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Go paperless safely and legally

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The average office worker uses close to 10,000 sheets of copy paper per year, according to the Go Green initiative, Paperless Project. This is why an increasing number of South African businesses have started converting physical documents into electronic records.
Going paperless holds many benefits for companies, from saving on the physical space required to store original documents to having the security of digital ‘back ups’. However, if this process is not done properly and the original documents are discarded, the electronic documents may not be able to be used in the court of law if required.
This is according to Wayne Clarke, Managing Director of Metrofile Records Management, who says that company information and records must be considered a business asset and it is imperative that companies organise their records and information to enhance operational efficiency, improve customer relationship management and support business development. “Implementing an electronic document management (EDM) system and digitising existing physical documents is becoming increasingly important in reaching these goals.”
In an increasingly digitised and mobile world, paper-based processes are also becoming less and less acceptable to customers, who expect real-time responses at all points of contact, he adds. “Going digital is therefore both a practical and strategic necessity for a businesses.”
However, Clarke cautions that converting company records to digital format and implementing a new EDM system has a number of legal and risk implications that one needs to take note of. “Utilising a reputable records management service to control the migration process is paramount, if not, the company could be exposed to serious risks such as data breaches, information loss and legal action.”
He says businesses in the process of data migration need to take the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) act into account. “The first step of going paperless is to consolidate existing records and eliminate unnecessary or redundant files. However, this is where companies could find themselves in legal trouble should the business fail to implement effective information destruction practices in line with POPI requirements.”
He says most businesses will still need access to original documentation for a certain period of time, depending on the type of document, in the event of legal action. “South Africa’s mining industry is facing this issue at the moment. Since 2012, 30 gold mining companies have been named in class action lawsuits involving over 17 000 ex-gold miners suffering from the lung disease silicosis.
“Some of these ex-employees’ medical files date back over 30 years. It is extremely important for the companies to have quick access to the right employee records when they are requested by lawyers or the courts at this stage, which is why digitising old records is vital.”
If a business doesn’t need to access archived physical documents immediately, offsite records management would be the safest option, says Clarke. “The location of storage facilities should be situated in low-risk areas where exposure to flooding, fires, earthquakes, flight paths or other natural disasters are least probable.”
Following the sorting of documents, the digital conversion process needs to be thoroughly managed to prevent data loss, he says. “The accurate scanning and conversion of the company’s physical files in a fully tracked and traced archive with audit logging also needs to take place in accordance to POPI requirements. This process can become quite lengthy, especially for older companies, and the risk of documents going missing or unaccounted for is significant.”
Finally, the completion of the conversion process is does not mark the end of a company’s risk management obligations, according to Clarke. “Businesses should make sure that the software used to create the backup copies allows for data verification and encryption thus ensuring data integrity by restricting access to data and maintaining rigorous authentication practices.
“In addition, the inclusion of compression technology, which reduces the size of the backup file by storing a single version of data files and then only the changes made to the files, can speed up the backup process and reduce required storage space by up to half,” he says.
“Given the various technological developments in records management, if ever there was a time to go digital, it is now. For a business that effectively manages the risks of converting its data, a paperless office can boost productivity exponentially,” Clarke says.