Records Management Functionality: A Brief History

AdobeStock_67857687As I’ve noted here a number of times before, records management is a centuries-old, well-defined professional discipline.  Records managers have always provided the same vital service: we manage recorded information, regardless of media or format, through its entire lifecycle – creation, distribution, use, maintenance, and disposition.   While the tools records managers use have changed considerably over the years, our discipline has not.

Lately I’ve seen an uptick in articles and blog posts with questions like these: ‘Can I do records management in SharePoint?’ or ‘Is there records management functionality included in [insert content management product name here]?’

To be clear, SharePoint, Box, Documentum, FileNet, OpenText and countless other traditional (and less traditional) enterprise content management solutions are records management tools by definition because they support an organization’s efforts to manage information through its appropriate lifecycle.

To understand how the tools we use seemingly diverged from the discipline we practice, it is necessary to understand the evolution of the technologies that produced those tools.

In the early 1990’s, several products hit the market that managed the creation, distribution and storage of unstructured content such as Word, WordPerfect and PDF files.  These products were collectively called ‘Document Management’ applications and they quickly became essential enterprise solutions.

Around the mid-90’s a few small, enterprising companies noticed that document management applications lacked functionality necessary to manage their content through the final stages of the information lifecycle, namely ‘maintenance’ and ‘disposition.’  This meant that it was impossible to use native document management application functionality to categorize an organization’s records and apply appropriate retention schedules to them.  So several new applications were created that were integrated with the bigger ‘document management’ solutions to fill this functional gap.

Marketers looked at these solutions and labeled them ‘records management applications’ so they could market them as a unique product set completely separate from existing ‘document management’ solutions.

But, by the mid-2000’s, most records management application vendors had been acquired by the bigger document management application vendors, who quickly integrated their end-of-lifecycle functionality into their product lines, thus creating the first ‘Enterprise Content Management’ solutions.

Unfortunately, by that point, the damage had been done and the broader market for enterprise content management solutions would continue to separate ‘document management’ functionality (creation, distribution, use and some maintenance) from ‘records management’ functionality (maintenance and disposition) right up to present day.

So, the next time you hear someone ask, ‘Can I do records management in SharePoint?’, just tell them, ‘You already do.’

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