Get a Grip: A No-Nonsense Guide for Small Businesses

Topics: Small Business

Does your office securely back up and archive paper and electronic records—and dispose of them according to a proper retention and destruction policy? If not, it’s time to rethink this no-plan plan.

It’s easy to ignore the need for a records management program—that is, until you experience a natural or man-made disaster.

DID YOU KNOW? You’ll never really finish your records retention plan, and that’s a good thing. As your business and the regulations that govern it change and evolve, so too will your plan. Schedule a review and update every 12 to 18 months.

FAST FACT: According to the 2011 Iron Mountain Data Backup and Recovery Report, 66% of lost data is irrecoverable after a natural or man-made disaster.

What are the major assets of your business? If you’re in retail, you’d likely say “our inventory,” and maybe the store itself. If you’re running a service business, you might cite the expert talent you hired and cultivated. But there’s a different type of asset that every business has, though many otherwise brilliant business owners seldom consider it.

Give up? The answer is your backed-up, archived and secured paper and/or electronic information.

Like it or not, records are your business: Your invoices, your HR files, and your tax records are all in there. Lose them, and well, let’s face it: You’d be dead in the water. What if…

  • Burglars break in and steal vital customer information? Result: Your reputation could be compromised, and you become a potential litigation target.
  • A regulatory agency asks for your workplace compliance records and you can’t produce them? Result: You’d be subject to fines (or even worse, in the case of a severe violation).

Because those records are so critical, consider how easy it is to find the records you need day to day. Is your vital information safely stored, but perhaps “days away” in terms of access? What about old records you no longer need: Do you box them up and leave them in the supply room, as if the Smithsonian were going to pick them up for its permanent collection? Or do you have a program for document retention and destruction that tells you when to destroy data properly, and how to do it?

Yes, we know, you have enough on your plate just running the business. Those records should be someone else’s problem—and you can indeed set it up that way. But before you delegate, focus on creating the process and dedicating the personnel to manage it. For example, you can appoint a records manager, someone on your staff assigned to the task. You can also work with a trusted outside partner using records management software and other tools—someone with the expertise to handle critical records. Or you can do both.

Archiving Away From Home: Protecting What Matters

Offsite data archiving requires time and careful planning. But the payoff can be huge. Most important, an offsite plan avoids potential loss from fire, flood or other natural or man-made disasters.

As you work with a trusted partner, be sure to discuss steps toward secure archiving—measures that keep your data safe while you plan for its eventual destruction.

1. Develop a level of security you can rely upon. Specify all your data-handling issues, from the moment you create a record through its offsite archiving and eventual secure destruction. If tape will play a role in your plan, outline guidelines for tape backup lifecycles, validation, media preparation and storage/recovery.

2. Count on (and provide for) data recovery and restoration. A solid disaster recovery plan includes the process of securely retrieving backup information from storage when you need it fast.

3. Give more love to backup tape. Such systems are ideal for long-term archives that house the data you may need someday to address legal or financial audit requests. Backup tape can also be a cost-effective way to preserve information that would be key to maintaining your business’s continuity after a disaster.

4. Plan for destruction. You may not know all the rules, but your partner does: Work out schedules for records retention and destruction, and for the data you store offsite. Discuss what to keep, how long to keep it, and how to destroy the records you no longer need.

How to Begin Letting Go

Before you can stop caring too much about proper records management, you have to take a cold, hard look at the lifecycle of your business information. Then you’ll need to identify cost savings, create procedures to ensure compliance, and become more efficient in handling the records as they move from creation to destruction. Here’s how to get started on passing the buck to those who know best.

Step 1: Put everything in its place.

The records you create are likely a mix of paper and electronic files stored at your location, in file cabinets, on disk—even spilling out of unmarked boxes in the supply room. Perhaps you’re also backing them up on tape. This works just fine. That is, until some unforeseen disaster—anything from a leaking pipe to a tornado—destroys the records and leaves you adrift, without proper backup.

Theft is an equally important risk. A 2010 Zogby-463 study showed that fewer than half of small business respondents thought that online anti-theft software and services are really worth the considerable cost. Also, 85 percent of these respondents said that bigger companies are more likely targets. That’s a dangerous assumption: In the first half of 2012, the number of targeted hacking attacks aimed at small businesses actually doubled, according to Symantec.

