Paper vs. Electronic – The Data Double Standard

One of the main enterprise applications I’m partly responsible for administering at work is our document imaging system. Two years have passed since implementation and we still have some areas of the office dragging their feet about scanning their paper. On a daily basis, I still struggle with the one big elephant in the room – the double standard that exists between electronic data and data that is on paper.

The former is the information on our Exchange server, SQL servers, financial systems, file shares and the like. The the latter is the boxes and drawers of printed pages – some which originally started out on one of those servers (or a server that existed in the past) and some which did not. In the event of a serious disaster it would be impossible to recreate those paper files. Even if the majority of the documents could be located and reprinted any single group of employees would be unable to remember everything that existed in a single file, never mind hundreds of boxes or file cabinets. In the case of our office, many of those boxes contain data that dates back decades, containing handwritten forms and letters.

Like any good company, we have a high level plan that dictates what information systems are critical and the amount of data loss that will be tolerated in the event of an incident. This document makes it clear that our senior management understands the importance of what the servers in the data center contain. Ultimately, this drives our IT department’s regular data backup policies and procedures.

However, IT is the only department required by this plan to ensure the recovery of the data we are custodians of. What extent of data loss is acceptable for the paper data owned by every other department after a fire or earthquake? A year of documents lost? 5 years? 10 years? No one has been held accountable for answering that question, yet most of those same departments won’t accept more than a day’s loss of email.

Granted, a lot of our paper documents are stored off site and only returned to the office when needed, but there are plenty of exceptions. Some staffers don’t trust off site storage and keep their “most important” papers close by. Others in the office will tell you that the five boxes next to their cube aren’t important enough to scan, yet are referenced so often they can’t possibly be returned to storage.

And there lies the battle we wage daily as the custodians of the imaging system, simply getting everyone to understand the value of scanning documents into the system so they are included in our regular backups. Not only are they easier to organize, easier to access, more secure and subject to better auditing trails, there is a significant improvement in the chance of the survival when that frayed desk lamp cord goes unnoticed.

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