Document management: the one characteristic all standards have in common… they change

So you think you have your document management and data retention all set. You have a plan, a system and a storage procedure to ensure information is there for when it is needed… Or is it?

I got a powerful reminder of how important it is to not just guard the data but the document management process itself as well the other day. It all started with my step dad having a massive heart attack (his 3rd one in 15 years). Luckily he survived because there were people around that knew what to do and had access to a defibrillator right there and then but it was a close call and it will take him a while to fully recover. It also made both my mum and step dad reevaluate some of the procedures in place for when that fatal moment will come…

“…in a worst case situation it would simply be a case of sending over the list…”

april_2009_019Sixteen years the older than my mum and a lot more organized in administrative processes my step dad has taken great care to make sure that when that inevitable moment comes she will be able to handle the administrative tasks that will need to take place. One of them, to inform the extended group of friends and relatives. Diligent as he is my step dad digitized his whole contact registration about 10 years ago so that in a worst case situation it would simply be a case of sending over the list.  He chose a tool to do that specifically aimed at contact management and selected a product that was highly regarded for it. He then proceeded to back up the contact database on an external hard disk and USB drive and regularly updated it over the years.

“…after replacing his laptop a while back he had not been able to reinstall the original software…”

After his hospitalization however and while still awaiting surgery he asked me to see if I could access the database for him. It turned out that after replacing his laptop a while back he had not been able to reinstall the original software and therefore no longer had access to the database or contact list. The software company so highly regarded all those years ago had retracted their product from the consumer market and no longer supported or updated it. The database (which wasn’t a standard database type and had encryption on it) therefore became completely useless.

Luckily the company, although no longer servicing the consumer market, did still sell similar software to corporations and after calling them and explaining the situation they graciously offered to see if they could retrieve the data from the backed up database file. One week later I could reassure my step dad that it was salvaged and send him and my mum an excel extract of 95% of the data.

“…that one week delay in getting access to the data would have made it completely useless…”

What did he do wrong? Well not much really. He choose a respectable product which was regarded as a standard at the time, backed it up and kept it up to date regularly. Still that one week delay in getting access to the data would have made it completely useless for the purpose it was made for if the worst had happened…

Document management is about managing the whole process, not just the content

So how does this relate to business? Well it wasn’t that long ago that WordPerfect was considered the overall standard for Word editing, and Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheets. You might even still have some files with an extensions like .wk1, .wk2, .wk3, .wk4, .wp, .wp4, .wp5, .wp6 or .wp7 float about in your document management systems or shared file drive systems. Not much of a problem there probably as there are still viewers and converters available for these that can leverage most if not all of the original document… but for how long? 

More importantly, how many other file types created in long since extinct software formats and so called ‘standard file types’ do you have floating around that might not be accessible with your current hardware/software environment anymore?
Ok, yes. Over time the relevance of these documents often becomes less and retention policies will most likely weed out a lot of them anyway but still… You don’t want to run into a situation where you are caught out having THE file when you absolutely need it, but no way to access it.


  • Be aware of the fact that file formats, even if considered a ‘standard’ now go out of date or get replaced,
  • Keep track of the types of file formats that you store and reevaluate them regularly,
  • Try to keep the number of formats you have to manage down by enforcing certain standards
  • Test and maintain possible viewers and converters and regularly reevaluate them when you buy new software or update your existing packages,
  • Migrate older documents to new standard formats if you find their importance warrants it and other ways of accessing are becoming limited,
  • Maintain a good retention policy so you don’t keep managing file formats that really are no longer relevant
What is considered a standard file format now might be outdated before the retention period on the documents created with it expires. don’t get caught out when the moment is there to produce that information.