Paper vs. Electronic Files

Don’t Mourn the Death of Hard Copies Just Yet

In November 2011, President Barack Obama issued an executive memorandum directing U.S. government agencies to enhance their RIM processes. “Improving records management will improve performance and promote openness and accountability by better documenting agency actions and decisions,” the memo stated. Emphasis was placed on electronic alternatives.

Coming on the heels of the Affordable Care Act, which mandated electronic medical records in the health care industry, this directive seemed to sound the death knell for paper files, even among private companies. But from a practical point of view, hard copies will remain part of records managers’ responsibilities for some time to come.

There is no doubt that electronic records management is a fast-growing element of the RIM landscape. According to a 2009 report from the Association for Information and Image Management, electronic records had grown at 70 percent of organizations surveyed. Yet the volume of paper records continued to expand at 56 percent of the organizations, and 70 percent reported no plans for transitioning their RIM processes to long-term electronic storage.

Paper records continue to survive for a number of reasons:

  • Some industries, particularly those highly regulated such as legal, financial, manufacturing, and life sciences, may have to comply with legal and regulatory rules mandating paper records in certain circumstances, such as when a so-called “wet signature” (versus a digital one) is required.
  • Some contracts with outside parties may include provisions for hard copies. Similarly, a key client may expect an organization to keep paper records, even if it’s not contractually required.
  • The process of digitizing paper files or adapting to electronic records management may be prohibitively expensive or unworkable. (Because of this, specialized records management partners will offer solutions like scan-on-demand as a cost-effective way of making records readily accessible.)
  • The risk of lost digital records may be determined to be higher than that of hard copies.

There are many advantages to electronic record keeping. Typically, it allows for easier storage, accessibility and backup of vital records, all at lower cost. But there are disadvantages as well. Virtual files may require special equipment in order to read them. Hardware and software changes may render older files inaccessible. Some organizations may not manage electronic records as diligently as they do paper files. To illustrate, the 2009 AIIM report found 71 percent of respondents had legal-hold policies in place for paper documents, while only a little over half had such policies for e-files.

Still, the trend continues to move toward electronic records as the norm. Given this trajectory, organizations will need to make plans for managing both kinds of records effectively — with an eye on adapting to the digital future.

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Abraxas manages all kinds of records — paper and virtual —while helping clients adapt to the changing environment. We provide clients with tailored records and information management solutions, delivering the business intelligence that matters most — and we do it more efficiently and reliably than anyone else, particularly in highly regulated industries. To learn more, or call us: 866.535.0016 (toll-free) or 269.226.0016.