When you go paperless, over time you will accumulate a lot of information. This may lead you to ask yourself an important question – how long should you keep your electronic documents? Should you prune them periodically, or should you keep them forever?
I need to be open and transparent right off the bat here – I do not prune my documents. To this point, I have taken a “you never know what you will need until you need it” approach and have kept everything.
That has worked for me so far, but there may be some very good reasons to have an electronic document destruction policy – especially if you run a larger business.
But I Want To Keep My Electronic Documents Forever
That is entirely your choice, but here are some things to consider.
The nice thing about going paperless is that more document storage does not usually lead to more physical space being taken up. We don’t have to worry about file cabinets, boxes, or storage rooms.
You often hear “storage is cheap” when it comes to electronic data, and it is. You can get terabyte upon terabyte of cloud storage for free, and the price of external storage keeps falling.
Over time though, you may start hitting storage tiers where keeping more data leads to additional cost, which may be unnecessary.
The more information you keep, the more you will need to wade through when you or your users are looking for a document. Using a consistent and descriptive naming convention will help, but the less outdated and irrelevant information you need to wade through, the more effective you may be.
This is mostly applicable in an organization, but keeping old documents around may open you up to legal risk. The more documents you have, the more discoverable information there is if you are involved in a lawsuit or audit.
It is sad for historic and preservation reasons, but there is a trend for organizations to get rid of documents as quickly as they can for these sorts of legal reasons.
There are some important caveats around this though, so read on.
Create An Electronic Document Destruction Policy
So you’ve decided that you want to start removing old information. Here is what you should not do: go crazy and start deleting stuff.
The first thing you will want to do is talk to your legal and tax experts to find out which records you need to keep and for how long.
Once you have sorted that out, it is still not to time to take a chainsaw to your document archive. You should create a formal document destruction policy.
For example, the time to delete documents related to a lawsuit is not when you are involved in the lawsuit. That is what is known as a Bad Idea (remember Enron?).
Rich Medina puts it well in his AIIM post 4 Things You Need to Know to Safely Get Rid of Electronic Stuff (Technical Term for Information Chaos):
The first step is to develop your Defensible Disposition Policy. This is the design specification that states very clearly the objectives that your methodology will fulfill. You should be able to defend your actions by pointing at your policy for defensible disposition, which shows what you intend to do, and then showing that you are following it. The good news is that you don’t need to be perfect – you don’t have to perfectly satisfy your retention demands. You do need to use the Principle of Reasonableness and act In Good Faith.
Some things you will want to think about:
- What should be removed?
- What should never be removed?
- When should they be removed?
- Who removes them?
Though it is specifically targeted at lawyers, Lawyerist has a good Sample Document-Destruction Policy.
Make Sure Everything Is Documented
You want to make sure that everything you do around document destruction (especially if you are an organization) is done carefully and deliberately.
When you destroy records, you want to make sure that the act of destruction is documented and shown that it is in compliance with your policy.
Document Pruning Strategies
Many higher-level document management systems have disposition features built-in that you can use.
If you are not using one of those systems, you can do things like set up smart folders on your computer to identify files in your archive that are of a certain age in a certain location and then go through those to decide which to delete.
Make Sure You Review And Update
Over time, you will want to review your policy and make sure that it is still relevant, and you will want to do some sample audits to make sure that the policy is being followed.
Do You Have A Document Destruction Policy?
Do you keep everything (as I currently do), or do you prune your documents? If you are comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear below the sorts of things you delete and how you go about it.
(Photo by Tanaka Juuyoh)