Document and Records Management systems share many similarities. In fact, in this digital age, the features and functionality required to manage electronic documents provide a solid foundation for records management. There are however 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.

In practical terms a document management system (DMS) is a key tool in providing structure to that unstructured data and 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?

The Purpose of Document Management

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.

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
  • Keep documents and folders organized

Of course, for law firms and legal teams, security and compliance are also high priorities. 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 to have processes and tools in place controlling 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

A DMS uses a suite of tools for securely storing, organizing, modifying, and sharing documents — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A DMS also simplifies and streamlines processes, helps your team members maintain document organization and enables them to efficiently carry out their tasks however complex your workflows are.

In addition, 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.

What is Records Management?

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

The ISO defined a record as: “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 vice versa. A record is an item that provides evidence of a business transaction, or the pursuit of a legal obligation and 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).

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.

Why We Need Different Tools

A DMS can provide much of the functionality required to implement your records management strategy for electronic records and can be configured and organized so that 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 complexity of your file plan or retention schedule, or need to also manage physical records, then you really need a specialist RM system. Such a system will provide additional functionality above and beyond that of the DMS.

To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of different legal software types, 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 system, the NetDocuments platform is designed to help legal professionals maximize productivity with a suite of robust 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 and integrates with numerous leading records management providers which ensures that your processes stay streamlined and secure without sacrificing on features or expertise. And while not a records management system, NetDocuments does support document and records management best practices by allowing users to define document retention and archiving policies in the platform.

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.