Gregory E. Copeland has a strong sense of order that is critical to the success of his Oakland-based business, FileBank Inc. (www.filebankinc.com), a content-management company focusing on protecting, archiving, and securing destruction of organizations’ physical and digital assets. Copeland attributes the discipline and focus his work requires in part to his high school years at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. "I didn’t love it while I was there," he says, "but it taught me a lot about structure and organization.

"Its teaching unfolds every day," he continues, telling of a recent experience with a newly-hired vice president. Trying to prepare for the major yearly audit that is part of FileBank’s ISO certification process, she was feeling a little overwhelmed. Copeland suggested that she bring up the master document on her monitor, read one line at a time, and tell him if it was correct. As they read the first page together, the necessary changes became clear to her.

Next he asked her to click on a hyperlink, read the company’s mission, and then come back to him. When she returned, he asked: "Are we living up to the mission? Do you sense any place where it is not valid?" As she read down the well-structured digital document, says Copeland, "the project became manageable instead of seemingly chaos. It’s all structure, treating things in a structured, organized format, without panicking."

Copeland speaks at a full-day seminar on "Document Retention and Destruction" on Friday, August 10, at 8:30 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick. The sessions will cover how to design an effective records retention program, incorporate the differing rules for paper and electronic records, save money by storing only necessary records, improve regulatory compliance, survive audits and reviews, and properly and legally dispose of harmful information. Cost: $359.

The other speakers are Rebecca B. Fitzhugh, manager in the forensic accounting and litigation support services group at Sobel & Company, and Thomas O. Gorman, partner-in-charge of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur’s Washington, D.C., office and chair of the firm’s SEC actions practice group. Register online at www.lorman.com, call 866-352-9529, or E-mail customerservice@lorman.com.

Copeland was a design major focusing on architectural interiors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and he minored in art history. He then spent 20 years or so as a decorative art publisher of framed pictures for homes and casinos.

In 1984 he founded C.C. Realty as a warehousing company, storing a variety of things, including corporate documents. Then in 1987 he went for a master’s degree in business administration from New York University’s Stern School of Business. At about that time, he recalls, "the Windows program from Microsoft was starting to get legs, and the PC was getting powerful." He realized that powerful tools like Word, Excel, and database management programs were affordable and could be important management tools.

After he finished his MBA, he completed a database design program at the Columbia University School of Continuing Education. In 1990 he founded FileBank as a response to customers’ needs to archive records.

Corporations need to understand the value of a good records management system, says Copeland, and most don’t get it if the subject is presented from a practical perspective that is "dry and fastidious." So Copeland tries to secure buy-in by focusing on the benefits:

Keep the corporate faith and values. Sometimes a record expresses what is essential about an organization, a business, or even a country. The secret recipe for Coke, for example, which the Coca Cola company has protected and defended for decades, is an asset that, if frivolously handled or lost, would be great detriment to the company. Similarly the originals of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are critical to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Protect the organization by keeping its records in order. Many historical records will continue to benefit a company as it develops and grows. Examples include processes the firm has developed, patents, policies, innovative procedures, and product formulas. These saved assets can record tried-and-true procedures, like how to repair a washing machine in the field or how to take care of a legal client interested in a patent.

To create a knowledge management system, says Copeland, you must compile a valid dossier of assets and create a means for "keeping track of and organizing them in a structured policy manner." This not only make things easy to find, but helps businesses to know when in a document’s life cycle it can be destroyed.

Defend the company. Policies about record keeping, says Copeland, "make it easy to defend ourselves or protect ourselves against a variety of legislation." Businesses must be concerned with legislation like the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act for healthcare issues and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for the behavior of public company boards and management and public accounting firms.

"And there’s the IRS," he adds, "which demands the right to challenge your tax reporting to get its tithe."

There’s also the threat of suits by individuals or other corporations for supposed breach of contract or even for criminal misdeeds.

