If you’re in business, you create documents.Whether they’re legal records, product plans, strategy memos, or even just records of meetings or casual brainstorming sessions, those documents have value to somebody somewhere in your organisation.
But without a document management system in place, that value can easily be lost — especially as companies grow.
An often-quoted 2008 IDC study estimates that an enterprise with 1,000 workers wastes between $2.5 and $3.5 million a year searching for — and failing to find — important documents.
Document management systems help organise how documents are created and what happens to them — who gets to view and edit them, who has to approve them, and where and how long they’re stored.
The old guard includes software from big enterprise vendors, like IBM, Documentum (an early pioneer bought by EMC in 2003), Xerox, and Microsoft’s SharePoint Server (which also provides a lot of other functions, like enterprise search and collaboration). These solutions face challenges from specialised companies like Iron Mountain and Hyland, open source competitors like Alfresco, upstarts from the printing industry like Xerox and Ricoh, and hosted solutions like KnowledgeTree.
All of these products have their strengths. But all document management systems address some basic problems:
- Creation. Document management systems describe and enforce how documents are created so that users can later find and get useful information from them. For instance, they might have consistent templates for particular types of documents like invoices, and define which metadata (descriptions about the document) has to be entered and where it’s stored. There is usually also a system of version control, so that changes by multiple users are all rolled back into the document and conflicts (like two people changing the same paragraph) can be resolved.
- Workflow. Often, document management systems offer a way to describe and enforce the flow of documents through different people — creators, editors, and approvers, for instance. There may be tools to aid collaboration as well, like simultaneous editing, shared workspaces, and links to communication software like email or instant messaging programs.
- Storage and distribution. Systems must have a consistent way for documents to be stored (for instance, in libraries or a single big repository) and retrieved (through a URL or via search, for instance). Most systems also let users or IT staff set and enforce policies on who can view and edit particular documents.
- Archiving. Once a document is no longer active, it may still need to be stored for compliance or other purposes.
- Publishing. Many document management systems have ways to publish content to the Web or an intranet site.
Smaller organisations may lack the IT resources or budget to install and maintain their own document management system, especially if documents are created more as a byproduct of the business than as its core (as in the case of publishing, for instance).
In these cases, outsourcing might be an answer. Most of the big document management vendors offer hosted solutions, and some, like Knowledge Tree, are online only.
It’s not as sexy as social collaboration or cloud computing, but without a good document management system, information goes to waste. In the information economy, that’s an expense most businesses cannot afford.
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