Research shows that 80% of what we keep we never use. While businesses struggle to reduce costs and increase productivity, information continues to increase at a more rapid rate than ever before in history. Ask any 100 employees, "If you had the time, are there files in your office or on your computer you could comfortably toss?", 99 of them will answer, "Yes," but who goes to work and says "Well, I don't have anything better to do today. I think I'll clean out the files!" And if they do, quite likely someone will say, "What are you doing? We've got ‘real work’ to do!”

Through the years I've seen company after company faced with the overwhelming problem of hundreds and even thousands of boxes of "archives" in storage rooms or offsite locations. When management finally realizes the cost and the risk, they decide they have to do something. By then, the people who created the mess are long gone, and current employees have little energy for making decisions about something that doesn't affect their ability to leave work at 5:30 p.m.

Although the computer was touted as the solution to the problem of managing information, in fact, it has in many cases simply increased our ability to create a mess! Electronic storage companies insist we don’t have to worry about getting rid of files because file server storage is cheap and search capabilities of software today allow you to find anything you need. When a company first switches from paper to electronic files, that is true -- but as the number of electronic files increase, the ability to find them decreases -- just as it did with paper files. So the problem has not gone away -- it has just changed formats!

Now most organizations faces two major problems: 1) How do you eliminate the existing unnecessary information and 2) How can you prevent the problem from happening again?

Fortunately, solving the first problem is a major step in solving the second one. The first step is to design and execute an office clean-out day in which management and staff systematically go through the office identifying paper files, resources, supplies and equipment which no longer support the purpose of the organization. Providing specific guidelines to the employees about how to make decisions about what to keep, as well as food and prizes, will ensure the day is a success, as well as evaluation forms to determine where additional clean-up time will be necessary. Once the paper files are cleaned, the process can be repeated with email and digital files.

The ultimate solution to the second problem -- managing information effectively so all employees can find what they need when they need it -- can be summarized by answering and documenting in a highly accessible location seven key questions about information:

1) What information do we need to keep? (Management and staff must answer!)

2) In what form? (Paper or electronic? If electronic, what program?)

3) For how long? (Records retention equals risk management!)

4) Who is responsible for filing it? (Teamwork and accountability)

5) Who needs access to it? (Permissions)

6) How can they find it? (Naming conventions and version control)

7) How is it backed up? (The only thing between you and a disaster is time!)

Just as cleaning out files requires the participation of management and staff, so it is with creating guidelines for retention in the future. Management determines the company philosophy about keeping records, while employees execute the philosophy based on their knowledge of what information they need to do their work.

With the advent of electronic discovery, eliminating unnecessary files can save companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoiding costly legal discovery expenses. Based on research by IDC, companies who implement these strategies can free up an hour or two per day of employees time (worth $5,000/year), and reduce paper usage by anywhere from 20-80% (worth 15 cents/sheet of paper saved). Companies planning to relocate will save $1200 per ton of paper they don’t move! While few companies are prepared to go to “paperless,” moving toward an “almost paperless” environment will dramatically and quickly reduce cost and stress, increase productivity, and improve environmental responsibility, but regardless of the format, the key is developing, executing, and maintaining an information management plan.