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Digital archiving: Definition, periods, requirements

Everything you need to know about retention periods, audit-proof archiving, and the legal requirements for archiving.

Definition: What does archiving mean?

Secure archiving means the permanent storage of documents and data in an unchangeable state: just as the document reached the company. Two additional requirements: On the one hand, archiving is a process that must follow a systematic approach. On the other hand, the storage and retention of documents must take place in a controlled manner.

“Systematic” and “controlled” in the context of electronic archiving simply mean that you have established a structurally consistent archiving process. Ideally, the process is described in documented procedures: Where are which documents stored with which IT systems and who has what kind of access to them? So much for the definition of archiving in a nutshell.

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Which documents have to be archived?

As soon as the data and documents created in digital business processes have fiscal relevance, they must be archived in an audit-proof manner. Documents to be archived typically include the following:

  • Books and records
  • Inventories
  • Financial statements
  • Management reports
  • Opening balances as well as the operating procedures and other organisational documents
  • Accounting documents
  • Received commercial and business letters
  • Copies of commercial and business letters sent
  • Other documents relevant for taxation
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Document retention periods

In principle, businesses subject to accounting requirements must retain business documents and comply with retention obligations during the archiving of documents. Basically, there are two different retention periods of 10 and 6 years. Below is a partial list of the most common business documents and their retention periods.

10-year retention period applies to the following documents

  • Progress payments
  • Delivery bills (if the delivery bill is also the invoice)
  • Invoices
  • Accounting documents 
  • Outgoing invoices
  • Depreciation documents
  • Bank statements
  • Financial statements, etc.

6-year retention period applies to the following business documents

  • Offers and quotations
  • Import/export documents and customs documents
  • Company audit reports
  • Commercial and business letters
  • Plus, other documents relevant to taxation

Audit-compliant archiving

For electronic archiving in general and for the entire retention period in particular, all documents to be retained must be archived in an audit-compliant manner. This brings us to the question of what “audit-proof” means in the context of electronic archiving.

What does audit-proof archiving mean?

In the context of digital archiving, audit-proof means that the document to be stored is protected against changes. It must always be available in the form in which the document initially reached the company – unaltered. Business documents, records, and receipts that must be kept in the archiving system must meet the requirements of commercial and tax law requirements.

Audit-proof archiving therefore primarily means that the archiving software complies with the following four aspects:

  • Immutability
  • Traceability
  • Completeness
  • Availability

The factors just mentioned refer to all changes made to the document. They are intended to protect against changes to the document. If changes take place, then only on a copy of the document. When this happens, it must be documented who made changes to the document, when and where. The modified copy must also contain a reference to the original document.

Do I need to archive emails?

Emails with fiscal relevance or emails that can be understood as commercial letters, i.e. that depict the company’s business correspondence, naturally fall under the same retention obligations.

However, there is one difficulty: Over the past two decades, email has become a ubiquitous medium of exchange and communication. Millions of emails are sent and received every day, turning corporate email inboxes into the data dump that every vacationer knows from their first day back at work. The difficulty with audit-compliant email archiving is simply determining whether an email is tax-relevant or not. For an introduction to this topic, read the following two articles: 6 reasons for email archiving and 7 mistakes regarding email archiving.


Pros and cons of analog and digital archiving

Advantages of analog archiving

The topic of archiving has been a driving force in human history for several thousand years. At its core, it is always about preserving knowledge for the future. Apart from the many disadvantages that archiving on analog media has today, the strongest, unbeatable advantage of analog archiving is its durability. The 4,000-year-old clay tablets in cuneiform script from Nineveh bear witness to this. No wonder that contemporary projects such as “Memory of mankind (MoM)” rely on ceramic tablets as a storage medium.

The choice of archiving system therefore stands and falls with the answer to the question of why you want to archive at all – and “real” long-term archiving for a million years, as in the MoM project, only works reliably with ceramic boards. However, such long retention periods are not part of the objective for archiving business documents. As a rule, retention periods of only 10 years are to be expected here.

Disadvantages of analog archiving

Apart from the archiving objective, analog archiving systems only have disadvantages. They are not suitable for fast-moving business environments and processes. Compared to digital archiving, analogue archiving systems prevent modern, decentralised work right from the start: “Just have a look in the archive” simply doesn’t work if you are in New York and the archive is in London. But there are other disadvantages of analog archiving:

  • Costs for paper or other analog storage media
  • Costs for archive rooms far exceed the costs for a digital archive
  • Searching in an analog archive is inferior to searching in a digital archive even just in terms of the time required
  • Decentralised and location-independent work is not possible with an analog archive
  • Paper consumption is not kind to the environment and wastes valuable resources
  • Personnel costs incurred for the analog archive


pros and cons of digital archiving

Let’s get straight to the point: There is no real disadvantage to digital archiving. At least not as long as you are aware of the requirements for the digital archiving scenario. In summary, it can be said that the advantages of digital archiving outweigh its disadvantages, at least in the scenario of audit-proof archiving.

