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What is a document management system?


A comprehensive look at document management.

Read time: 11 minutes

Document management systems make a lot of sense for businesses, especially as digital documents and remote work become how business gets done.

No matter where you are in your journey to find the right one for you, it’s very common to have questions. In this article, we aim to answer many of those questions:

  • What is document management?

  • What is a document management system?

  • Why do companies choose electronic document management systems?

  • What types of document management systems are there?

  • What features should you look for?

  • How do businesses use document management systems?

  • How to choose the right document management system for your business?

  • What questions to ask when evaluating platforms.

What is document management?

Document management refers to how you file, store, retrieve, manage, share, and secure your business documents. Often in business technology, the term document management gets used synonymously with document management system. This, however, misses the reality that if you are in business, you already have some form of a document management system.

For example, storing Word docs and Excel spreadsheets on your PC is managing documents. Using file cabinets to store paper documents is another form of document management.

With this understanding, we can see that the definition of document management is how you store all your documents, both digital and paper.

In the past, managing paper documents meant file cabinets, folders, staples, and paperclips. Today, it likely means those plus digital files like Word, Excel, PDF, image, and an assortment of others you use daily.

Of course, the challenge with digital files is organizing, and – once you’ve got a lot of them – making them easy for anyone to retrieve. That’s where a document management system becomes useful.

What is a document management system?

Generally, a document management system refers to secured electronic storage of your documents so that all documents – digital and scanned paper – can be filed, indexed, archived, retrieved, marked up, and shared via encrypted access rights along with system reporting to ensure compliance.

Many systems also include automated workflow functionality. You can preconfigure workflows or create them ad hoc as needed to speed a digital document through an approval process. In this way, documents move much the same way they did as paper. Only this time, they aren’t actually moving, making them more secured and easier to find.

When researching document management, you will likely come across the term enterprise content management (ECM). An ECM offers a larger range of features and integrations. For example, you might link it into your  customer relationship management (CRM) software. Document lifecycle management - where you manage how long a document is kept - is another common feature of these more robust, enterprise document management systems.

Why companies choose document management systems

A document management system provides many benefits for businesses.

  • Simplifies remote work. Paper can’t move from one home office to another at the speed you need it to. Files stored locally on PCs must be found, emailed, or uploaded to be shared. Working in this way minimizes productivity for everyone. Those sharing the file need to interrupt what they are doing while those needing the file must wait.

Document management systems eliminate this problem. The file resides in a single, secured repository anyone can reach from anywhere, meaning no more waiting and fewer interruptions.

  • Increases productivity. Whether your people work in the office, at the home office, or on the road, everyone can access the files they need, when they need them. Productivity isn’t just about getting more work done though. Sales representatives can get the answers they need while in front of a customer, speeding up the sales process. Automated workflows can accelerate processes like AP, increasing the speed by which you get paid.

  • Improves workplace safety. Digital documents eliminate the need to move physical paper, creating touchless document sharing. They also make it much easier to implement a hybrid workplace with a mix of remote and on-site employees.

  • Reduces paper usage. You will likely still receive paper documents and may need to print some too, but the bulk of office printing will decrease as a single digital document can serve the entire company. When everyone has access, there is much less need to create copies. And new documents can be printed directly into the system, for immediate use and access by everyone who needs to use it.

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  • Introduces better cost controls and budgeting. Less paper means you’ll use less paper, but the savings go beyond that. Digital documents mean fewer file cabinets and costs associated with filing and storing paper. You’ll have more available office space, which can be very helpful with workplace management of proper distancing today. You may enjoy reduced mailing costs common with sending paper documents. And as an application, usage costs can be better measured, tracked, and controlled.

  • Enhances business agility. Electronic documents move at the speed of the internet. They are also not bound by the physical limitations of paper or an office, meaning businesses can address customer needs faster, continue operations should the office be closed for any reason, accelerate completion of document-dependent tasks, and adapt quickly to shifts in the business environment – since everyone has access to the information and data needed.

  • Ensures business continuity. Vital documents are available to you and your team no matter where you are. Public cloud or private cloud (in your own cloud) implementations allow you to walk out of your office, set up in another location and keep working.

  • Disaster recovery. Digitally stored documents can be quickly restored from backup. If you use a cloud deployment with its redundant systems, recovery time and recovery point restoration can be immediate, depending on your implementation.

  • Information governance. Features like version control enable companies to track changes, document age, and document lifecycle. (Version control also supports disaster recovery and business continuity.) Having the documents in a centralized location also prevents multiple versions from existing in different areas, consuming extra server/hard drive space.

Cloud or on-premise document management system?

In the previous section, we mentioned cloud document management systems. While those are popular, they aren’t the only way to implement document management. There are two types of implementations: cloud and on-premise.

