Why It’s Critical to Begin the Process of Unifying Physical and Electronic Records—Now!

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The need to unify the management of physical and electronic records is becoming critical, due in large part to the explosive growth in electronic records. According to research, the amount of data being created and stored is doubling every two years and has already reached staggering proportions.1 We are now creating as much data every 10 minutes as was created by all of humankind from the beginning of recorded time through 2003.2

Taking a unified approach to records management allows organizations to apply consistent policy management and enforcement to all records across the enterprise, no matter where they are located, what format they are in or where they have been created. Policy enforcement is a particular challenge for many organizations, one that is easier to overcome when all records are approached under a single set of policies, procedures and management oversight.

For most organizations, the need to get records management under control is not in question. More than 90% of companies plan to increase spending on information management, 80% have formal policies for records and information management (RIM), and 77% have formal policy-driven processes to protect private information from unauthorized or inadvertent access. Yet, only 37% of these same companies are able to consistently apply policies across all of their record types.3

By deploying a comprehensive unified solution to records management, RIM and IT professionals will be able to:

  • Reduce risks inherent in managing information in multiple formats across many locations.
  • Lower costs by reducing the amount of data that is stored and enabling informed decisions about which records can be stored in digital formats and which can be stored as paper.
  • Improve ability to respond quickly and comprehensively to both compliance and e-discovery requirements, thereby reducing both costs and risks for the organization.

One of the biggest challenges to unifying records is building a solid foundation that starts with establishing a single, consistent system of record. Here’s how to get started.


  • Digital records growth: One of the biggest challenges in unifying records management is getting a handle on the growth of electronic records. If these records are not being tagged properly, they are just multiplying and continuing to create headaches, particularly when there is a compliance issue or e-discovery request.
  • Getting a handle on social media: As part of the growth of electronic records in general, there is the specific growth of social media and the changes that is causing in records management. Just a couple of years ago, 50% of business managers said they were unaware that their company was even legally liable for social media content. It is. Who’s in charge? This is where management and cultural issues come into play. The IT department is in charge of storing electronic records, but it’s not necessarily in charge of compliance or policy management. Someone needs to take a leadership role.
  • Managing legacy records: A unified approach can act as a tool in helping to address the management and disposal of unnecessary paper records. With such an approach, the organization is forced to get a better handle on inventory and do a benchmark of what it has and where it is located, regardless of location or format. It will also help to determine which paper records to digitize and which to keep saving in paper form.

Typical approach: The unification of physical and electronic records will likely be pertinent to all companies at some point, but now, it is critical mostly for companies that have vast amounts of information and are in the process of transitioning from physical to electronic records management. While the concept of unified records is not new, the pressure to achieve unification is intensifying: Many companies are creating voluminous amounts of records, and if they are not being properly classified and indexed now, they will have to be at some point in the future, which could be a time-consuming and unnecessary expense.

Reframing The Challenge

Like the unification of physical records, unified electronic records management is largely focused on improving the way policies are applied. Many organizations have found that the task is made easier by using the skills and knowledge they have learned from unifying physical records and applying them to the unification of electronic records. Iron Mountain advises organizations to take a measured approach that starts from a solid foundation and a single, consistent system of record. In reframing the challenges of unifying records management, organizations will gain the ability to:

  • Apply retention, policies and holds consistently across all records from a unified system.
  • Classify records of all types upon creation—for efficiency, consistency and defensibility.
  • Enable users to quickly and efficiently find the records they need.
  • Save on e-discovery costs with an integrated platform and consistently classified records.
  • Adopt best practices for records of all types.

Driving Business Value

Unifying electronic and physical records can bring significant business value to the organization, including:

  • Improve agility: By establishing a single policy to consistently address electronic and paper records, the organization can achieve economies of scale in training employees and making any adjustments or other changes in its policies. These can be rolled out at the same time across the entire organization. In the event of a disaster, the organization will be much better equipped to find and recover important documents, regardless of their format.
  • Reduce risk: With all records subject to the same policy management and enforcement, the business will be adept at finding and accessing records when needed for either e-discovery or regulatory requirements. The potential costs of e-discovery will go down significantly, and the costs of finding documents, accessing them and producing them in a timely manner will also be significantly reduced.
  • Bolster defensibility: By applying policies consistently to records of all types across the enterprise, organizations will have a much more defensible position for legal holds and destruction of records. According to Iron Mountain research, 60% of companies have aligned governance policies for electronic and physical records, but only 33% of those companies align on policy application for holds and destructions across all media types. 4
  • Support new platforms: Organizations have to gain control over management of social media records to remain compliant and be prepared for e-discovery inquiries. Yet, many organizations today are behind in this endeavor. According to Iron Mountain’s research, 40% of companies are still unable to apply retention to electronic document objects, such as Microsoft Word and Excel files. More than 50% cannot apply retention to database records, and 65% are unable to classify and index user-created electronic records at the time of their creation.

Here is an example of how a market-leading company has been able to accrue significant business value through the unification of physical and electronic records:

A large software developer recognized that it needed to assess its physical records to reduce some of its assets. In addition, the company’s electronic documents were stored in a variety of locations and had become increasingly difficult to find. The company was looking for a unified system for all records to streamline the process of making business decisions. In addition, explosive data growth was impacting user productivity. Finally, the company needed a unified solution to optimize business processes for discovery and management, while ensuring global policy adoption for compliance. Working with Iron Mountain, the company is streamlining its RIM program for consistency, efficiency and cost savings, with defensible policy adoption, management and reporting.

A Discussion Guide for Records Unification

The following questions are designed to facilitate discussion among records managers, IT managers and compliance managers, and help you apply the material in this chapter:

  1. If 80% of companies have formal policies for records and information management, but only 37% of companies are able to consistently apply policies across all of their records types, which segment of this survey group is most representative of our organization, and why?
  2. When it comes to unifying our physical and electronic records, which of the most common challenges present the biggest obstacles for our organization: explosive digital records growth, social media, unclear leadership or ownership, managing legacy records? Are there any others?
  3. What would be the greatest value to the business if we were to pursue unifying our records? How could we demonstrate that value tangibly to our senior leadership?
  4. Do we have enterprise content management systems that offer records management capabilities, and if so, how are we currently using them?
  5. What challenges have we encountered when trying to connect systems together so they can share a common policy?


Whether you are ready to unify the management of physical and electronic records now or in the near future, it is important to begin putting the right management systems in place as soon as possible to build upon a sound foundation of a single, consistent system of record. Every electronic record that does not get properly tagged now will have to get tagged at some point in the future.

What does the development of a single system of record entail? And how do you get started? The best way is by talking to a company that specializes in records management and has both the knowledge and experience to help you put the right foundation in place. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to eventually catch up.

1 “The Digital Universe in 2020: Big Data, Bigger Digital Shadows, and Biggest Growth in the Far East,” IDC, December 2012
2 “Big Data or Too Much Information,” Smithsonian, May 7, 2012
3 “A View into Unified Records Management,” Iron Mountain, August 2012
4 Ibid, Footnote No. 3


Knowledge Center
Knowledge Center

Are you an information professional who wants to enhance, or start-up, a records and information management or information governance program? Take advantage of our proven practices and new thinking to convert knowledge to action.

Knowledge Center
Knowledge Center

Are you an information professional who wants to enhance, or start-up, a records and information management or information governance program? Take advantage of our proven practices and new thinking to convert knowledge to action.