data loss are out of business within five years? The damage is not just losing the information, but not knowing what was lost.
Managing records must be done in a way that works for the organization and its employees. Imagine a records management system that was organized and intuitive; a system where everything followed the same structure, all folders and files had the same labelling format, in both hard and soft copy, including email. And a master table of contents, for everyone. Every time you looked for a file in your own filing system or someone else’s it was in the same place. Imagine searching through a folder to find a piece of paper knowing with certainty you were searching in the right place. Imagine seamlessly transitioning from one employee to the next and not having piles of irrelevant pieces of paper, storage spaces crammed with dusty boxes, or spend endless hours shredding paper. Imagine a work system that allows all of its users to find and access what they need easily and quickly! This is records management. It should not be seen as a burdensome bureaucratic process; rather a vital piece of your organization’s infrastructure.
Adopting an easy to use system will help avoid over retention and clutter, and prevent the loss or inadvertent destruction of significant records. Remember, properly managed records become an asset and information resource, not a liability.
Here are 6 steps to get started:

  1. The structure: Have a category for each department. Each person and filing system must adhere to these main categories -even if they do not frequently deal with these categories. Create subcategories as necessary. No category shall be ‘miscellaneous.’ Everything belongs somewhere!
  2. Email: Most email services offer a great organization system for storing messages. The structure used for hard and soft records should be repeated in email accounts. An inbox with hundreds or even thousands of messages is like a stack of paper continuously growing taller.
  3. Labelling: Title folders and files in an intuitive manner and be consistent. Each name should not duplicate the sub-folder preceding it. For example if the Human Resources department has a form used when employees leave the company the folder structure should look something like this: Human Resources > Employees > Forms > Exit Questionnaire. It should not be: Human Resources > Employees > Employee Forms > Employee Exit Questionnaire Form. Publication1Use a numbering system only when it makes sense, for example when the filing system is complicated, or large. I use numbers when a particular order matters and the files are labelled in a way that would not maintain that order.
  4. Employee participation: It is essential that all employees follow the same structure. The fact is all work generated during work time is work property. No one person owns a document or record if they were paid by someone else to do it (unless of course an agreement to this effect has previously been established). A record management system is not a personal style. Many people prefer to store documents as attachments to emails, and then look up emails by using the search function, that’s fine and may continue, but the messages must still be organized because all of the messages in the email account belong to the organization. However, this may not be the best way to approach the topic with employees when adopting a new records management system.
  5. Evaluate the benefits of hard and soft copy records: Paper takes up space and at times can be an outdated storage method, but digital versions may be vulnerable to preservation. Remember, just ten years ago records were stored on floppy disks, now most computers do not have a floppy drive. Consider how the record will be used. It may be necessary for each employee to have a document, for example the privacy policy or staff directory. It isn’t necessary for each employee to print and store their individual record when a soft copy will suffice. When considering how to store each document consider the need to retrieve the document in years to come.
  6. Find out what your legal obligations are: Depending on how your organization is registered, there may be various regulations regarding records management that you must adhere to. Find out what must (and what must not) be kept and whether there are any regulations regarding storage and retrieval.
    For more information on records management and the legal responsibilities for Canadian charities contact us or visit the educational tools section of our website.