Separately, document and records management seem straightforward enough, but what happens when you put them side-by-side? While these terms have some overlapping characteristics, there are crucial distinctions that make each practice essential for your organization’s success.

Below are definitions of each term, followed by the three key characteristics that distinguish these practices from one another.

What is document management?

Document management involves the day-to-day capture, storage, modification and sharing of physical and/or digital files within an organization.

Generally speaking, document management focuses on:

  • Reducing lost and misfiled documents.
  • Providing faster search and retrieval of documents.
  • Helping to better organize existing documents.
  • Improving general work processes and organizational efficiency.
  • Reducing the amount of physical space used to store documents, such as file cabinets, boxes and shelving.

Want to know more? We have an entire guide dedicated to document management.

What is records management?

Records management establishes policies and standards for maintaining diverse types of records. Some, but not all, documents within an organization become records.

Records management includes the functions of document management described above, plus:

  • Identifying what records exist by records inventory.
  • Applying required retention periods to stored items.
  • Identifying the owner of each records series.
  • Determining that a chain of custody and a proper audit trail both exist.
  • Assisting in e-discovery issues and applying legal holds to records when needed.
  • Managing disposition (disposal of documents).
  • Developing and administering defined records policy and procedures, regardless of if the records are electronic or paper.
  • Preserving records throughout their life cycle.

Want to dig deeper? Learn even more about records management here.

What makes document and records management different?

These terms differ in three main ways:

  1. Goal: the purpose of each practice.
  2. Information: the content involved in each practice.
  3. Methodology: the way each practice is performed.

Let’s break these distinctions down further:

1. Goal

The goal of document management is efficiency. Approving documents faster, reducing manual data entry and automating recurring tasks are some of the many functions of document management that work toward this goal.

On the other hand, the goal of records management is compliance. A well-oiled records management system helps organizations avoid penalties when regulators, auditors and other governing bodies come calling.

Document management and records management do share a goal of business continuity. Shortcomings in either practice can contribute to the downfall of the entire organization. However, when both document and records management work toward their goals (efficiency and compliance), the longevity of the organization becomes more secure.

2. Information

The information of document management is comprised of transient content. Invoices are signed and then sent off to the next approver; older drafts are discarded for revised ones; forms pass from submitter to reviewer and so on.

Meanwhile, the information of records management is comprised of historical content. The status of a document is determined by different phases of the records lifecycle, as shown below:

records management lifecycle

Different phases of the records lifecycle

The various drafts, versions and copies of active documents are consolidated into what is only essential for the purpose of compliance.

In short, workers need documents to do their jobs—but they need records to prove they did their jobs.

3. Methodology

The methodology of document management is content-driven. As mentioned above, content is the catalyst for all document-related activity. Therefore, document repositories are usually organized with the needs of general users in mind: finding documents by keyword or title, keeping all documents together by employee or project, etc.

In contrast, the methodology of records management is context-driven. Records managers care more about document types (insurance records, employment applications etc.) than the words written on the actual documents. As a result, retention schedules are the catalyst for records-related activity, as different types of records must be kept for different lengths of time, and under different conditions.

By the way, remember that document management guide I mentioned earlier? Well, we have one for records management, too!

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