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The 'Copy' Virus!

copy virus,paper,paperless,shredder,secrecy

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rajit Nair

Couple of months back, there was a news item in our local dailies about discovery of civilian ration cards recycled as paper plates. Even if the authorities had discarded them due to some typo errors or were damaged it was supposed to be shredded. Then how those pages reached the recycle market is still a big question mark.

Leakages happen everywhere! Question paper leakages are now becoming a part of every examination, whether it is a state board exam or are a job test. More than the system errors, the culprit mostly is the two-leggies operating those systems, as it is very easy to ‘lure’ them to unethical ‘adventures’.

In our modern offices, much was talked about records management (archiving) in late 80s. Expensive systems and software have been implemented to manage the repositories since then. Still, there are many unplugged areas for information ‘leakage’ backed up by human beings either by error or with purpose. Records management or in simpler terms filing is an art and unfortunately, most of our offices are not blessed with that.

How safe is your company records? What I am trying to examine is about the physical, paper records that includes the official correspondences, deeds, contracts, employee records, accounts related and the like.

How many companies have even a safety vault is a question to ponder. Even if they have a fire-proof safe (locker), many companies lack a clear direction regarding which documents should go inside the locker and who should be the custodian of the keys and the like. This warrants for a clearly spelled policy with a group of employees assigned with the responsibility at different levels to ensure that one or two can’t jeopardize the business continuity. Such policies should be re-visited periodically to ensure that they make sense and everyone in the cycle complies.

If document filing is an art, copying is a bane. Also, I would say that photocopier is a curse in any office environment. Many of the official files are vested with the secretaries or the office support staff. Even if the company were having a records room or a repository, zillions of copies of the one document would be outside this ‘chamber of secrets’.

I know the personnel assistant of a high profile executive, having 3 different clones of a very important file. The ‘original’ is kept under the executive’s ‘safe custody’ in his room, which may not be accessible when he is entertaining visitors or guests. So that prompted the PA to have the second clone on her desk for easy access, as the executive does not have the patience or courtesy to wait till the information is retrieved from his room. Believe it or not, the third copy of the file is always in transit between the office and the home of the PA. When asked why you need the official file at home too, the reply was so reasonable. The executive is notorious for his low tolerance and patience sometimes asks for details from the file off office hours and even during holidays. Whom to be blamed for having many copies of an important file thus opening avenues for secrecy to be compromised? What would happen if a visitor at the PA’s house may have a look at it and by chance he is from a competitor? Or in another scenario, what would happen to that file, if the PA ends up in a road traffic accident where there is a chance of other people handling it during the commotion? Is it the PA who is working her heart out to provide exemplary service, even after office hours or is the executive who should be blamed for being impatient and forcing the PA to have the info at her finger tips? You decide!

What to store and what not to store is another dilemma many managers face these days. Insensible employees don’t know what to discard and what to store. They need professional advice/training or well-crafted corporate policies implemented, regularly evaluated and updated.

Amassing papers in the offices reach other dimensions that promote the records room custodians to fight for more storage space. I know a secretary who files even the flyers and brochures regarding junior level training programs received by snail mail, as they are addressed to her manager. There are others, who take printouts of emails received and sent and file them, as they don’t trust any network or cyberspace storage.

The important point employees miss in this filing exercise is how fast the required data could be retrieved. There were incidents where after having all these state-of-the-art systems to manage records, when the executive is in need of something important, it took ages to locate. The idea while filing was just to file the paper and keep the desk clean. Once filed, if there is no unique identification code or a bar code or even a tag, then only the supreme power could locate it. The things get worse when an office secretary falls sick or resigns. Whatever handover sessions were done, still the new incumbent would definitely go wrong from the word go when it comes to retrieval of an old file from the time of the previous ‘regime’.

Even in companies where industry certified quality systems are in place, I have witnessed secretaries struggling to locate the documents requested by their managers. The amount of time lost in the ‘treasure hunt” is a criminal offence.

This is where the importance of a filing policy comes in handy. A clear guideline is required to clarify what is important and what is sensitive. This should be conveyed at least to the executive’s office staff, where vulnerable info is always floating and the retrieval time is less.

I have mentioned about the photocopier as a curse at the start of this article. I am sure that comment might have raised some eyebrows. Leakage from copy rooms is another area we should be aware of. An extra copy would do the trick or rather serve the purpose. Sometimes, absent minded or irresponsible employees leave the place by just collecting the copies from the tray of the machine, forgetting to collect the originals from the copying surface. The next user of the machine will definitely have a look at it and it may trigger the ‘radio waves’ inside the company. Also, the literate office boy becomes a ‘news channel reporter’ in many cases. I know an office boy who reads each and every memo while the machine copies. Depending on the sensitivity or ‘news value’ of the content, distorted versions will spread throughout the company often causing problems for other employees or even jeopardizing the business.

To prevent such infringements some companies went ahead and bought copiers for each department or at least separate copier machines for the senior level. In such cases, the ‘cost-cutting’ or austerity norms are kept on hold as the company deviated from their centralized copying policy. Still, nobody can guarantee the secrecy of the data, as probability of all the above-mentioned possibilities remains high.

It’s important to inculcate a culture for using copier machines, as many companies are moving towards 100% paper-less environments. Is it possible to adhere to 100% paperless is another question. Employees should refrain from keeping copies of emails and control the compulsion to make more and more copies of the same document to reduce the chance of info leakage. In addition, employees must shred excessive copies and make sure that the important files are kept under safe custody. Even if you would not achieve a paperless Utopia, try not to be useless for the company and the society. Your thoughts are welcome!

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