SharePoint as a foundation for Records Management and eDiscovery

by Megan Sproles

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The term “e-discovery” gets thrown around a lot, and generally the perception is “we should do something about records management before we get sued.” While it’s true that there are companies that provide services to bring your business systems into compliance for records management, legal liability protection, and to prepare for dealing with e-discovery, the truth is that these are not “all or nothing” concepts. Even while you perhaps evaluate packages or solution providers, there are steps your business can be taking to improve your situation. If you are running SharePoint then you already have a lot of the tools you need in-house.

What is Records Management?

First, of course, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page:

  • Records Management: managing specific documents, which are considered the records of the business. Defining which documents are records is often half the problem, but once defined, there needs to be a structured multi-stage life cycle defined for the documents – when they will be archived, and when they will be destroyed.
  • e-discovery: this is not strictly speaking a certification for how documents are stored, but is more concerned with the ability to identify and deliver documents in answer to legal procedures. Of course one would hope these are rare, but the reality is that many businesses have to frequently produce documents for litigation. The goal of e-discovery is to reduce the administrative workload in complying with the request while still satisfying the legal requirements.

 

The primary concern with both e-discovery and records management is governance. Your business must have the policies to properly handle your business records and documents. Where this generally falls apart is in enforcing the rules. The problem isn’t that employees try to break the rules — it’s just that often complex or difficult rules can get in the way of getting the job done, and so they end up being ignored. Automation was supposed to solve this problem, but often creates more of a problem than it solves.

When “Good Enough” is Good Enough

Business records must be stored in an organized, managed manner. Records that are stored must also be either archived or destroyed at established times or milestones. Full compliance with various legal aspects of e-Discovery and/or records management require business review and possibly technical customization from an experienced partner. But taking care of the basic concepts is absolutely manageable by any business. Cleaning up document handling and record keeping using SharePoint’s existing capabilities will serve your business both in day to day operations and in the event of an audit or compliance review.

More senior SharePoint users are familiar with features like managed metadata and workflows. However not many businesses are using the advanced capabilities that SharePoint offers which can be quite powerful with the proper policies and governance in place:

  • Enterprise Content Types allow managing business documents in a standard way across the organization
  • ​​Retention Policies can prevent the shared drive buildup of documents and content by putting standard archive and expiration policies on content types. This ensures that legal documents are retained as necessary, but standard working documents are cleared out at a reasonable pace.
  • Document Sets provide a way of tracking a collection of related matter as a single unit, applying policies to all documents within the set in a single transaction.
  • ​​Document IDs enable SharePoint to assign a unique ID code to every document, making it easier to track and identify the document even as it is moved to different libraries or even different sites.
  • SharePoint’s Content Organizer feature provides a way to route documents based on content type and tag values. For example while all contracts are routed to purchasing, contracts tagged as being over $5,000 in value might be routed to the legal department first for review.

 

SharePoint also has a robust document conversion engine, so even though various documents may arrive in various formats, they can be filed in a uniform format. This feature is somewhat more advanced – the engine to perform the specific conversion must be available. However this document conversion is an open API, so it is possible to customize a conversion engine that, for example, extracts specific information from files and tags the destination file with the information.

Summary

To reiterate – for a proper Records Management program or eDiscovery preparation, a business should always seek the advice of a certified expert to implement the structure and business rules necessary to ensure legal and financial compliance. However, until that full process becomes necessary or mandatory, SharePoint can certainly provide the tools and framework to better organize and manage business documents and records.

 

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