Retention of records: do you know your obligations?

Document Control and Records Management are sister disciplines: they are from the same family, but each of them is different (in terms of scope, role, focus, and processes).

 

The Document Control discipline does however share a common challenge with Records Management: determining the retention time and means required for the records of the company.

 

What is a record?

 

A record is “a piece of evidence about the past, especially a written or other permanent account”.

 

In the Document Control profession, the usual types of records that we manage are documents (including drawings, management documents, technical documents, contractual documents etc.).

 

How long should we keep the company’s documents?

 

The question is simple and recurrent. However, there is unfortunately not one single answer to that. The truth is… it depends!

 

It depends on a variety of factors, but the first one being the country (and sometimes the state inside the country) where the company is based and/or operates.

 

Every country has a different legislation, and this means that every country has different requirements; in terms of duration but also in terms of type of record to be kept, and format.

 

Other influencing factors include the category of documents (financial records, technical documentation, contracts, etc.), the industry (some industries are more regulated than others e.g. pharmaceutical, aviation, military, nuclear, etc.) as well as the culture and the processes of the company itself.

 

The level of complexity (and risks of non-compliance) is high, and the best go-to person to ask about it in a company is the legal department / lawyer of the company.

 

Should we keep the paper copy of a document, if we have the electronic version of it?

 

Here again, it is important to check the specific requirements applicable in each situation.

 

However, more and more countries are accepting electronic records in lieu of paper copies for most documents (it is even easier  in this case to state which ones have to be retained in paper copies, than those who can be kept in either format).

 

For example, HMRC (UK’s tax organisation) accepts electronic copies (or scanned copies) of companies receipts and evidence. In this case, no need to keep the paper copy in addition to the electronic copy, as long as the electronic files are safe and backed up.

 

Is it safer to keep electronic copies instead of hardcopies?

 

When thinking about this, most of us will think that it is safer indeed to have documents in an electronic format as opposed to the hardcopy, because paper can easily be destroyed by fire, water, wind etc.

 

And it is true that, if you only have a hard copy of a document, once it is lost or destroyed, it is lost forever. But it does not necessarily mean that, automatically, because it’s an electronic document, this kind of damages cannot occur. Indeed, electronic documents are stored on servers. And a server can also be damaged by fire or flood.

 

So the only way to make sure that your documents are really safe is to ensure that your company has a proper back-up strategy (with servers in separate locations for example), with on-time replication as well as a disaster recovery strategy.

 

Who’s job is it to take care of that?

Unfortunately, in many companies, the level of awareness on these subjects is still very low and oftentimes no one really owns this process.

 

The Document Control group is one of the stakeholders though, and therefore they should be involved in the process definition and implementation. 

 

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