What is Records Management? How to Build a Records Management Process

records managementI moved house not too long ago.

Now, I’ve always been a pretty terrible record keeper in my own life.

To remedy this I tried the hoarder technique. If I thought something was even remotely important, I’d throw it in a box file and vow to come back to it one day in the future.

It was only when I came to moving, and thought I’d try to Marie Kondo my crap away, that I dug out all my box files and the piles of messy paper inside them.

I’ll be really honest with you – it’s not an approach to records management that I would recommend.

Your business probably creates exponentially more records than I do, so you certainly can’t use an unthought-out approach to records management either.

That’s why we’ve decided to take some of the basics of records management, explain them, and give you a series of actionable ways to get started taking control over the lifecycles of records in your company.

In this Process Street article, we’ll be looking at:

  • What is records management?
  • Why is records management important?
  • The 5 key steps to records management
  • How to build a records management process

What is records management?

Records management is all about keeping an accurate archive of the various happenings and transactions within your business and being able to evidence that you have policies and procedures in place to make sure this all works.

In a nutshell, that’s what it is.

But don’t just take my word for it. The United Nations, as a large bureaucratic body, has great need for records management and is very transparent about its approaches. The UN defines it as:

“Records management is responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records”. – ST/SGB/2007/5 Record-keeping and the management of United Nations archives

One of the most important aspects of records management is understanding the importance of systemization.

Sure, you could have a fairly decent set of records in a database, or across many databases, but that doesn’t guarantee that future records will be in good condition.

It’s important to make sure that there are policies, processes, and procedures, supported by the appropriate allocation of labor, technology, and time to make sure record management occurs as it should do.

The allocation of those resources should be governed by the policies, processes, and procedures, and in doing so you will have established a system.

Throw in a little bit of auditing of that system on a regular basis with efforts for improvement, and your record management is well on its way to being top-notch.

But how exactly do we do this? And why should we bother in the first place?

Why is records management important?

records management importance

There are a host of potential reasons why you would want to exercise effective records management practices.

Let’s look at 3 in particular:

Best practice and understanding your business

The first one is probably the most underrated of the reasons why someone should implement a records management system.

By putting in place the necessary policies, processes, and procedures to maintain a records management system you’re enforcing a kind of quality control, or a quality management system – simply one which focuses on record keeping.

Quality management systems are very effective ways to run your business or organization. These documented systems help you achieve better results while also helping you better understand your own business.

It’s from this documentation that improvement can occur and that improvement can be holistic as it can be undertaken with the knowledge of the whole system in mind. Without the appropriate levels of documentation, it’s going to be almost impossible for someone to have that kind of overview knowledge of any organization, never mind a large one!

With effective record management, in particular, this can yield clear short-term practical benefits.

If everything is accounted for, tracked, and archived, then it should be possible to analyze those records at scale. We’re talking about the stats of your own business.

How much did x happen, how often did y happen? Etc.

With proper records management, you can follow the best practices of running a good business and reap the rewards of having a deeper understanding of your business, resulting in greater space for improvements.

Compliance with industry regulations

Every company has to adhere with regulations of some kind. I mean, all of us have to follow the law.

But the need to meet regulations goes even higher in select industries.

Here at Process Street, we have lots of customers from within the healthcare sector – from large hospital chains to small individual practices – and Process Street is able to act as an evidenced record that a particular process was followed at a particular moment in time.

These healthcare providers, however, need more than just that. The amount of regulations which need to be adhered to is staggering and, while they do help to keep standards high, can create a really challenging task for the person who needs to prove that these standards and regulations are being adhered to.

This is where effective records management is needed, as it would be otherwise impossible for someone to stand up to an audit and present adherence if the records hadn’t been collected and collated in real-time consistently for the months or year prior.

To be able to evidence regulatory adherence you need to keep on top of your records consistently. You need to have systemized.

Legal protection for your business

Much the same as above, you need to be able to show your company has been acting and operating in an appropriate manner if ever the bobbies come knocking.

It could be an external stakeholder like a client or supplier who isn’t happy with your services or demands greater payments for what you bought.

These purchases, in whichever direction, will likely have come with a contract of requirements or specifications. If you have the various records from shipment or arrival which align with the contracted product, for example, then you could evidence criteria having been met.

If you had followed an order processing checklist or completed a purchase requisition form, then perhaps those could act as evidence of what really occurred in case an outside stakeholder wanted to take you to court for a dispute.

The point is: records cover your back.

The 5 key steps to records management

records management processThe United Nations talk of a records management lifecycle. For them, this contains 4 stages:

  • Create/receive
  • Active phase
  • Inactive phase
  • Disposition phase

The idea here is that every single record ever created in your company goes through this lifecycle.

At some point in time, it is created, used, useful, then finished. That’s pretty much the long and short of it – entropy in your office.

However, just because every record experiences the same lifecycle, does not mean every record experiences it in the same way or at the same time.

A payroll record might live for about 2 months before it’s archived away, where a certificate of electrical inspection could be good for a year or 5. These are different records with different lifespans.

Moreover, not all records go to heaven.

If you’re a sustainable business then maybe you digitize and recycle every record you can find, or maybe you don’t but you’d like to start doing so. Or you’re just terrible at waste disposal and you burn your physical records every year at the interdepartmental barbeque. Either way, you’re going to be disposing of a lot of, if not all, records at some point.

The UN claims to keep around 5% of physical records generally from across teams.

So what are you going to keep and what are you going to throw?

Well, it depends how you set up your record management principles. Which is pretty much the answers to the following questions:

  1. How long do we keep records?
  2. What do we do with records?
  3. Where do we keep records?
  4. Who checks the records?
  5. How do we get rid of records?