Advantages of digital archiving

  • The majority of documents already arrive or are created digitally, so digital archiving is the logical way to avoid media disruption.
  • Digital archiving is the perfect foundation for decentralised organisations because it allows users to work from anywhere.
  • Faster access and search times: one of the key benefits of digital archiving, as the archive can be accessed from any workstation with just a few clicks.
  • As a single source of truth, the archive system provides the perfect foundation for deep insight and data-driven decisions.
  • Saves costs by eliminating file rooms, files, paper, printers, toner, etc.
  • Less space and organisation required

Disadvantages of digital archiving

  • The limited lifetime of electronic storage media
  • Complexity of the processes used: especially with regard to audit-compliant archiving
  • A certain amount of effort for access protection if the archive is to be accessible over a network

Areas of application

Practical examples of digital archiving

Archiving in retail

Archiving in car dealerships

Companies achieve the best results when they change their processes step by step. The first step was therefore accounting with all invoices and receipts.

Whereas previously envelopes had to be torn open, sorted and distributed every day, all incoming invoices now arrive digitally. All suppliers have been asked to send invoices only to a single e-mail address, which forwards all documents directly to digital document capture.

Thanks to automatic pre-recording, the team has all outstanding documents sorted and available immediately from the first glance at easy archive. Even the cash registers in the dealership are seamlessly connected to the digital archive. Receipts are magically transferred from there to the digital filing system. Each of these digitised individual processes saves time and reduces the error potential of previously manual processes.

The document flow in the car dealership has been accelerated: Before the use of digital archiving, files and documents had to be taken from the offices to the warehouse or workshop. The temptation was great to first pile up a stack and then transport everything at once.

Since digitisation, anyone can access the originals in the digital archive at any time, where they are stored in a legally compliant and audit-proof manner. A positive side effect is that no one is working with outdated copies any more.

The digital archive also saves valuable time after the initial processing of a document: each order is automatically cataloged with specific license plates. So if someone spontaneously searches for the last order with vehicle registration number X, the entire process history appears on the screen in a matter of seconds. Even the spare parts warehouse is connected to the easy archive. The long-term goal is to banish all paper from the dealership until the mechanic also retrieves his documents via tablet.

Archiving at Babymarkt

Since Babymarkt digitised and archived its bookkeeping with easy, there has suddenly been much less paper circulating in the offices.

Before the introduction of digital invoice management, including the archive, Babymarkt printed around 160,000 documents a year. However, digitisation not only saves paper costs for printing, storage space, folders and shelves, but above all time. On average, each invoicing process at Babymarkt now only takes half as long.

What was particularly surprising was how practical a digital and audit-proof archive is in practice: “Previously, we had filed everything in folders in the traditional way. When an audit was due, everything was sorted somehow, but we first had to leaf through thick layers of dust to find the document we needed. In easy archive, all you have to do is enter a keyword and the required original document immediately appears on the monitor in a legally compliant manner.”

Archiving at Hama

At the electronics retailer Hama, the paper-based document and archive system was also replaced by an uncomplicated audit-compliant digital long-term archiving system, which at the same time overcomes system boundaries to leading applications in merchandise management and accounting.

The list of the most important archives alone makes it clear what a flood of documents is involved here: in addition to an archive for incoming invoices and an archive for outgoing invoices, there are archives for orders, purchase orders, credit notes, debit notes, travel expense reports and quality assurance documents such as test reports or safety data sheets.

Some of the documents received by email are created directly as a new digital file after a content check and archived in easy archive at the end of the workflow in an audit-proof manner. Around 800 employees benefit from a large number of automated processes in document management. And that pays off: The systems process around 20,000 incoming invoices per year reliably and automatically.

Email archiving in professional soccer

The increasing flood of e-mails and the issue of legally compliant archiving were the most important reasons for Borussia Mönchengladbach to use a high-performance archive.

“The best compliment you can pay an archiving solution is that it does its work unnoticed. We can say that one hundred percent for easy. The solution just works”.

The data load on the servers has been reduced and all legal requirements for the storage of data while protecting the privacy of individual Outlook users have been met.

Borussia Mönchengladbach archives 220 Exchange mailboxes with easy. The search function can also be used to find information in attachments. Simultaneous searches in archived and non-archived emails as well as in several archive mailboxes in parallel are also possible. This gives Borussia employees the certainty that emails are archived in a legally compliant manner and can be retrieved at any time.

Archiving in the public sector

Around 1,340 people live in the Austrian municipality of Eggerding. How much work can they do? Quite a lot!

“Paper landscapes piled up in every corner of the municipal office and took up more space than the work areas themselves. This slowly developed over the years until suddenly entire areas of the building belonged to folders and files.”

The desire for digitalisation was followed shortly afterwards by the introduction of the digital document management system. “We had a lot of concerns beforehand: such a big changeover would take forever for us all to get used to it. But in the end there were no problems. Quite the opposite! The fact that we no longer have to comb through folders saves us valuable minutes every day.”