Cloud document management systems. These systems live and reside in the cloud, just like a lot of the applications you may use in your business and personal life. They would be considered public cloud applications, which only means they are accessed via the internet, not that your information is publicly accessible. All you and your employees need to access the system is an internet connection.

The benefits of this system include:

  • No need for onsite hardware.

  • No need for IT support.

  • No maintenance or support fees – only a subscription.

  • Secured access anywhere there is an internet connection.

  • Quick setup and configuration.

  • All data backed up in a secured data center.

  • Data center system redundancies ensure consistent access.

  • Ideal for both offices and remote work environments.

On-premise document management. This type of implementation means you purchase the software and install it within your network, whether that means on a physical server in your office or in your own private cloud environment.

Why do people choose on-premise document management?

  • Data security policy requires owning and housing all software within the company’s network.

  • IT staff and infrastructure are already in place, for the application, the backup, and for the connectivity, such as VPN for remote users.

  • Business preference.

Features you should expect in a document management system

As you might expect, different platforms have different features. There are, however, minimum features that you should expect to see in every document management platform.

  • Security & Access Control. Every system should require user login and have multiple levels of user rights access, i.e., Administrator, Manager, User, Read-only.

  • Meta data. Sometimes referred to as indexing, you can apply key data – that you define – to the document to simplify retrieval. This way, you don’t have to keep multiple copies in different folders. For example, you could search a client folder by contract number for documents related to that contract.

  • Search and retrieval. Rather than clicking through a file folder, you key indexed data into search fields (as noted above) and you get an instant list of all related files and documents.

  • Markups. Add highlights, redact copy, apply stamps, and more to documents either as an overlay or embed them into the file itself.

  • Workflows. You can build workflows for documents or even create ad hoc workflows to move documents through a standard process, just as you might in your office. These workflows can start at the moment of intake with an intelligent data capture or start once a document is moved into a folder. You’re likely to see a wide variation on workflow capabilities from one system to another.

  • Document sharing & collaboration. Send a document link to a co-worker or view a document with a team member in an office across the world.

  • Capturing and routing. Scan files into the system, drag and drop from your PC or email, or have them routed from third-party capture systems. In some systems, you can even create forms in the system that become individual, dynamic documents that you can fill out.

  • Business intelligence. This element refers to your access to critical business records, log reporting, and other reporting that enable you to use the data in your documents and gather information on how your documents are used.

How businesses use their document management systems

With so many features, how you use your system will depend on what you need most. Typical uses are:

  • For file storage and management. You and your employees use it like an electronic filing cabinet. You scan paper documents into the system and store digital documents. The advantage over traditional processes is how indexing allows you to pull the documents you want faster, from anywhere.

  • To drive workflows and approval processes. HR documents such as job applications can be reviewed, approved, and moved along – all while staying secured. AP/AR processes can be automated. You have almost unlimited options when workflows are available.

  • Forms/document creation. If your system offers this feature, you can complete forms which upon submission enter the document management system as a new document and can even initiate a workflow.

  • Remote work. Electronic document management systems make paper available to employees, wherever they are working.

Better workflows with a remote workforce

In this article, we share an example using an HR process on how you can achieve better workflows with a remote workforce.

How to choose the right system for your business

Choosing the right document management system starts with knowing what’s driving your need today.

  • Do you need a way to organize files and control access for remote workers?

  • Are you looking to move away from paper-based processes?

  • Is there a need for new workflows to address today’s work environment?

You want to identify your top three to five top needs. You should also determine how many people will use it. Is it for everyone to use, or will it be limited to a small group or department?

Next, ask yourself, do you want a cloud or on-premise system? If you are inclined to on-premise, you’ll want to consider whether you have the budget for new hardware (if needed), and if you have the staff to manage the installation.

Then, do a little research. You’re doing this only to determine which systems you will want to invest the time to watch a demo. You might find a few webinars online that show specific uses for the system. These can be a good way to get a foundational understanding of how the system works. During your demo, make sure to see how the system will handle your top needs.

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Questions to ask when buying a document management system

Even if a document management system looks perfect, there are several questions you should still ask, especially if you have a lot of files – paper or digital – that will need to be imported. You’ll likely have many more questions specific to your business, but these questions can help get you started.

  • How do we get paper files scanned into the system and indexed?

  • What is the import and indexing process for pre-existing digital documents?

  • Can you build workflow processes or ad hoc workflows?

  • Does this system meet my compliance requirements?

  • How many people can use the system? Are there any limitations?

  • What does the training and support look like?

  • What is the development plan for the product? (You want to make sure it will stay current.)

  • Does the product offer any integrations, such as with other applications or even MFPs through a product like Smart Integrations?

Document management today

The recent and dramatic increase in remote workers has made document management a top issue for many companies. Documents must be accessible but still kept secured. We know this has brought a lot of attention to systems like DocuWare.

As a business technology company, we have helped customers address their document management needs. See how document management could benefit your business.

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