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Document Management vs. Records Management: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?


Document and Records Management systems share many similarities. In fact, in this digital age, if you want to manage electronic records then the features and functionality required to manage electronic documents provide a solid foundation for records management. This was reflected decades ago when records management professionals who had managed archives of physical records started talking about EDRM – Electronic Document & Records Management. The industry has moved on, and there are nuances to managing documents and records, so it is important to understand how these disciplines differ and where they overlap.

What is Document Management?

Document management is the practice of providing structure to unstructured data using various tools and strategies. It’s important to remember that a document is a form of information that is generally considered to be ‘unstructured’, as opposed to the structured rows and columns of a database. A DMS is a key tool in providing structure to that unstructured data.

In practical terms a document management system (DMS) provides tools to help you create, edit, store, find, share and generally manage your documents, which might be word processing documents, presentations, spreadsheets, pictures, PDF files etc.

But what does this functionality really accomplish? Let’s look at some of the goals of document management to find out.

The Purpose of Document Management Software

At a high level, the primary goal of document management is to organize your information and make it possible for people to find what they need, when they need it; but there are several factors that can influence your success.

A strong document management strategy (and document management system, or DMS) supports that goal by helping to:

  • Maintain version control
  • Improve document search
  • Digitize physical documents
  • Avoid lost or misfiled documents
  • Establish a single source of truth
  • Keep documents and folders organized, including electronic documents

Of course, for law firms and legal teams, security and compliance are also high priorities — especially when teams are dispersed. Malicious behavior and even simple human error can derail a document management strategy and expose your organization to risk. That’s why it’s so important that you have a business process and tools in place to control user access to documents, including ethical walls, to establish your DMS as the single source of truth for your organization.

How a Document Management System (DMS) Helps

As we already discussed, a document management software platform that helps organizations manage documents using a suite of tools for securely storing, organizing, modifying, and sharing documents — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the key advantages of a DMS is that it simplifies and streamlines many of the processes that could undermine a solid document management strategy. It can automate workflows and help your team members maintain document organization and enables them to efficiently carry out their tasks however complex your workflows are.

In addition to productivity-enhancing tools and features, another incredibly valuable aspect of a DMS is enhanced document security. Because confidentiality and compliance are so vital to legal work, no organization can afford to overlook document security when choosing a DMS and building a document management strategy.

What is Records Management?

Across the world there are many different governmental and organizational definitions of what constitutes a ‘record’, but in 2001 the International Standards Organization (ISO) ratified a global standard for records management, ISO 15489. The ISO standard tells us that:

"Records Management is the field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including the processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records"

But what is a record, and why do we need to treat them differently?

The ISO also defined what a record is: "information created, received, and maintained as evidence and as an asset by an organization or person, in pursuit of legal obligations or in the transaction of business".

So not all your documents may be classified as records, and not all your records will be documents. The basic definition of a record as an item that provides evidence of a business transaction, or the pursuit of a legal obligation can be modified and added to depending on the legal jurisdictions within which you operate, and any specific regulations that pertain to your industry.

The Purposes of Records Management

Ultimately, the purpose of keeping these records is to comply with laws and other regulations and protect your organization from risk. For example, if your firm or company were audited, it may face significant fines or other penalties if records are not properly managed. The best defense is to have a records management strategy that includes well-documented records management policies.

Going beyond good document management practices, records management may require additional elements including developing clear policy and procedures for retention (keeping records for a set period) and disposition (final destruction of the record). A records management strategy can help by providing processes for:

  • Enforcing required retention periods for stored records
  • Setting user access controls and preventing edits to the record
  • Assisting with e-discovery or applying legal holds when needed
  • Keeping an audit trail that documents how the record was managed from declaration to disposition
  • Creating a records inventory to keep track of what records are held, sometimes called declaration and registration
  • Managing physical and electronic document disposition (e.g. archiving, deleting, or destroying inactive records at the end of their lifecycle)
  • Applying records retention schedules based on a record’s legal, fiscal, administrative, or historical value

How does records management software help?

Records management (RM) software enables you to efficiently capture, identify, store, and dispose of business records according to necessary policies, procedures, and regulations.

When a firm or corporation deals with a large volume of records, it’s often helpful to have a dedicated system that can support records management activities — from securing restricted files to maintaining a records inventory to managing disposition requests. A specialist records management tool is particularly useful when you need to manage physical records (actual files full of paper) as well as electronic records, particularly when these records might be managed off site by a specialist service provider.

Why We Need Different Tools

A DMS can provide much of the functionality required to implement your records management strategy for electronic records that are held in the form of documents, be that Word files, emails, presentations etc.

A DMS can be configured and organized so that is workspaces or folders reflect the records management file plan. File plan references and retention schedule labels can be stored as metadata for each document within the DMS. It can also provide retention and disposition functionality, although it is not usually as sophisticated or as flexible as that found in a specialist records management system. This DMS functionality can be particularly helpful if your records strategy includes a requirement to “manage in place” – that is you do not wish to copy or move (often referred to as archiving) your documents to a separate system.

However, when you start to increase the volume of records, the complexity of your file plan or retention schedule, or you need to manage physical records and electronic records across multiple and diverse systems covering both structured data, and unstructured information, then you really need a specialist RM system. Such a system will provide additional functionality above and beyond that provided by the DMS to ensure that:

  • Incomplete audit trails
  • Unsecured documents and files
  • Inefficient search and retrieval of files
  • Non-compliance with legal requirements
  • Difficulty accessing and collaborating on documents
  • Accidental changes made to records after finalization
  • Time-consuming manual document disposition processes
  • Expensive storage when files are kept past their retention period
  • Duplicate content and/or confusion around working documents vs. records
  • … and much more.

The complexity of your business needs, your legal and regulatory compliance requirements, and many of the other factors mentioned above will determine whether a DMS can help realize your records management strategy, or whether you need a separate records management system.

To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of different legal software solutions, plus how they overlap and complement each other, check out our Legal Technology Cheat Sheet.

How NetDocuments Can Help

As the leading cloud-based document management solution, the NetDocuments platform is designed to help legal professionals maximize productivity with a suite of robust information management and information governance tools that allow you to create, edit, store, locate, and collaborate on documents — anywhere, on any device, with award-winning security capabilities.

NetDocuments provides features to apply to your records management policies to documents within our system, including flexible retention policies, legal holds capabilities, secure deletion and an extremely flexible metadata model that can map to a file plan or retention schedule.

We believe that you should always have access to the best that technology has to offer, which is why NetDocuments integrates with numerous leading electronic records management providers. This ensures that your processes stay streamlined and secure without sacrificing on features or expertise. And while NetDocuments is not a records management system, we do support document and records management best practices by allowing users to define document retention and archiving policies in the platform. This allows you to permanently delete and purge files based on criteria you choose.

By pairing your records management system with a powerful, secure, and flexible DMS like NetDocuments, you can ensure that your team has the best tools to do their best work.

Learn more about how NetDocuments can support your document management and records management strategies by scheduling a consultation today.

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