Can RIM Save the World? The Role Electronic Records Management Plays
in Promoting a Greener Work Environment

As people become more aware of the impact of human consumption on the environment, an increasing number of companies and government organizations are making an effort to promote environmentally friendly policies and procedures. The business benefits associated with taking a “green” approach include:

  • Enhanced reputation
  • More motivated employees
  • Decreased costs and increased operational efficiency

As a result, records and information management (RIM) professionals must be prepared to help reduce their organization’s environmental impact. Leveraging electronic records management (ERM) is one way to achieve this goal.

Chris Wacker

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ERM and the Environment

ERM can support sustainability within your organization by substantially reducing the consumption of three key natural resources: trees (paper), fuel, and energy.


According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) frequently asked questions on its website at, the average American office worker uses approximately 10,000 sheets of copy paper – roughly 1.25 trees – each year.

The environmental impact of all this paper consumption is significant. The Environmental Paper Network in a 2007 report, “The State of the Paper Industry: Monitoring the Indicators of Environmental Performance,” highlighted three sobering facts about paper’s negative impact on the planet:

  • Roughly 42% of industrial wood harvested is used to make paper, thinning out the forests that provide one of our most important safeguards against climate change.
  • The paper industry is the fourthhighest producer of carbon dioxide among manufacturers, contributing approximately 9% of total manufacturing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • After it has been used and thrown away, paper decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

According to the report, if each American office reduced its paper use by roughly 10%, the environmental impact would be equivalent to taking 280,000 cars off the road. With ERM, decreasing paper consumption by 10% is an easily attainable goal by:

  1. Eliminating lost and misplaced files In a 2008 report, “Transition from Document to Digital: Why Document Management is a ‘Must Have’,” PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 5% of all hardcopy records are lost or misfiled. By centralizing scanned paper and electronic records in a secure, digital repository with automatic classification and filing based on a formal file plan, employees have quick, easy access to the records they need (and are authorized to view). This eliminates lost and misplaced files, reducing the need to create replacement copies.
  2. Enabling electronic file distribution The average office makes 19 copies of each document. By scanning paper records and saving them in an electronic format, employees may share and distribute files electronically, cutting down on the need to make copies. (Organizational policies should be put in place to discourage printing e-mail attachments and long e-mail reply strings.)
  3. Limiting duplicated efforts ERM’s audit trail functionality tracks changes and revisions to each record, including who created the record and the date the record was created. This information establishes confidence among employees that they are working with the most current, official version of the record, decreasing the need to copy and compare multiple versions of the same file.

In addition to the environmental benefits of reducing paper consumption, ERM also encourages recycling. When hardcopy records are scanned and stored electronically, the source documents most often may be shredded and recycled.

According to the Environmental Paper Network’s report, making new paper from recycled  paper requires less energy and is a cleaner manufacturing process than making paper from trees. And because it diverts usable paper from the waste stream, recycling reduces solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions when paper decomposes in landfills.

Prior to implementing an ERM system, Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen explains that the Elk River, Minn., Police Department annually “was going through 251 reams of paper, which was 2.2 tons of paper or 54 adult trees. Last year we saved more than $17,000 just in paper costs.”


Transporting physical records consumes gasoline and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Organizations ship records to clients, billing centers, satellite offices and offsite storage facilities, to name just a few destinations. Digitizing paper records with ERM eliminates the need to ship records by allowing organizations to e-mail electronic copies of those records instead.

In addition to the fuel savings associated with decreased couriering and mailing, ERM also reduces the amount of document storage space organizations must support. This decreases energy costs and the need for new construction. It also reduces fuel consumption since employees are no longer forced to drive to offsite storage facilities to retrieve archived records; instead, they have instant access to all authorized organizational electronic records.

Digitizing records may also reduce the number of employees who commute to work. For example, ERM has enabled CHMB – a medical billing company located in San Diego, Calif. – to add 150 new employees without relocating or acquiring additional office space. At the same time, employing telecommuters has increased the quality of CHMB’s staff. According to Ron Anderson, director of business development at CHMB, “We’re able to attract the best people, without geographic limitations, and we find that people who value the flexibility to work from home work harder because they don’t want to lose that perk.”