As the system automatically reads the scanned files and sorts them by date, for example, scanning itself does not take up much time or attention. All files end up systematically and gradually in the digital archive. In order not to disrupt daily work, the city administration introduced the digital solution department by department.

The biggest time saving for the municipal administration is in the approval of invoices: The three stages of the typical approval process – accounting, office management, mayor – used to often take several days. After all, the mayor was often very busy and only in office once or twice a week.

Today, the administration sends all invoices to the mayor electronically. Regardless of whether he is on the move, he can digitally sign the invoices anywhere via a secure connection with his laptop. This means that even documents that have only just arrived at the office have a valid signature. Today, hardly any approval takes longer than a day.

Archiving in the industry

Archiving at Talgo

When it comes to the maintenance and repair of rail vehicles, Talgo has to keep a large number of documents. On the one hand, there are tax-related documents that must be stored in an audit-proof manner. On the other hand, there are specific documents from the workshop that need to be stored securely and easily retrievable.

“Our archive includes order slips, test and assembly reports, measurement and weighing protocols and much more.”

Above all, the archive is constantly growing. Until the introduction of easy archive, Talgo was still working with a traditional paper filing system. “We were faced with a real flood of documents and therefore the question of how we could ensure that documents could be found in the future. In our paper filing system, we could only file documents according to two criteria: Wagon number and deadline stage. If you wanted to find all claims within a certain time limit, you had to go through the paper archive manually, copy the documents by hand and put the originals back in the folder.” While this was already very time-consuming, more complex searches in the archive were almost impossible.

Since the introduction of the digital archive, the departments have all documents relating to an order “at their fingertips”. They can see everything that is in the archive and can work with the relevant data. The current status of an order is more transparent. Used spare parts can be reordered more quickly. If someone discovers damage to a vehicle while processing an order, they can view previous processes in no time at all – for example, the last inspection or measurement logs. If required, the digital archive can even be searched back to the company’s foundation, as Talgo has digitised all important documents from the past quarter of a century. In the near future, the company also wants to create the conditions for archiving order-related voice notes or photos.

Archiving at Lemken

Paper used to dominate the desks and shelves of agricultural machinery manufacturer Lemken. Stacks of receipts and invoices piled up, a few centimeters more every day.

An efficient digital archive has almost completely eliminated the problem: Certain keywords and key figures are automatically recorded during scanning. The subsequent sorting according to these criteria ensures an overview and order in the digital archive.

Even the international invoices of some subsidiaries are stored in this system. Over 760 users work with easy, whereby access and authorisations can be freely configured for each person. For example, employees in Germany have access to document management and workflows, while employees abroad only have access to the archive. These clear structures reduce duplication of work and loss of time.

Archiving at Loparex

Invoice processing at the packaging and protective film manufacturer Loparex used to be a laborious task.

From entering the header and item data to comparing the totals with the offers in the ERP system and checking the VAT. If the goods had not yet arrived, the matter also had to be clarified with the purchasing department. Finally, the filing in the paper archive: For two years, the transactions piled up in the accounting department, then they went into the filing system for another eight years.

“All in all, invoice control and posting was a tedious ‘little detail’ – and therefore ineffective, non-transparent and prone to errors. Errors that absolutely had to be ruled out for reasons of operational and legal security”. To ensure this, all postings and account assignments were checked again manually on the following day.

Incoming paper invoices are now fed into an automated workflow. From this point on, they are stored in the system and can be retrieved at any time. At the same time, they are archived in an audit-proof manner, making paper filing superfluous. Loparex currently processes around 22,000 invoices per year in this way. The invoice archive can be accessed directly from the ERP system at any time. The company has also gradually switched its suppliers to e-mail invoices. This makes everything run even faster and more smoothly.

Requirements for archiving software

You may already be using electronic processes in many areas of your business. If so, audit-compliant archiving is a logical next step. To simplify the process of choosing archiving software, here is a list of common criteria to help you make the right choice for your first step. Keep in mind, however, that your organisation’s needs will be a key factor.

  • Going global to comply with regulations: Regarding GDPR for handling private data in the EU
  • For the archiving system, pay attention to certificates and attestations, e.g. IDW PS-880 and ISAE 3000
  • Multilingual archiving software interface
  • Diverse format options: The archiving software should be able to handle as many document and file formats as possible
  • Roles and rights concept: The archiving software should make use of a finely granular and sophisticated rights concept
  • Hosting of the archive: The choice depends on your requirements – cloud, on-premises or hybrid options are available
  • The electronic archiving solution should be available as a SaaS solution: This makes it clearly calculable in terms of number of users and usage time
  • Considering the archive from the user’s perspective, easy usability and sophisticated search functions are essential
  • Make sure that the archiving software and its provider have already been on the market for a long time
  • Check for options to connect the digital archiving to third-party systems, such as ERP or financial accounting systems (SAP ERP, 365 Business Central, etc.): This is a prerequisite for seamless digital processes, such as invoice processing or contract management.
  • If necessary: Take note of options for digitising paper-based documents to ensure they can be archived smoothly

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