I often tell my own kids how important it is to keep their things in places where they can find them later. Soemtimes, they get an assignment from a teacher which they just cannot find. They try – they spend a lot of time looking in all their desk drawers, and in the deepest pockets of their school bags – but there are times when they simply can’t find it. Those assignments usually then appear a few weeks later, often under their beds, when they are no longer relevant.
But wait? Relevant?
Yes, information relevancy is as important a concept for school kids as it is for enterprises. If you think it through, it’s not that different at all in either case.
Let’s imagine three documents sitting on our work desk: a bill from a business lunch from the previous week, an employment contract with a new colleague, and articles of incorporation relating to our company. All of them are relevant, but they are obviously relevant at different levels. Still, regardless of their relevancy, they all need to go through the same information lifecycle process, and the same things happen to all three documents – just at a different pace.
1 - Collaboration
When we create articles of incorporation, there will be a lot of collaboration going on. Different partners will want to have different clauses in that document, and various lawyers will insist on amendments. It can take months for articles of incorporation to be completed and signed off. Employee contracts usually take less time to be signed: these mostly involve ready-made templates within the company which can be reused; a few changes might be necessary, and then the employment contract is ready to be signed. That restaurant bill? You just hand it over to the financial department: they might ask you to state who was present at that lunch, but that’s all.
Common to all three documents in this phase is that they are not yet records. They are living information which can still be amended. There is no obligation to retain each version of information during the collaboration phase, and collaboration can take place in all sorts of ways – via email, chat, or video-calls, or during in-person meetings.
2 - Creation and filing
Once the collaboration process is completed, and the information is filed in its final form, that information then becomes business and/or legally relevant. Think of that restaurant bill: while its chances to become legally relevant might not be high (although, not impossible), it is by all means business relevant, at least for the financial department. Articles of incorporation and the employment contract are, on the other hand, very much both legally and business relevant.
Information cannot be amended at this point. You should not be amending a restaurant bill for any reason. The employment contract might get an appendix, or we might receive a new version of articles of association, but those new versions need to be handled separately – our original version needs to stay exactly as it is.
In many cases, we also need to file the accompanying information (metadata): when was the employment contract or article of incorporation has been signed? How long is the duration of the employment contract? Which accompanying information needs to be filed depends heavily on the type of document that we are filing. It will be necessary to retain some of that accompanying information, while other information will be used as a base for…
3 - Retention
…for retention. In some countries, you don’t need to keep that restaurant bill past the current fiscal year. But in Germany, for example, you need to retain it for years. You will want to keep those articles of incorporation for as long as the company exists, and probably even a few years after that. The employment contract needs to be kept a number of years after the employment is terminated, but then it must be disposed of in a provable manner, because it contains an employees’ personal information, which needs to be handled with special care (all documents containing personal info need to be handled with special care!).
The retention period can depend on many different factors – e.g. business requirements, legal requirements – which can vary for different countries, types of information, and so on. Regardless how long the retention period is, we need to prove that the document has been kept in its original form, and we need to be able to present it upon request.
One particularly interesting topic is changing the format of documents during the retention period, but that deserves a separate blog post.
4 – Disposition, destruction, or whatever we want to call it
That restaurant bill? We don’t want to keep it forever, since we are probably going to have many of those, and keeping all of them forever wouldn’t make any sense. We have business reasons to dispose of it. That employment contract, on the other hand? We must dispose of it, since it contains personal info, which we are legally obliged to dispose of after a certain period of time once the contract has been terminated (I will be writing about “triggers” in a separate blog post).
Disposition (destruction!) of records has to be complete, irreversible, and tracked. For example, if we keep records in paper form, those records must be shredded, and you need to keep track of when they were shredded and who shredded them. The same procedure must be followed with electronic records.
With disposition, we stop regarding that piece of information as a record, and our obligation to present that information internally or externally ceases.