Overcoming the challenges of managing physical records

The difficult task of managing physical records has been made more challenging in a post-pandemic world. Learn how to tame physical records with RecordPoint

Paula Smith

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Paula Smith

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September 5, 2022
Overcoming the challenges of managing physical records

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations around the world are shifting to a remote or hybrid model, with team members geographically distributed and either working from home or in satellite offices.

According to the Pulse of the Industry Report 2022, 81% of respondents’ organizations in Australasia are now operating a hybrid model, with both cloud services and on-premises systems.

In the same report, 88% of respondents said they were still responsible for managing physical records, what many of us think of as “traditional” records management. Physical records presented challenges before the pandemic, but this shift to new ways of working has only made things more difficult for records managers.

In this post, we will look at the difficult task of managing physical records, and how a records management solution like RecordPoint can make a difference.

Why are physical records difficult to manage?

Physical records are paper or other hard-copy records that we can physically handle. They can include documents like birth certificates or medical records, meeting minutes, project planning documents, blueprints or architectural diagrams. Before the advent of digital records, the vast majority of records were physical, so organizations that have existed for decades or more will likely have a significant amount of physical records in their possession.

There are five main reasons physical records pose challenges to records managers, many of them interrelated.

  1. Vulnerability to disaster
  2. Accessibility
  3. Volume and cost
  4. Reliability and lack of context
  5. Inconsistent classification schema

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

1. Vulnerability to disaster

In the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake, severe flooding or fire, physical records are at risk of being damaged, destroyed or out of reach if the building in which they are housed is rendered inaccessible.

2. Accessibility

Even without a natural disaster, accessing a given physical record is challenging. If records are stored in boxes, labelled ambiguously, or stored in multiple places, finding the record needed to move a project forward or respond to an information request is difficult.

When a significant portion of the information needed to process a request is held in physical form and a records manager is working from home or a remote office and can’t get access to that information, delays are introduced to the process. Freedom of Information legislation comes with deadlines by which you must return information, as does litigation or inquiries.  

Physical records also cannot be shared easily. To quickly share them with a colleague, they need to be photographed or scanned, then sent by email or other electronic means. Employees working out in the field need to be able to plan their days to make maximum use of the time, so they need to have the confidence that if they do travel back to the office to collect a record, the file will be there and available for use.

3. Volume and cost

The more physical records you have, the more space you need to store them. For organizations such as local governments, which have existed for a long time prior to digitization, the volume of records can be significant. With this volume come costs, both in terms of real estate and in costs related to specialized archival facilities.

Therefore, you need to manage them properly according to retention plans. Short-term records can go somewhere accessible, and not necessarily archival quality protection. But for more important records, such as contracts, building plans, plans with sewer systems, water systems, or emergency procedures, they need to be kept properly in the right location.

No organization keeps their physical records in their city center building because it is typically very expensive real estate, and they want to avoid putting “all their eggs in one basket” in case of natural disaster, fire, or other damage. As discussed, this makes managing physical records much more difficult. You must review multiple locations, not knowing what is there, then search through sometimes boxes of records to find the one you need.  

4. Reliability and lack of context

We have a cultural idea that physical paper is inherently more reliable, because you can see it, you can touch it, and it has a signature or seal on it. Because of this bias, we see it as often of high value from evidentiary point of view. But the mere existence of a paper record does not necessarily guarantee its validity. You need traceability, you need context.

Without context, a paper record is just a piece of paper.  

In contrast, if this piece of paper is registered in a digital system, then it becomes traceable. A records manager can say, authoritatively, “this was registered in our system on this date. It was last viewed by this person on this date.” Furthermore, in a digital system the record will also be given context because of where the entry is stored and potentially the retention class applied to it.  This provides the context to make informed, authoritative decisions, and be able to back them up when challenged.

5. Inconsistent classification schema

In many cases, organizations will use a third-party solution, database or a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to classify and manage physical records, including their physical location. Using these solutions, it can be difficult to update the Business Classification Schema (BCS). Legacy file series may have different encoding schemas and can often be classified under older schemas.

As a result, the BCS for physical records may get out of sync with the digital records. These kinds of inconsistent practices may open organizations up to legal challenges. Remember: from a records management perspective the format should be irrelevant.

How does Records365 help?

There are many benefits to managing digital and physical records together, including a reduction in cost, improved productivity and improving discovery. Let’s go through the five main ways RecordPoint can help.

Register physical records

RecordPoint’s Records365 includes a physical records module for use in registering your physical records. Customers can register a given file or a box of physical records, marking that physical content with various metadata fields such as location, its condition, copyright, or protections, as well as adding context by way of the fileplan and retention classes. Customers can then manage access permissions and its disposal.

This can be done by a particular file series, and you are not stuck with a one-size-fits-all. For example, with contract files, you can require specific information such as contract expiry dates. Records that are high value with permanent retention status will go to jurisdictional archival facilities, or museums like the Smithsonian for particularly important records.

Create your records infrastructure once, and apply it to all formats

By registering physical records into Records365, customers can centralize their data policies and controls, regardless of format or location. This lowers the chance of inconsistent or incorrect information and improves compliance.

Defensibly dispose

Records365 means you can defensively dispose and make sure that you are not opening yourself or your organization up to legal challenges. You can manage this because you have a distinct classification scheme, few physical records, and the ability to track quantities and volumes. Thanks to these abilities, you can identify the record series that could be digitized because they are actively used.

Work more efficiently

On a day-to-day basis, registering physical records allows organizations to work more efficiently. When a record is needed, they can use the Records365 to see where the record is located, and if another team member has taken it out for use.  

Data minimization and records digitization

Registering physical records also makes it easier to minimize the data you do not need, dispose of records when their retention period ends, and to digitize those records that are needed ongoing. These all help to reduce your physical records footprint, and with less physical space required organizations can reduce the related real estate and other costs.

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