A complete guide to document management systems

Need a solution to all those documents you have in your business?

In many organisations, there are a lot of important documents that have to be managed properly. Suffice to say, document management systems do that and much more.

In the old days, office walls were lined with filing cabinets, but most businesses have since ditched paper filing systems in favour of digital document management systems. These software suites are used for capturing, storing, cataloguing and archiving all of the documents that pass through an organisation, but they're much more than simply digital filing cabinets.

If your organisation has plans to go completely digital, it will need to manage, share, and archive files in an organised way. Not only can poorly-organised files lead to slower processes and reduced productivity, but the speed with which organisations can locate particular files may also play a part in compliance with regulation like GDPR.

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Document management systems control and organise document across the business, and generally include document and content acquisition, workflow tools, document storage, output systems, and information retrieval systems. Modern document management systems also include integration with collaboration tools, as well as security and auditing capabilities.

Let's look at each of these in turn as well as the benefits it brings to organisations.

Document capture

Document capture is the process of converting a physical document into a digital file, often using some form of desktop scanner. This is essential for archival tasks - such as keeping digital records of expense receipts, courier waybills or employee payslips - and modern scanners will often have features designed to make this easier, like automated document feeders.

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Simply creating a digital image file is not enough for businesses, however. When a document contains text, optical character recognition (OCR) is used to extract it from the image and integrate into an organisation's information system. This allows users to search the contents of digitised documents for specific keywords, and allows document systems to automatically categorise documents based on their contents.

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There are a number of common formats for digitised documents; image formats like JPEG and TIFF are often used for documents that don't contain a great deal of text, while PDF is favoured for more detailed documents. The PDF file format includes a number of features that make it well-suited to document digitisation; text within PDFs can be highlighted, copied and edited, the file can be protected with a password to restrict viewing, editing and printing privileges, and it accommodates basic tags and sophisticated XML-based metadata.

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Digital workflows are also commonly integrated into document management systems, providing pre-defined stages through which all documents must pass. This helps streamline their use within the business process and means users and managers know who should be working on what and which person it should be passed to next. Users can be notified about tasks that need to be completed, managers are notified when certain stages are completed, and alerts can be issued when one stage in the workflow is taking longer than expected.

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This can be combined with various levels of automation to speed up common and repeatable business tasks, improving efficiency and productivity.

For example, if a purchase order for a certain product is submitted to the system, it can use OCR to detect the type of document this is, then send it to accounts to be logged. Once this has been done, it's then automatically sent to the logistics team to be packed up and shipped out. From there, it can be sent to customer relations as a completed order.

Document storage

Once you've digitised your documents, you need somewhere to store them. Document management systems should be able to store documents in a wide variety of file types, and should ideally include tools to manage where and for how long documents are kept.

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For example, some systems may draw a distinction between documents that are being kept mainly for archival purposes and those that are being actively shared or worked on. Archival documents can be stored in high-latency 'cold' storage, while documents that are still active may need to be stored in a more accessible location.

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Organisations can also use document management systems to control how long documents are kept for, and can use policy-based rules to automatically delete unnecessary files after a certain period. Security controls can be used to control who has access to certain documents to protect sensitive information, too.

Output systems

Document management is not all about getting documents into a system; you may need to get them out again in a format suitable for a recipient or end user. Output systems handle the extra processing, optimisation, distribution of the document. This can include integration with print systems, as well as file transfer mechanisms.

Information retrieval

Users may need to retrieve documents at a later date. Information retrieval is about making sure the right people can see the right documents at the right time. Indexing, retrieval and search enables users to find documents based on document identifiers, metadata and content.

Metadata is recorded alongside the document to help with retrieval. Such data may include the date the document was entered into the system and the identity of the user storing it, as well as what type of document it is. There may also be text extraction to generate keywords that can be used in text searches.

Collaboration tools

Users not only want to store documents; they will also want to work on them as well. Modern office suites like Microsoft Office 365 and G Suite include various elements of a document management system, but standalone systems will also generally integrate with a range of content creation tools. This makes importing documents into the system quick and easy.

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Security and auditing

Securing documents is essential in all document management systems. They can include rights management tools that enable administrators to permit certain people or groups to access specific documents. Organisations can also construct an audit trail to trace who has accessed information, including who might have changed, downloaded, or distributed it.

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If an organisation is audited for any reason, a document management system can help in retrieving the appropriate files quickly. It can make the cataloguing or information easy in the event of an audit, and can also be used to quickly roll back changes in the event of any mistakes.

Paper-based documents could easily be lost in floods or fire. Having a centralised document management system with files stored off-site or in the cloud makes disaster recovery easier for any affected organisation.

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