For businesses already using SharePoint for document management, turning to it for records management seems like a natural next step. Using the same system for records and document management — instead of bringing in an additional system — can lead to cost reduction, better business alignment and better usability.

The key to a successful SharePoint implementation is creating a design that covers the entire life cycle of the record, from birth to disposition. This means that your solution will consist of much more than a stand-alone records center. 

Metadata, The Glue That Binds

Metadata is the glue that keeps your items together. 

Define a central Content Type in the Content Type Hub and have all site collections where your documents reside during their life cycle subscribe to the content type. This Content Type is both the vehicle for the metadata that the business requires and the retention policy. You now have created a centralized definition and management of both your metadata and your retention policies!

The success of your solution will rely on your applying metadata the right way. SharePoint metadata solves the classical records management problems like ordering, findability and interrelation of documents. 

Records Management Problem #1: Ordering

Ordering is a classical archiving problem — noted as far back as the middle ages — which remains an important question in many records management textbooks. The core of the problem comes down to: on which dimension will records be ordered — year, writer, subject, organization? 

SharePoint solves this problem with metadata fields for each dimension. By filling in every field, you can filter by any cross section you like. 

Records Management Problem #2: Findability

SharePoint search will let you find your item in the dynamic, semi-dynamic and static phase. If you want results from only one phase, add status metadata and refine your search results based on managed metadata. 

Records Management Problem #3: Interrelation of Records

Another classical archiving problem is the relation of records to each other. 

One of the 15 Dublin Core metadata elements designed to do just this is Relation, which SharePoint includes. More useful in the SharePoint context is referring to other documents by their DocumentID, a uniquely defined and centrally managed field. Using document sets also relates documents to one another. 

But even without specific measures, SharePoint search relates documents based on their substantial relationship, like a case ID or project number, if you have so defined them.

Records Management Design

Providing a one size fits all design for records management is difficult. But if we start with the assumption that records' life cycles consist of: 1) a dynamic phase (in which the documents are created and edited), 2) a semi-dynamic phase (in which the document are mainly read and rarely edited) and 3) a static phase (in which they play no active role in business processes, but need to be kept for business continuity or legal reasons), we can follow a common outline. 

The first phase can be filled in by a standard document library, in many cases as part of a team site. Collaboration is the keyword here. The semi-dynamic phase is also supported by a document library, but using a strict authorization regime and/or the items will be declared as in-place records. The static phase is best implemented using the records center.

Implement each state transition with the sent-to mechanism in SharePoint. Configure the destination in a way that complies with the corresponding requirements for that stage. The trigger for a sent-to can be manual (note: this does not work with in-place records), automatic based on a retention policy or driven by a workflow. 

Items sent to the records center arrive in a drop-off library. Configure rules in the drop-off library to send records to the right destination (a document library within the records center). Use content types or metadata values within specific fields as the basis for the routing decision. When the document library size limit becomes a problem, enable automatic folder creation. This cannot be used for document sets. But make this unnecessary by planning your routing properly.

A records center is still just a SharePoint site collection, so use this to your advantage. Make the most of the rich SharePoint functionality available to create great user experiences. For example, you can use metadata to create views, to group your documents based on case ID, year or customer ID.

Although SharePoint is not a dedicated records management system in many cases, it can be the preferred choice. Turn the fact that it is not a pure records management system, but rather a powerful DMS and collaboration solution, from a weakness into a strength.

Title image Patrick Tomasso