In the event of such attacks, or any other natural or man-made disaster, an offsite data backup plan minimizes threats to your business data. A well-designed plan provides for secure storage of paper and electronic documents in a climate-controlled environment. Your storage partner can also use records management software to provide you with on-demand access to both paper and electronic files and file information. And you control that access. Specific people get to view specific records; no one else gets in. That’s certainly an improvement over your file room down the hall.

You pay for these services, of course. But do a little ROI calculation—and don’t forget to include the staff hours spent storing and digging through records. The value of smarter offsite storage quickly emerges.  And you know what? Cleaning up years of records may even yield some real estate savings—fewer records require less storage space.

Step 2. Get tough about saying goodbye.

So now you know you can store your records offsite, but simply doing that doesn’t let you off the hook. Think about it in a more personal light. For example, storing old skis you may never use again in a mini-storage place doesn’t solve anything—you’re still wasting space. Likewise, proper records storage calls for a plan. A records management partner can help you create a formal records retention program that, when properly executed, can lower storage costs while simultaneously reducing risks from litigation or discovery requests.

There’s no getting around it: A records retention program is a big part of compliance. And that is every business’s high priority. Depending on your industry or the size of your business, laws may actually compel you to store your backup data in a safe offsite location.

Clearly, you must learn the laws, both federal and state, that apply to your company—along with specifics regarding data storage, format, retention and retrieval. Again, a trusted partner can help create guidelines and implement the infrastructure you need while you tend to your day-to-day business concerns.

Step 3. Shred it to be sure.

At some point, you’ll need to destroy out-of-date data, and the devil is in the details. Creating an end-of-life program and ensuring that files are securely disposed of is a serious undertaking. A noisy wastebasket shredder you picked up at a big-box store’s clearance sale isn’t up to the challenge. And if we’re talking backup tapes or disks, chucking them into the trash on your way to lunch isn’t the answer, either.

In fact, some federal or state laws, as well as industry regulations, may inform your secure onsite or offsite shredding and media destruction practices. (Only Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky and South Dakota lack such laws.) Faced with this burden, you may be inclined to simply shred everything. But that’s not cost-effective in the long term. Your records management partner can build in a smart shredding schedule as part of your overall compliance plan.

It’s easy to lose focus on the importance of document and media destruction, but when you consider the potential for fines, bad press and long-term damage to your company, a formal program is the smart alternative. Remember: The steps you’re taking are about reducing risk and protecting your business.

Rewards Await You

When you implement a proactive and comprehensive approach to organizing, securing and disposing of your vital business information, you stand to save money, achieve and maintain compliance, and become more efficient. A trusted partner can help you:

  • Improve your productivity and responsiveness by making information easier to locate and retrieve
  • Reduce compliance risks by establishing consistent retention and destruction policies
  • Lower your overall costs by reducing the volume of information you must store and manage

You’ll reduce costs because easily found information takes fewer people-hours to retrieve, and properly destroyed records save space. Effectively organized information also gives you the ability to respond quickly to audits, legal discoveries and compliance procedures—and reduces the risk of violations and fines.

When you collaborate with a trusted partner to craft a records management program for your organization, you not only gain all of these benefits—you achieve something less quantifiable but no less valuable: The peace of mind you need to manage your core business operations like the pro you are.

Iron Mountain Suggests: Don’t Go It Alone

You’re focused on growing your business, not on pondering the fate of your old records or looking for ways to break your budget. A trusted partner like Iron Mountain offers expertise, skills and decades of knowledge about data retention, management and storage. These strong suits make its experts uniquely qualified to get a system in place for you much faster than you could alone.

Iron Mountain can help:

  • Protect your business from data loss caused by any disaster
  • Locate and retrieve your records easily when you need them
  • Design more consistent record-keeping policies
  • Maintain an auditable chain of custody throughout the entire lifecycle of your information
  • Stay current and compliant in today’s fluid regulatory climate
  • Oversee your services and costs via reporting and online records management software

Do you have questions about what Iron Mountain can do for your small business? Read additional Knowledge Center Small Business resources, or contact Iron Mountain’s Small Business team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services Small Business specialist who can address your specific challenges.

Related Content:

Retention Schedules: The Golden Thread of Compliant Information Management

Records Management: Bridging the Execution Gap

Repaving Your Rocky Road to Ultimate Preparedness