For this, we’ll take some inspiration from Vital Records Control:

Create a records retention schedule

A records retention schedule is a policy which determines how long you keep different types of records for.

You look at all the relevant legal factors and try to work out what your need is for keeping records. For example, you might keep employee contracts for a really long time, even after they’ve left – but you’re hopefully not going to keep their health records.

In light of legislation like GDPR in Europe, you will also want to determine how long you can keep customer information. Some info will be classified differently – basic data or sensitive data. So you might have different policies for each of these types of customer data. The fact they bought a $4.99 spade from you can be kept for a long time, but not the personal information you pulled in when they logged into your site with Facebook.

So create your records retention schedule and make sure your system delivers on it.

Establish records management policies and procedures

This is pretty simple.

Now that you know how long different types of records can be kept for, you need to be able to embed that info into the day to day work of your company.

This may require both a) creating new processes and procedures, and b) adapting and editing old processes and procedures.

This is where you build your quality management system for records management.

A good place to start might be ISO 15489-1:2016 which you can buy via that link for 118 Swiss Francs.

Or you can subscribe to our blog and wait a few months until we’ve built out a premade template version for you which you can add to your Process Street account for free. Either works.

Assess and improve your database facilities

Databases are intimidating and often terribly underused.

What you want from a database in this instance is either the ability for you to pull a record up immediately or for someone else to be able to pull a record up for you provided you’re able to demonstrate you have access permissions for said record.

You need something which fits your organization and is capable of growing to continue to meet the needs of your organization in future. It’s tough, of course, as you might need to pull data from many different systems. So a proper plan needs to be put in place from the start; a plan which appreciates the future.

Some files you may be required to keep physical copies of – which presents a whole new challenge.

In these scenarios, you’ll want to either create a secure in-house storage facility or check out some offsite records storage facilities which offer scan-on-demand services for records.

Implement records management compliance auditing

Vital Records Control present the essential components of a records management audit as being:

  • Retention schedule complies with up-to-date laws and regulations
  • Indexing accuracy and accessibility of documents
  • Training and communication among staff and departments
  • Protection and preservation of records
  • Timely and consistent destruction of inactive files

This also brings us right back to ISO 15489, which you could use to self-audit to see whether you align with best practices:

ISO 15489-1 establishes the core concepts and principles for the design, implementation and management of policy, information systems and processes allowing people, organizations, governments, private enterprises and collaborative coalitions to:

  • Create and capture records to meet requirements for evidence of business activity
  • Take appropriate action to protect the authenticity, reliability, integrity and useability of records, as well as their business context, and to identify requirements for their management over time

The above is an excerpt from the blog post introducing the 2016 standards, titled Records Management in The Digital Age by Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis.

Determine a procedure for records disposal

Finally, you need to decide how your company is going to get rid of stuff. From VRC, you have a series of considerations if you’re looking for physical record destruction:

  • Determine the type of shredding program suitable for your media or paper records
  • Choose a company that is NAID-certified
  • Ensure all access personnel are background screened at the local, state and national level
  • Provide a certificate-of-destruction for chain-of-custody documentation

When it comes to digital records, it might be a different setup, but it’s the same set of principles.

Ideally, deletion ability would be a permissions based affair or one with even stronger security protocols, such as part of a privileged password management system.

How to build a records management process

A lot of this comes down to the utilization of policies and procedures – which is what we’re all about at Process Street.

So far in this article, we’ve linked to a few of our premade public checklists. Here’s a list of currently linked checklists and a few more:

Each of these processes above will generate a record of some kind. For the business tax preparation, we’re going to end up creating a series of very important records. These need to be kept and maintained.

So, one thing you can immediately see to do is to adapt your current documented processes to include reference to your records retention schedule and highlight specifically what the process user needs to do with the record in the process they are following.

That’s the quickest way to get your records retention schedule in action in your business.

But you need to be managing this from above – with a bird’s-eye view on how records are travelling through operations.

There are many ways you can approach this challenge, but I’d suggest creating a QMS mini-manual from a policy and procedure template. You can see the public template embedded below which acts as a template to make a mini-manual for the ISO 9000 standard:

And below again you can see an example version of this mini-manual completed as if representing the fictional marketing firm Brightstar Marketing.

These kinds of documents allow you to have an overview of all your processes while implementing and formalizing all your policies in the process.

If you draw one up, you could make it records specific or make it general with specification of records requirements for each process or section. The choice is yours.

Use Process Street to help organize your records management

Process Street is superpowered checklists.

You create process templates with a simple editor and then run the template as a checklist which it’s time to undertake the process.

This makes it incredibly easy for the process user to interact with and follow.

You can also connect Process Street up to thousands of different apps via webhooks and Zapier. This allows you to build automations to generate reports automatically from Process Street checklists or to take files uploaded into a checklist and save them into another storage system without any manual data entry.

There are so many combinations of different automations you could build, I don’t think it would be possible for me to explain them all!

But if your team is working from Process Street checklists, you can simply build your essential records management steps into the checklist so that they get followed every time without fail.

It’s as simple as that.

Sign up for a free Process Street account today to have a play around and see how superpowered checklists can fix your broken records management!

How have you overcome records management challenges in your organization? What were the most difficult obstacles? Let us know in the comments below!

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Adam Henshall

I manage the content for Process Street and dabble in other projects inc language exchange app Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, my current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h on Twitter. Subscribe to my email newsletter here on Substack: Trust The Process. Or come join the conversation on Reddit at r/ProcessManagement.

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