Information is much more than data. It is data which is assessed, combined with intelligence and massaged either manually or by computing means to produce something meaningful.
Meaningful information can provide useful insights for any organisation in regard to profitability, overall status and customer trends. Information may only be useful for varying periods of time but a lot of information held by an organisation has a lifecycle determined by law.
One industry sector heavily impacted by law determining retention and destruction policies is the legal profession, not only due to the nature of the documents handled within a firm, they, of all industries, must know and understand the law governing information.
All manner of documents are created, collected, stored, circulated, retained and disposed of by any given legal firm. Contracts, client files, deeds, wills, personal information, financial information, evidence for trials and the list goes on.
Large quantities of this information are in hard copy and stored somewhere on the premises or often by necessity off-site in a storage facility, where the latter is neither practical nor efficient while the information is still in paper form.
The management of the information lifecycle should be a combination of people, processes and technology. Technology alone however, cannot be relied on for Information Lifecycle Management (ILM). Decisions regarding retention and disposal must be made by suitably qualified people and processes put in place to ensure those decisions are acted upon as the law requires. A time consuming process when hard copy still rules.
- Electronic Format
ILM applies to electronic and hard copy documentation but of course there are iss ues peculiar to electronic formats which need to be considered. While there are still documents which must be kept in hard copy, such as statutory declarations, documents in electronic format are easier to manage and support the argument for digitisation. Further benefits of digitisation can be cost saving, time saving, ease of access, efficiency and ease of management.
- Retention and Destruction
Solicitors are known for hanging on to hard copy, having things “in writing” and while this can still be done, the time has long past for hard copy to be the only copy. Legal firms are also known to keep documentation past the required retention timeframe in case of litigation. Then there is the issue of whether a file is active or dead, as some files can relate to ongoing, long term work. In addition, the ownership of the documents must be taken into consideration, is the solicitor or the client the owner and how does that determine their retention?
Electronic storage and management is also a more efficient means of determining whether files are still active, regardless of the age of the documents. It is essential that a range of documents are not prematurely destroyed.
Nationwide and international firms also need to consider the different legislatures which can impose varying retention periods for documentation. Maintaining electronic records goes a long way to making this a much simpler proposition.
Digitisation addresses these issues and removes the space, time and access dilemma associated with keeping all that paper.
Regardless, paper and electronic documents should be subject to the same processes and treated consistently across the board.
- Electronic Access
Documentation is a business issue because of the information – aka – the knowledge which can be gained from it. However, it is much harder to access the information, let alone acquire the knowledge if it is in hard copy. Yes, records management systems can provide statistics about document usage but it is the information within the documents which can be a knowledge gold mine.
Digitisation unlocks the potential in all that paper. Done correctly, digitisation can create documents as a searchable PDF, a secure document in a number of ways but accessible not only by keywords attached as metadata but by words and phrases contained in the document.
Metadata provides information about data and can be structural data which is usually automated by the system in use and will describe the “container” i.e. what format is it, when it was created, date of any modification and so on and it will differ according to the format – a photo will be different to a video and different to a PDF. Descriptive data, which is the other part of metadata, is exactly what it says, keywords which describe the data and can be the client’s name, the solicitor’s name, the name of the case etc. Date of destruction is a key element and essential to ILM.
- Information Lifecycle
Documents destroyed before the prescribed date can lead to prosecution. Documents kept beyond their destruction date can lead to storage problems – even electronically – escalating costs and in time the problem of mass destruction. The bottom line when it applies to ILM is safe, timely destruction of documentation both hard copy and electronic according to the relevant legislation.