Simple Ways to Improve How You Manage Your Electronic Records
Simple Ways to Improve How You Manage Your Electronic Records
There are a wide variety of options available for organisations to help them improve how they manage their electronic records. Some organisations may need to procure a sophisticated solution to help manage their records and will look to the market for a specific software solution. There are numerous commercial records systems which, provided they are successfully implemented and maintained as part of a well-managed electronic records management project, can be used to manage electronic records to required standards. For guidance on identifying a suitable electronic records system see our section on Electronic Records Management Systems.
Not every organisation will be able to afford to buy in and run such a system or consider it appropriate to their circumstances. For smaller or less complex organisations in-house systems, a re-use of existing platforms, or open source applications, or a combination of these options may prove suitable. The most practical approach will be determined by a careful and realistic needs analysis.
There are, regardless of what systems approach you may choose to adopt, simple actions you can take to improve how you manage your electronic records. These include reorganising how your records are stored and disposed of, and making use of access controls, naming conventions, and version rules. These actions can all be beneficial and will help position your organisation for a later transition to a full electronic records management system. However, you need to also understand their limitations as they may not provide the level of control your organisation requires.
Reorganising network workspaces to improve how you create, store, amend, archive and retrieve electronic records will enhance organisation-wide information and knowledge sharing. Establishing a hierarchical structure of folders within a file system will provide a coherent area within which records can be created and stored. If you are storing records in folders on shared drives or workspaces you can reorganise the folder structure to replicate your organisation's file plan. While your organisation may be using an existing file plan as part of a well-maintained paper records system it does not automatically follow this will provide the most appropriate structure in which to also manage your electronic records and you should evaluate your file plan's merits before adopting it.
It is important to be aware that if you choose to store electronic records in folders on shared drives onto which no formal controls have been put in place, then your records will remain at risk of potential alteration or deletion. Access controls can be used to mitigate this risk by regulating the number of users who can create, access, edit or delete records stored in particular folders. You can also use them to restrict access to more sensitive information. Maintaining complicated access controls is resource intensive so it may be more practical to keep the folder groups to which access permissions are assigned relatively simple.
Password controls are better avoided as much as possible. Where simple passwords are used they will only provide a low level of security and if passwords are forgotten you run the risk of losing access to your records.
While access controls can provide some measure of protection, they are not a panacea. If your records are required to demonstrate evidential value and you cannot guarantee this within their electronic environment then this approach may not be appropriate for your organisation. Printing electronic records to paper to keep on a registered file in your physical record keeping system cannot be a preferred option. There is a cost attached to both printing and paper storage and you should balance this against the cost of implementing and maintaining a system which is capable of managing electronic records in their original format. Environmental considerations should also be taken into account.
Naming Conventions and Version Rules
Naming records consistently by following set conventions can greatly improve the storage and retrieval of records. The chief identifier of any record is its name. Records that are named coherently are naturally easier to manage. By giving a record a consistent and logical description you will make it easier to differentiate between similar records at a glance. Users will find it more straightforward to browse and access information. Adhering to agreed conventions also makes the naming of records simpler as colleagues do not have to reconsider the naming process each time.
If you are using a folder structure on your file system that replicates your corporate file plan, then the names of the folders should as far as possible correspond to titles used within the file plan.
When you create and save a document you must give it a name. This name will be the primary way you and your colleagues locate and identify that document in the future. The name will also help you relate the document it describes to other documents. So it is important that you give it a suitable name. Document names should contain enough information to give a user who may see the document out of context, separated from its parent folder, an understanding of what the document concerns and its purpose. Document names should be as descriptive as possible while retaining meaning and consistency of approach.
A document name should be made up of the following components:
- Description - the topic and subject matter. This component may be used numerous times as documents are created and saved relating to the same subject
- Type - the document type e.g. letter, report, minutes, etc. Not to be confused with format e.g. Excel spreadsheet
- Date, if appropriate - the date of an event, meeting, etc, not that of the document's creation (which is usually captured automatically by the software application). Used to distinguish the document from others on the same topic
- Version Number - used to keep track of changes made to the document. Not applicable to emails.
Documents are rarely static and can be subject to numerous changes during their life cycle. Documents published in shared spaces are often circulated, edited and redrafted. In order to keep track of changes and ensure everyone is working from the current version of a document, the document title should finally incorporate a version number.
Version numbers are commonly placed at the end of the document title and prefixed with the letter v to identify the number as a version control tool. When numbering you can use ordinal numbers to reflect major changes (i.e. 1.2, 2.5, 3.4) and decimal numbers (i.e. 1.2, 2.5, 3.4) to reflect minor changes in documents.
A major change to a document would include a significant redraft that changes the meaning or emphasis of the document, an amalgamation of amendments, an annual update of a document, a redesign of a database, the addition of a new field or cell, or a new release of a publication. A minor change would constitute redrafting work which does not change the meaning or emphasis of the document for example, editing changes, stylistic adjustment. In these circumstances the ordinal number should remain the same and the decimal number should be escalated to reflect the change.
Disposal Management and Data Cleansing
Good housekeeping of shared file systems is fundamental to maintaining their long-term viability. As with physical records, removing any electronic material which should no longer be kept is a basic aspect of good records management and supports legal requirements such as data protection. In order to keep your information organised and relevant you should try to perform regular housekeeping by reviewing and disposing of records in accordance with your organisation’s disposal schedule. Records which have no continuing value should be disposed of. Duplicates of final documents, working copies, previous versions and drafts should all be removed to keep storage space free of redundant content and make records of corporate value easier to locate. Some continued duplication may be necessary to ensure good access to information for business purposes.
Carrying out disposal activities manually is not a simple process, but easier to carry out in a well structured file system. In deciding how you will control disposal and who you will authorise to delete or remove records you need to strike a balance between protecting records from loss or mismanagement and making the process workable for users. Records will normally be disposed of as aggregations or groups in one folder as disposing of individual records would in most circumstances be too inefficient and resource intensive. Software tools can also be used to identify and remove inappropriate, duplicate and redundant content.
If you are maintaining records in both physical and electronic systems then you also need to determine as a matter of policy in which format the master copy will be stored and then dispose of the other when it is no longer needed. Before disposing of any material, you need to be sure that the record retained possesses any necessary evidential value.
Maintaining records in a shared file system and managing their disposal manually will not be appropriate for every organisation and before you adopt this approach you need to assess the risks and carefully consider whether it is suitable for the framework in which you operate.
The National Archives 'Managing Digital Records Without an Electronic Records Management System' (678 KB PDF) provides useful guidance on how to improve the management of electronic records without an ERM system, covering filing structures, management rules, access controls, and disposal management.
The IRMT (International Records Management Trust) 'Managing the Creation, Use and Disposal of Electronic Records' (Module 3 of their Training in Electronic Records Management materials) includes guidance on developing classification schemes, managing electronic records on shared drives, use of naming conventions, and carrying out appraisal and disposal.
NHS National Services Scotland has developed guidelines for NHS divisions on both the development and implementation of a business classification scheme on shared drives, and data cleansing.
NHS File Plan Development Guidelines (443 KB PDF)
Data Cleansing Guidelines (387 KB PDF)
Moray Council have also produced guidance on naming conventions and version control within their ERDMS.
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