An employee who commutes to work has an environmental impact in terms of fuel consumption, tire consumption, and carbon emissions. By granting employees the ability to securely access records from home, ERM removes detrimental effects on the environment while also delivering bottom-line business results.


Considering the amount of energy that is required for computerization and networking, it may come as a surprise to learn there is substantial energy savings associated with ERM.

After all, a study in 2004 by Eric Williams from the United Nations University on “Energy Intensity of Computer Manufacturing: Hybrid Assessment Combining Process and Economic Input-Output Methods” revealed that the manufacturing process for the average desktop computer consumes 10 times the computer’s weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. And, according to Gartner, within the next five years most U.S. enterprise data centers will spend as much money on energy as they will on hardware.

So how can electronic recordkeeping decrease a company’s energy use?

First, it’s important to note that ERM software does not, in itself, require much new hardware. No natural resources need to be consumed when manufacturing new computers or servers, as ERM software can be installed on existing units.

Some organizations may need to purchase one or more scanners, but the environmental impact of manufacturing new imaging units can be offset by:

  • Purchasing scanners made with post-consumer recycled content, which saves energy during the manufacturing process
  • Selecting scanners with Energy Star power management functions, which saves energy when the product is used

However, the real energy efficiencies associated with ERM are realized when an organization implements an intelligent and environmentally friendly policy framework for RIM.

RIM policies can reduce data storage requirements. Whether your organization’s data center occupies one room, one floor, or a 50,000-square-foot building, the energy needed for power and air conditioning is considerable. As organizations collect and store more and more data, the size of these server farms continues to grow. By adhering to an environmentally friendly records schedule and promptly disposing of expired records, RIM professionals play a key role in keeping the amount of data housed in server farms under control.

RIM professionals should create a succinct procedure for destroying records that exceed their retention period. As soon as a record is eligible for disposition, if it is not transferred, it should be destroyed or deleted. This will not only ensure that unnecessary data is not a drain on the organization’s data center, but it will also assist with e-discovery preparation and planning.

Furthermore, an ERM solution that enables “transparent records management” decreases the need for general users to clog up the network with duplicate copies of organizational records. Transparent records management allows records managers and general users to organize simultaneously the same ERM repository in the manner each prefers. This eliminates the need to save records in multiple locations and cuts down on data storage demands. (See sidebar below: “More About Transparent Records Management for additional information.”)

ERM and Organizational Efficiency

By employing ERM, RIM professionals can play a leading role in helping their organizations reduce their impact on the environment. However, ERM’s benefits extend far beyond the benefits of going green. In addition to the obvious cost savings that accrue from decreasing the need for paper, fuel, and storage space, ERM promotes greater organizational productivity and profitability by increasing the efficiency of employees.

Boosting Productivity and Decreasing Costs

In its 2005 report “Organizations Shift Focus to Information Management: The Role of Documents in Highly Effective Business Processes,” IDC estimates that employees spend 20% of their time looking for information in hardcopy documents; 50% of the time they can’t find what they need. With ERM, employees instantly retrieve records without having to leave their desks, allowing them to use their time more productively.

However, retrieval efficiencies are only half the story. Due to the amount of time it takes, classifying and filing records is typically the most expensive part of RIM. In many organizations, this issue stems from the following problems:

  • The records management group is understaffed and unable to manually classify all the content created by the organization.
  • Users responsible for creating content are not concerned with records retention policies and are not interested in or able to learn a non-intuitive classification scheme.

Transparent ERM solutions solve this problem by automatically classifying documents as they are created. Users responsible for creating content define the document’s type using a required field. The workflow module of the software uses this information to automatically classify the document (i.e., to determine which records management settings should apply) and move it to the appropriate record series or record folder. As a result, cutoff and disposition eligibility dates are automatically calculated and assigned.

