An argument is brewing right now in Central Government regarding recent proposals to allow Companies House to change its policy on how long historical data is kept on companies stored in its publically accessible database. Currently it keeps records going back twenty years and under new proposals this may change to just 6 years. Without getting into the finer arguments of what Companies House should or shouldn’t do (as this is being covered pretty well in the mainstream press) it does raise the question of what individual companies should do with their own records and how far back should businesses keep them for.
The UK requires companies keep records for a minimum of 6 years for accounting and tax purposes but often it is in the interests of companies to keep records much longer. Ongoing customer relationships can easily extend beyond 6 years, as can extended warranties and terms contained within business contracts. Clearly if any record still has business relevance or currency it should be retained, but how long beyond this period is sensible? Each business needs to have their own answer to this but if a record includes financial transactions it is going to be at least 6 years again. At a practical level it also raises the question of how does a business track the age of its records and understand how much each historical record gets accessed (and is thereby useful in being retained by the business). For digital records stored through IT business systems, it is easy to see both the access frequency as well as the last time a record was viewed and this applies to parent folders and entire collections of items. For paper records it requires a systematic approach by the business and this is easier said than done. Perhaps one of the easiest methods to understand is the approach to documentation taken by manufacturing businesses in the 70’s and 80’s as they started to implement Total Quality Control and lean manufacturing systems. As an example, Toyota in an attempt to drastically cut down on the corridors of technical documentation (such as on its parts back catalogue) it implemented a simple process of requiring any employee who accessed a particular paper file to put a coloured sticker on the file when they took it out. Thereby in a short succession of time Toyota management could easily see the files without stickers and if the files were sufficiently old, remove them completely for archive or incineration. Simple but effective, similar pragmatic techniques are used in different guises in offices all around the world and they subscribed to the maxim “that something is only useful if you use it”