A mountain is an understatement.
Backup tapes storing documents on indefinite hold in enterprise libraries would stretch to the moon and back 13 times with enough left over to circle the globe seven times, according to a Symantec Corp. survey released in early August. Companies admitted that a quarter of the information that they keep on these tapes isn't needed and shouldn't be retained.
Businesses don't know what they can discard without running into legal trouble and so, to be safe, they keep it all--practically forever.
It's true that companies have a legal obligation to preserve electronic documents that may be relevant in a lawsuit as well as to ensure that those documents can be produced readily during the discovery phase of litigation. Documents that must be protected and preserved include everything from e-mails to spreadsheets and databases.
These documents have become crucial in litigation in recent years. E-mail or the destruction of documents have played central roles in a number of high-profile cases, such as the case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen and the case against Silicon Valley trader Frank Quattrone. So it's no wonder that companies are afraid to destroy anything. But the rules do not require companies to save every last e-mail.
A formal document retention plan can go a long way to helping companies resolve this problem. But while 87 percent of the 1,680 senior information technology and legal executives surveyed by Symantec in its 2010 Information Management Health Check Survey say they know they need a document-retention plan, only 46 percent actually have one.
Most companies are spinning their wheels as they try to come up with the perfect plan. But any plan is better than none.
The failure to develop a document retention plan is leading to rampant storage growth, unsustainable backup windows, increased litigation risk and expensive and inefficient discovery processes, according to Symantec.
There's no free lunch. Storing all that data makes it harder to find what you're looking for. It is now 1,500 times more expensive to review data than it is to store it, Symantec estimates. Backup windows, meanwhile, are so overloaded that weekend backups are taking more than a single weekend these days.
All of this retention is overkill and simply unnecessary.
In its 2005 decision to overturn the conviction of Arthur Andersen, the U.S. Supreme Court held that destroying documents as part of an established document retention program did not amount to obstruction of justice.
That ruling provides companies that follow an established document-retention policy a so-called "Safe Harbor" when it comes to deleting material not subject to a litigation hold.
Businesses can't store all of their documents indefinitely. They can cut those mountains down to size by developing formal information retention policies and enforcing them automatically.
It is also time to stop using backup for archiving and legal holds. Symantec recommends companies retain a few weeks of backup and then delete or archive data after that.
PATRICIA VOWINKEL has worked for national media outlets for more than 20 years.
September 15, 2010
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