Following the Paper(less) Trail
Emails, PDFs and text messages now form the backbone of communications and project transmittals. Appointments are made, job details provided and contracts entered via paperless means. Gone are the days when all information about a project existed in a “job file.” Now, a job file can be spread across various electronic devices to encourage access to data. And while this has eased client communication and job management, it has created a monster of information management.
Knowing what information is coming in and going out of a company is essential to understanding and managing risk and exposure. Data comes in so quickly that it can be difficult to know what a job requires or who the responsible contact is. Companies need to proactively establish and enforce chains of communication that meet project needs but do not cause delay.
Simple tools can help. Job assignment sheets and jobcontact groups can easily identify those who need to be included on communications. Electronic information updates as a part of regular company meetings allow employees to know who is getting information about a job and who is not. Finally, job-specific email accounts can automatically direct communications to multiple people so those who “need-to-know” get the information.
These are all good steps, but access to the information is not the same as understanding the information.
The paper trail
The volume of data coming in means confirming job compliance and approvals is even more important. Failure to respond to a “cc” email cannot be viewed as permission to proceed. Consistent application of approval controls is necessary; whether that approval is for product selection, plan intent, authority to begin, change orders or payment. Sometimes, tedious hard-copy approvals may be your best defense to a back-charge or failure to pay, and the best way for your company to control who has been authorized to proceed.
These documented approvals must also be accessible. How you store your paper and data can make them either a resource or a burden. For example, individual users storing electronic information on their individual workstation, laptop or tablet is a recipe for disaster. Failure of hardware or a misdirected “delete” key can create project problems and legal exposure. Help avoid these issues by centralizing document management though servers or document software—be it cloud based or on site. And while there may be less physical paper, it tends to be the more important things like contracts, bids and completions. Do not give up on a job-file system because electronic data is available. Physical files and folder labels can save countless hours and headaches.
Access to data, whether electronic or physical, must also address its management and retrieval. The ability to store every shred of paper, email, text or piece of data from a project is impressive, but of little value if there is no means to search, review or evaluate what you have. Finding or developing a system to control and manage data is an essential, but ultimately individual, matter for each company. Find a system that works for your company and document it. Make sure it addresses the way you do business, whether on paper, via text or in PDF format. Do not leave a gap where job information can slip through. Enforce it as a written policy, so that if problems arise you know where to look and can integrate it into your risk management and insurance program. A documented procedure can save money by targeting search efforts, allowing for a more thorough response when questions arise, and establishing a reasonable destruction date to limit storage costs.
There is no question that data can be a powerful asset when managed and controlled; it is equally damaging when it is not. Internal controls and legal defenses can begin and end on the available data and documents. Courts are now more inclined to impose search demands on electronically stored information of companies, their employees and individuals. Heavy monetary sanctions are being imposed where data is destroyed or cannot be located due to the failure to maintain. The cost of doing nothing to control data and documentation far outweighs the expense of doing something.