When you hear the word “archiving,” you may think of a librarian dusting off ancient books or an archivist handling historical papers with white gloves. Documentation and archiving are critical (although sometimes overlooked) aspects of any business, though. Even small businesses and sole proprietorships have important documents that need to be organized and stored securely.
Depending on your industry, there may also be legal requirements regarding what documents, data and customer information needs to be kept and when it needs to be destroyed. A document management system can help ensure you stay compliant so you don’t incur any fines.
A document management system is an organized approach to how your documents are filed, where they are stored and how they are secured.
Document archiving refers to the process of placing documents in storage that need to be kept but are no longer in regular use. There are several reasons for archiving documents, including:
- You need to keep the documents for tax reasons, but you’re unlikely to need to reference them in the near future.
- You want a record of the history of your business.
- You need to keep the documents to meet legal requirements.
- You haven’t worked with the client or business for a while but want to retain your records in case you work together in the future.
Archiving often refers to storing physical documents, but it can be used to refer to storing data as well. As more businesses use a paperless model, data archiving is a critical part of a documentation and archiving strategy. Rather than keeping paper documents, many businesses are scanning their old paper documents and then archiving them digitally.
A document management system is an organized approach to filing, storing and archiving your documents. Some businesses use the term to refer to digital organization and archiving, while others use it as a strategy for both paper and digital documents. A document management system could refer to:
- Policies and guidelines around document organization, storage and archiving.
- A specific application or program that you use to organize and store documents.
- Third-party services (known as document management services) that handle document storage and archiving on behalf of your business.
Many small businesses need to deal with both paper and digital documents, so any system they implement needs to include policies and guidelines for all types of documents.
Document archiving is important because it allows you to retain and organize business-critical documents. Creating a system for retaining documents allows you and your employees to find documents quickly and easily. Just as importantly, it allows you to easily meet the recommendations for business document retention.
Most important documents, such as your business income tax returns and their supporting documents, business ledgers, canceled checks, bank account statements and human resources files should all be kept for a minimum of seven years. An organized approach to storing your documents is critical to ensuring you can comply with internal or external audits.
Security is another reason document archiving is critical to any business. Paper documents that aren’t organized and stored securely are vulnerable to theft and loss. Digital documents that aren’t appropriately stored and secured are vulnerable to cyber theft, accidental deletion and hardware malfunctions.
Security around your business-critical documents should take several factors into account. These include:
- Data privacy laws in your state and any states or counties in which you conduct business.
- Data privacy laws for your industry.
- Privacy protection for your customers.
- Security around proprietary products and practices related to your business.
For example, general data protection regulation in the European Union has impacted data security for companies that conduct business in the EU or that have customers in the EU. Businesses that work in health care or financial services must follow the industry regulations around customer data privacy for those industries.
For physical documents, you may want to utilize locking file cabinets in a room that can be secured and monitored. For digital documents, you may want to archive documents on the premises in a server that you own, or you may prefer a cloud-based archive. Either way, access to files should be limited and monitored, and archives should be monitored for potential cybersecurity threats. For advice on securing digital files and data, you may want to consult with an experienced document management services company to ensure you are using best practices.
Whether you decide to consult with an outside expert or implement your own system, a thorough document management and archiving system takes careful planning. Consider questions such as:
- When do documents need to be stored or archived?
- How are they going to be organized?
- Who needs to be able to access the files?
- How are the files going to be secured?
Create clear guidelines for how and where documents are stored. For current documents, this may mean keeping them in a central location where they can be accessed. You should also include guidelines for when documents should be moved to your archive and how long documents will be maintained.
You may also want to create a master list of file locations. This allows employees to be able to easily file documents in the appropriate location so they can be retrieved later if needed. Keep security in mind when you develop your file list, though. You may want to list secure, private or proprietary files in a separate, secured list.
Policies regarding documentation and archiving are only useful if they are implemented. Take the time to review the guidelines with your employees and train them on your expectations for filing, storage and security. Confirm that your policies are being followed and retrain employees as needed.
Keep in mind that not every employee needs access to every document. Documents with sensitive or private information should be stored in a way that limits access, such as on a restricted area of your network. For physical documents, keys should only be entrusted to employees who need to access sensitive information to perform their job duties.
In many businesses, employee theft is an issue. Even well-meaning employees can sometimes fall prey to social engineering attacks, which are cyber and in-person attempts to manipulate employees into acting in a way that benefits an attacker. For example, an employee may think they’re helping out a customer by making a copy of a file, but they may have inadvertently given personal information to a bad actor.
You may have also seen the word “archiving” used in reference to your emails. Email archiving is similar to document archiving in that it moves emails that are no longer needed to a separate, secure location.
Where do archived emails go? That depends on your organization and its policies. As with documents, you must follow your industry’s regulations regarding how long emails are kept and how they are stored. Some businesses use dedicated servers to archive emails, while others use cloud-based archives.
The best solution for your business depends on your industry and your budget. You can choose a third-party email archiving solution or consult an IT expert for solutions that best fit your business.