What is records management and why is it important?
According to an IDC study, data professionals lose up to 30% of their time each week searching for, governing, and preparing data. These numbers are particularly problematic when managing records — the documents and information organizations need to store for regulatory, compliance, and governance reasons.
What is records management?
Records management is the systematic control of records throughout their life cycle. The records management process encompasses both physical and electronic records and includes the capture, protection, and storage of records.
An effective records management program does three critical things:
- controls the creation and management of business records
- systematically ignores non-record content
- manages the destruction and retirement of expired and inactive records
The challenges of records management
Records management presents distinct challenges for organizations of all sizes.
Organizations now create and receive more records than ever before. According to data management provider of organizations expect the quantity of data they work with to grow nearly five times by 2025. This sheer volume makes it difficult to ensure that all corporate records are identified and correctly classified.
Ensuring the integrity, authenticity, and confidentiality of records is crucial to meeting ongoing security and compliance protocols. Organizations must control security risks and ensure the protection of records from unauthorized access, accidental destruction, and other potential cyber threats. Additionally, organizations must ensure the storage of records in a way that preserves their authenticity and integrity to comply with data privacy regulations such as GDPR or CCPA.
Records, by definition, need to be stored securely and in an unalterable manner for many years, sometimes decades. According to Tech Advisory, servers need replacing around every three years, a much shorter timespan than the records stored on them. Therefore, ensuring the IT infrastructure used to keep records is fit for purpose, secure, and accessible for all necessary stakeholders throughout the entire record lifecycle is a significant challenge.
The records lifecycle
Organizations must follow a clear and consistent process to overcome the various challenges associated with managing records. Over their time in a records management system, records progress through multiple stages — collectively known as the records lifecycle.
The lifecycle always begins with the creation of a record. Regardless of the type and form of the record, it should always be stored centrally, classified, and enriched with metadata so that it can be found and used again later. The specific data required varies based on the record type but typically falls into four categories:
- Administrative – e.g., record type and retention schedule
- Descriptive – e.g., the title of a book or name of a drug patent
- Preservation & technical – e.g., the file format or specific software required to view it
- Usage – e.g., how the record can be accessed and/or circulated
This phase also involves the classification of the record against one or more retention schedules, which define how the record is managed against a specific rule or regulation and define access permissions regarding which users can access or edit it.
Increasingly, companies are also requiring that records not only be created manually by humans, but automatically — for example, by machines picking up information from a third-party system.
Stakeholders need to be able to retrieve, share, and otherwise use records, which is only possible if they are findable. That is one of the chief responsibilities of a records management platform, alongside making sure records are shareable with others internally and externally.
It is vital that only users with the correct level of authorization can use the record in question, with even stronger permissions necessary to make edits. The record must also constantly reflect its status, particularly whether it is active or inactive.
Organizations often need to store and manage records for a specific period of time. Even the shortest retention period requires careful management, ensuring that IT systems remain available and fit for purpose, that access permissions are up to date and integrated into organizational authorization systems, and that record integrity is maintained — particularly when it comes to ensuring records are automatically stored in the correct file type for customers or suppliers.
Records should also be maintained in such a way that they are findable in more than one location, so users can get the right information in the right context. This level of maintenance requires constant monitoring, proactive governance, and a dedicated focus to deliver the necessary level of compliance and security.
Disposition refers to the process of destroying or transferring records when they reach the end of their retention period. This critical step in the records management lifecycle ensures organizations keep records no longer than mandated by legal and regulatory requirements.
In the US, invoices are retained for seven years, personnel files for four years from the date of termination, cancelled checks for three years, and so on.
The disposition process typically involves the following steps:
- Records nearing the end of their retention period must be identified and flagged for disposition. This process can be automated or performed manually by records managers.
- Records may be defensibly disposed of per legal and regulatory requirements or transferred to archives for long-term preservation (see below).
- Records managers are responsible for physically destroying or transferring records to archives. Organizations must document the disposition process to ensure that the correct disposal of records complies with legal and regulatory requirements.
Archival moves records that remain important to the organization or must be retained for future reference or regulatory compliance reasons to long term storage. Automated digital archiving helps ensure that retention schedules are consistently met, minimizes filing errors and enables data protection per GDPR and other privacy laws.
Archiving can be done based on specific records or in tandem with particular business systems such as email and Microsoft SharePoint. Archived content remains immutable (but is still readable) and compliant with legal requirements and standards such as EU GDPR and ISO 16175-2.
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Requirements for a records management system
Several RM tools adequately deliver the functionality described above. Most share standard features and requirements covering records declaration, maintenance, disposal, and integration into archival tools. However, for organizations looking for more than just an entry-level solution, there are several additional considerations when adopting a records management system.
On-premises vs cloud
A records management system can be offered in both on-premises and/or cloud options.
On-premises solutions require a more significant up-front investment around hardware and infrastructure — and typically require in-house maintenance and upkeep. However, many organizations feel reassured that their data and records remain on their own infrastructure.
Alternatively, cloud-based record management solutions offer greater scalability, can be easily accessed from any device or location, and often adopt a subscription model rather than upfront payments.
Both options are equally secure, and the selection usually depends on the budget, timescales, and IT capabilities of the individual organization implementing the system. However, selecting a records management software solution offered both on-premises and via the cloud provides the flexibility to move between different models in the future if required.
Enterprise search technology helps organizations to identify potential records by providing a centralized search interface offering record search and identification from any source system.
Additionally, enterprise search can provide users with a single view across all enterprise data — including records if they have relevant permissions — helping knowledge workers quickly and easily find the information they need without navigating between different systems.
Ensuring records protection from unauthorized access, modification, or deletion is vital.
Basing access restrictions on user roles is standard, with different levels of access granted to different groups of users. For example, administrators may have full access to records, while regular users may only have view-only access.
Collaboration is an important part of records management. It helps organizations share records with external teams such as legal and audit teams. To ensure secure collaboration, records management systems should provide external users with secure access to relevant records, while also following organizational policies and regulations. This can be done through security features such as two-factor authentication, encryption, audit trails, and role-based access.
Integration plays a crucial role in making records management more efficient by connecting various systems from capture to retention to disposition.
- Integration with authentication systems, such as single sign-on (SSO) and LDAP, ensures that only authorized individuals have access to records.
- Integration to archival systems allows for proper long-term preservation of records and provides the opportunity to automate otherwise tedious processes.
- Integration with physical records management systems for organizations that maintain both physical and digital records enable tools such as barcode systems, RFID systems, and other tracking systems.
- Integration with enterprise search allows users to easily find and access records across multiple siloed content management systems and enterprise applications.
Records and archives management is vital for any organization, ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, protecting against data loss, and enabling effective document retrieval.
Specific departments and industries are subject to unique retention policies and schedules, which specify how a record is to be kept and for how long. With constantly evolving laws and regulations, maintaining accurate and compliant record lifecycles is a challenge for today's organizations, which deal with large volumes of information in various formats.
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Frequently asked questions
Records management is the process by which organizations create, store, and preserve records, which they must keep track of for regulatory, compliance, or governance reasons.
Records management is critical because it speeds up information retrieval, ensures compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and guards against data loss.
What are the stages of the records lifecycle?
Throughout its lifetime, a record goes through identification, creation, use, maintenance, disposition and archive.