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Document destruction: How-to achieve the paperless office

Technology has shifted the reliance on physical paper documents towards more electronic transactions and documentation. The processing and retrieval of paper documents has been transformed, and while physical documents and files are extremely vulnerable to loss, damage, or misfiling, they are tangible - and if untampered - do provide absolute proof. It is this understandable comfort that stops many businesses from embracing electronic document management (eDM) solutions.

Despite the fact that more documents are being shared electronically, the ‘paperless office’ has not materialised quite yet – but the journey is well underway. Even today, destroying the physical paper evidence feels unnatural and risky to some firms that are yet to embrace the digital method wholeheartedly.

There are cases where employees even print and file documents they received via email. While it is critical that company documents are stored and managed securely, some companies have outdated views on why original paper documents should be retained.

Is it safe to destroy originals?

Original paper documents are usually destroyed because they are no longer needed, freeing up precious filing and storage space. However, there are some exceptions as original documents that are critical to an organisations’ legal obligations – HMRC tax forms, signed leases, title deeds and contracts for example – must be retained.

There is a common misconception that these documents must be kept in hard-copy format, but nothing could be further from the truth. As long as digital documents are appropriately captured and managed, they have the same legal validity as their paper-based counterparts.

Opting for an electronic document management (eDM) solution makes business sense. Effective document management is about far more than scanning and storing documents in digital format. It is about using data capture to automatically pull out relevant information and drive an electronic and automated process. Yes, this includes document storage, but it can also be used for invoice or payment status tracking or for streamlining and automating the approval process of legal documents such as contracts, non-disclosure agreements and other legal files.

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The main benefit of such an eDM approach is that it creates an audit trail that is essential for potential legal challenges. Operational documents, once captured electronically and saved in an eDM solution, will always be retrievable. Meeting a court’s requirements for highly reliable evidence is where the issue of Legal Admissibility comes into play. Like paper-based documents, if the provenance of a document is clear and its integrity is incontestable then admissibility is not considered an issue.

However, before you reach for the shredder and destroy any hard-copy documents, ask your eDM supplier the following questions to ensure you stay on the right side of the law:

  • How credible are your scanned and saved electronic copies?The scanned document must be an exact replica of the original document.
  • Can it be used to produce reliable evidence? The scanned document must be of a high standard of legibility with no modifications between it and the originating document.
  • What are the specific regulations and legislations around eDM in your sector?Each industry vertical is slightly different - so make sure you know what regulations apply to your business.

Aligning business processes

When starting out on the journey to achieve a paperless office the road can be fraught with difficulties and unforeseen challenges, which require not only a change of direction for the business, but also a change of mind-set for employees.

In addition to reviewing the technology, organisations must also address their own internal business processes. The British Standard BS 1008:2008 includes best practice advice to ensure legality admissibility of information. In complying with the code, a business can be as sure as possible, they are satisfying official record-keeping needs.

Importantly, this standard is device independent. Over the past few years, smartphone use and remote working practices have grown hugely. Electronic filing is now increasing at such a level that it is commonplace for regulatory bodies such as HMRC to address the standards they require. Opting for an eDM solution therefore is no longer a luxury; it is fast becoming a necessity. Whether you opt for a web portal, Cloud or server-based solution, seek advice from your relevant body and contact other companies in your sector to ensure your choice of eDM incorporates regulation and legislation into your solution from the start.

By Stuart Evans, CTO at Invu.

Since joining Invu as chief technical officer in 2007, Stuart has overseen the development of Invu Document Management. Prior to Invu, Stuart was a lead architect for Sage, overseeing products for the accountancy marketplace.