The workflow module of the software automates the process of classifying and filing records and providing document access to different types of users by:

  • Capturing a document into a folder named “incoming documents.”
  • Assigning metadata to the document to determine its type (e.g., insurance record, tax document, employment application). This information is leveraged to create a record folder in the appropriate record series and move the document into the new record folder. This step provides document access to records managers.
  • Creating a shortcut to the document and routing it to the content management section of the repository. Users who are not records managers can access the document using the shortcut without being exposed to the records management layout.

It is the automation afforded by the workflow module that makes this solution such a cost-effective way to oost productivity. Transparent ERM makes compliance with the RIM plan easier on an enterprise level, and it also simplifies and automates record creation, classification, and filing, so RIM professionals can spend time on other tasks.

ERM = Greener Environment

As organizations strive to improve efficiency while decreasing their impact on the environment, more and more RIM professionals are turning to ERM. ERM can support sustainability within an organization by substantially reducing the consumption of paper, fuel, and energy while at the same time improving operational efficiency.

ERM creates a greener, more professional, and more productive work environment for organizations across all industries, including Fortune 1,000 companies in the healthcare, finance, construction, and transportation sectors; educational institutions; and municipal, county, and state government agencies. RIM professionals who have not yet considered adopting ERM should take a closer look.

Sidebar 1:

What is ERM?

Electronic records management (ERM) refers to the tools, technology, and processes that enable organizations to centrally, securely, and electronically manage all their records. ERM software allows RIM professionals to track and store records in a wide variety of formats, including:

  • Imaged documents
  • Electronic documents generated by programs (e.g., Microsoft Office)
  • PDFs
  • Scanned and digital photographs
  • Audio and video files
  • Output from legacy systems
  • Physical records stored offsite

An ERM system supports the automatic enforcement of consistent, organization-wide records policies and reduces the cost of regulatory compliance. It also commonly provides specialized security and auditing functionality tailored to the needs of RIM professionals, including:

  • Improved efficiency in the storage, retention, and disposition of records and records series
  • Detailed reports of which records are eligible for transfer, accession, or destruction
  • Audit trails to track all system activity and the entire life cycle of records

ERM systems should allow organizations to file records according to a determined scheme, to control the life cycle of records, to retrieve records based on partial information and to identify records that are due for final disposition.

Many organizations use DoD 5015.2-STD Electronic Records Management Software Applications Design Criteria Standard from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as a starting point for evaluating their ERM systems. Knowing a DoD-certified application has been thoroughly tested against the DoD’s rigorous standards provides a great deal of comfort to RIM professionals at thousands of organizations across a wide variety of industries.

Sidebar 2:

More About Transparent Records Management

Due to their job responsibilities, RIM professionals are often forced to be more interested in the rules (e.g., published retention schedules) and less interested in the importance of records from a business perspective. They must also be less concerned with designing a repository layout that allows them to find records quickly and more concerned with designing a structure that logically satisfies the retention schedule.

In many cases, the layout of a formal records management file plan is related to the fact that different retention schedules apply to different types of documents (e.g., insurance records, tax documents, and employment applications). For example, a records manager might be required to organize human resource (HR) documents by type.

Unfortunately, this type of layout is cumbersome for general users. For example, a user who wants to print all HR documents for a specific employee might have to open more than a dozen different folders in different locations to search for that employee’s documents.

Transparent records management is “transparent” because it enables general users to see through the cumbersome records management layout to the layout of their choice. Multiple views of the repository can be configured to allow RIM professionals to monitor and act on records through one folder structure, while other users access a folder structure organized more logically for their needs.

RIM professionals work with actual records; for greater security, other users of the system only access shortcuts to them.

One of the greatest strengths of transparent records management functionality lies in the way it enables RIM professionals to create a file plan and manage retention schedules without interfering with any department’s line of business. In addition, such a system enables RIM professionals to easily apply consistent policies to records in a variety of media, from Web content to archived e-mail messages to audio and video files.

Download the PDF version here.

Chris Wacker can be contacted at

From May - June 2010