Governments may come and go, but taxes are eternal. In 1086, for example, William the Conqueror ordered a massive survey of England, the better to help him tax his new dominions. The results, written up in the Domesday Book, have been a valuable historical resource for nearly 1 000 years, writes Jean Moncrieff, CEO of Emerge Africa.

To commemorate the Domesday Book’s 900th anniversary in 1986, the BBC compiled a new survey of England, in which over 1-million people participated. Unfortunately, the format they chose – LV-ROM videodiscs with a proprietary player – became obsolete soon after and by early 2002 the survey was nearly lost forever.  It took a massive and technically intricate preservation project to rescue the information. The original Domesday Book, meanwhile, is safe in the UK’s National Archives, still as accessible and readable as ever.
Archives are important, for businesses as well as for nations. Nowadays they not only preserve our history, they’re a critical part of legal compliance and good governance. At the bottom of most corporate scandals, from Enron to Fidentia, you’ll find information that has been mis-represented, manipulated, lost, covered up or in some cases destroyed.
If information is an asset, it should be treated like any other asset. It’s not enough just to know that your cash is safe in a bank – you also want to know that it’s being well managed to earn you maximum returns.  In the same way, simply sending your records to an archive and forgetting about them is not enough: you also need to know how that portfolio of information assets is being managed.
This is all the more important as the volume of paper we produce has exploded in recent years. This growth, combined with proliferating compliance mandates, means that fundamental records management principles have become increasingly important. Because few organisations have the specialised skills required to store and manage records properly – it simply isn’t their core business – most tend to outsource the task. Outsourcing archives also frees up valuable office space.
Around the country, specialist storage facilities now manage millions of records for customers. The question is, how efficiently and cost effectively are those records being managed?
Here are seven critical questions you should ask before entrusting your records to a third party:
* How do they measure and report against SLA agreements to ensure your SLA will be met? Ideally, you as the customer should be able to access management information through a reporting tool.
* Do they provide an option to request documents electronically to reduce retrieval times and costs? Paper documents can be scanned on demand.
* How do they index and verify records you send them? If there isn’t a clear and reliable process for verifying the contents of stored archive boxes, you may not find your information again when you need it. The best policy is for the archive provider to re-index or verify every box entering their warehouse.
* How are empty boxes managed or purged? As records are retrieved over time, poor records management can leave you paying for half-full or empty boxes.  At Archive-IT our re-indexing process has cut costs for our clients by as much as 30%, simply by getting rid of empty space they should not have been paying for in the first place.
* In the case of digital records, how often are storage media refreshed? This should happen at least every five years.
* What is their policy on transfer of records? If you ever want to change service providers, make sure you won’t pay a penalty.
*  How do they protect your records from unauthorised access? You don’t want to be the hospital whose medical records for Cabinet ministers go public. At minimum, records should be stored in a secure facility. Best practice is to give each box of records a shelf location and label it with nothing but a barcode, essentially making that box anonymous. Records should be managed in a secure electronic records management system.
Getting the right answers to these questions is not just a matter of cutting your costs. You can outsource the management of your records, but you can’t outsource your ultimate legal responsibility for them. Your archive service provider should offer you a partnership and level of service that ensures you never need to worry.