How can you defend yourself if you can’t find what you need? asks Copeland. "Courts look askance if you can’t produce records – you appear to be guilty," he says. "Records managers are holders of the keys to all those protective systems around the entity."

Protect against unexpected calamities. Every organization is also subject to larger threats, like floods and hurricanes, power failures, data destruction, and internal malevolent employees who want to sabotage for revenge or take information for personal benefit. And, of course, the specter of terrorism is a threatening cloud hovering on the horizon.

Then there are the threats that few businesses even think about. Copeland cites the recent steam-pipe explosion in New York City as an example.

The effectiveness of recordkeeping varies with the type of organization. Copeland describes private industry as being "on the edge," ever wary that costs must be cut to ensure survival.

But businesses are generally in better shape than nonprofits, schools, and municipalities, which Copeland describes as "way down on the totem pole of process." As long as the taxpayers are willing to fund insufficiencies in the public realm, he says, little will change.

He says that the status quo is also maintained by layers of ignorance. "They have no idea how much they could improve," says Copeland. "Bureaucrats are slow moving. They need to convince a lot of people; and they also fear that the threat of change will cost people their jobs."

Copeland suggests, though, that municipalities and school systems could save money by better organizing their assets. Paris grants (public archives and records infrastructure support) from the state of New Jersey, which fund municipalities to do studies about records management, have raised awareness of the importance of records management. Many organizations, suggests Copeland, are moving from "the 1950s method of managing and into the 2000s."

In the 50-plus industries that Copeland has worked with, he finds that institutions like banks – accustomed to micromanaging their assets down to the penny – best reflect the precision, control, and management that he recommends. "At same time," he adds, "they are cost conscious and judiciously determine what to do and what not to do."

At the other end of the spectrum are hospitals, which he places "at the extreme of mismanagement because their core focus is healthcare – so they don’t manage other aspects as well as they should."

Copeland likens the process of improving recordkeeping and the ensuing benefits to what has happened historically with computer digitalization. For a long time the investment in a technological infrastructure didn’t appear to offer a major benefit, mostly because the pipeline was clogged with old methods of doing things.

"Now that enough entities are fully computerized," says Copeland, "there is a three to five times increase in productivity; the seeds of the crop are starting to pop up." He sees a similar arc in the area of document management.

The biggest challenge to getting an organization’s records organized is getting the person in charge to buy in. Without a motivated management, says Copeland, "it’s a hard row to hoe, and programs are difficult to get in place, and at best are treated as pests."

Business leaders should be well aware of the dangers to businesses "who are litigated against and can’t produce the goods," he says. Incidents involving companies or non-profits with missing records regularly appear in the newspaper’s business section. Yet managers are often reluctant to invest time and money in a document management system, and must be convinced.

At this moment Filebank is working with a major university in New York City whose "whole environment of records is a world in disarray," says Copeland. His company is "doing a pilot model that should prove to the president that he should implement a system."

Once upper management agrees, the best approach is to form a committee of information technology people, an archivist, and the department heads whose assets need organizing to outline a process. The idea is to develop simple, repeatable concepts – and to begin using them. If meeting once a week is arduous, then commit to monthly. "Make it part of your normal functions," advises Copeland.

His own company has discontinued the use of C drives on PCs. Instead, all documents are saved on a central file server, and nightly the documents are converted into unalterable PDF files and archived with revision numbers, so that they can be brought back when needed.

Companies need an archive center where inactive files, physical or virtual, can be stored by date, and shredded or deleted when their useful life is over.

"The world can be transformed from enormous complexity to a simple management system," says Copeland, who also takes companies paperless. Valuable documents like patents and corporate charters can be scanned so that they have redundancy, and then stored in a secure place.

Organizing documents and pieces of paper is a continuing need in businesses and at home. But Copeland maintains that "only when you don’t have a method is it complicated, and when you have digital tools, it is easier." Whatever method you select must also be part of the daily business of a household or a larger organization. "If you don’t make your bed and clean your house," says Copeland, "when someone is coming over, it’s very difficult."

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