Quick Reference: Records Management 101

Published 01 February 2006

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Authors: Wei-Dong Zhu


This technote serves as a quick reference guide to help record staffs and administrators quickly locate the definitions of the basic terms and concepts used in the records management field. It also serves as handy study material for newcomers to gain an overview of some of the important concepts and terms in records management.


Companies that need to implement a records management system must have a file plan that hierarchically organizes all of the company’s records and links with their existing retention schedule.

To designate a document to become a record, you must declare the document as a record and classify it into the file plan.

After the document becomes a record, it may go through a life cycle that consists of one or more phases. Throughout the life cycle, a retention rule controls how long the record is in the phase. At the end of the record’s life cycle, the record must be disposed of.

There are several means of record disposition including accession, destroy (to carry out records expunging), and review. The disposition usually does not happen automatically. There has to be a process, commonly called records scheduling, to execute structured records review and disposition, usually quarterly or annually.

Whenever a court or regulated authority orders, companies have to go through a discovery process that requires them to search across all documents (whether they are records or not) and identify those that match the discovery order. These qualified documents then must be declared and classified as records if they are not already records, and placed on hold or suspension, such that the normal retention schedule and disposition would no longer be applicable during the process. Organizations performing discovery must ensure that they do not alter the original format or context of the documents, and that they can also deliver the records in some original or representative form. Spoliation must be avoided.

Note: To better help you understand the basic concept and terminology of records management, the highlighted terms are explained as follows.

File plan
A file plan specifies how records are organized hierarchically in a records management environment. A file plan is similar to a collection of containers; a container represents a holding place into which you place records related to a common subject or theme, or another container together. File plans are also for defining records security and retention rules (from the schedule) against containers.

Declaration is designating discrete information (for example, a document or an e-mail) to be a corporate record. Declaration and classification should always work together (see Classification for more information). Fundamental actions on records include locking them down so edit and delete rights are removed.

Classification is assigning where in the file plan to classify a record, which then defines, usually via inheritance, the retention and disposition rules on the declared records. This is achieved by assigning the records to a particular file plan component that has the retention and disposition rules associated with it.

Life cycle (Retention Rule)
Life cycle (Retention Rule) is a collection of phases a record must go through from the time it is declared as a record to the time it is disposed of. A life cycle can consist of one or more phases. Each phase specifies a certain duration and denotes a specific records management activity that must be performed at the beginning or end of the phase.

Retention schedule
Retention schedule, also known as retention rules, specifies how long a record stays (is retained) in a phase and when the record transitions to the next phase.

A retention schedule can be driven by time, event, or event time. Event time means that when a specified time has taken place after a particular event has happened, a record has to move out of the current phase and into the next phase. The time does not start calculating until the particular event has taken place (for example, the closing of a case or project or the termination of a task or employee).

Disposition is the last stage in the record life cycle where records are disposed. There are several ways to dispose of records: accession, destroy, and review.

Disposition option: Accession
Accession results in deletion of the record’s metadata from the records management application database. In addition, before the deletion, it involves permanently transferring (export) the record and its metadata to another authority that assumes responsibility and ownership of the record.

Disposition option: Destroy
Destroy is the confidential deletion of the records content and metadata. Electronic records are usually overwritten at the disk bit level, and the physical records are usually burned, shredded, or destroyed in acid baths. This is also called expunging.

Disposition option: Review
Review highlights the records at the end of their current defined life and enables the records staff and organization to review and possibly change the retention or period of re-reviewing the disposition of the records (for example, in a year's time).

Expunge or expunging
Expunging implies irrevocably deleting the records so that not even document forensics can recover any aspect of the records. This is a record term and it is carried out when executing Destroy as the records disposition option.

Records scheduling
Records scheduling is a process of structured records review and disposition. Generally, records scheduling is performed only once a quarter or once a year. This was the common schedule for dealing with physical (paper) records. Records are not being evaluated or actioned as candidates for disposition daily automatically.

Discovery is the process, usually when ordered by courts (and related to hold orders), of searching across all documents (whether they are classified as records or not) and identifying those that match the discovery and hold order. When filtered to remove anything under any attorney-client privilege or other classified restriction and following negotiation with both sides of the legal issue on the terms and issues to search on, the final documents results must be made records (if they are not already) and placed on a hold (so they remain until the end of the legal issue) and are also exported (maybe to a CD archive of some size in some agreed format) to opposing council.

A hold (also known as legal hold) is an action taken on records collections to ensure that they are not dispositioned as part of their normal retention schedule life and are kept possibly beyond their scheduled date of destruction. Records under legal hold are protected from any possible destruction until the hold is lifted. This is usually driven by legal discovery litigation needs.

Suspension is same as holding of records. When records are in suspension, the applicable records retention and disposition rules no longer apply. You cannot destroy the records while they are under suspension.

Spoliation involves deliberately deleting documents or changing the content of documents. This should be avoided. Organizations performing discovery must ensure that they do not alter the original format or context of the documents, and that they can also deliver them in some original or representative form. It is also avoided by aiming to apply the corporate retention schedule to information.

Special Notices

This material has not been submitted to any formal IBM test and is published AS IS. It has not been the subject of rigorous review. IBM assumes no responsibility for its accuracy or completeness. The use of this information or the implementation of any of these techniques is a client responsibility and depends upon the client's ability to evaluate and integrate them into the client's operational environment.

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