Monday, April 1, 2013

What's a "normal" document management system?

I’m writing this post because, today, I read an interesting debate on LinkedIn which started with the question, "What is a normal DMS?" (in the Document Management System group).
Even though the group is for professionals who work in document management, it’s surprising how difficult we all find it to define some of the basic or fundamental functionalities which a document management system (DMS) should have.
The debate arose from a question a client asked a sales representative from a company that offers document management solutions for a particular sector. Maybe what the client really wanted to know is what their vertical product offered, compared to a traditional document manager. The problem is that nobody really understands what a “normal” document manager is (or should be).
Some people answered that there wouldn’t be one concrete answer to this question, that you would have to delve deeper into what the manufacturer understood as a “document” and what is understood by “management”.
Others said that the functionality of a document manager would depend on the size of the client and the price of the product.
The people who tried to be more concrete talked about functionality in terms of work flows, storage, document retrieving, document history, pre-visualization and security, among other characteristics.
My own opinion is that there are a minimum of characteristics that make a DMS a DMS, rather than just being a file system or an online file-sharing system, or other systems or services that clients can come to interpret as being used in a similar way.

In the first place, I believe that the participants in the debate forgot about one key point: collaborative work.
A DMS is a system that’s been created for human teams, not for individuals.
A document management system isn’t meant to simply store documents. Each employee can store documents on his or her own local disk. The problem is that storing on a hard disk is going to make it harder to let teams work together. Even if they used shared folders or file servers, sooner or later they’re going to encounter problems like duplicate content, difficulty in finding what they’re looking for, losing work when files that many people are working on are overwritten by the collaborators (to give but a few examples).
Storage in the document manager increases the amount of control we have over content, but it’s not the fundamental functionality, that's not what client is really looking for.
Okay, you’re saying, but wait a minute: teamwork can still be carried out using any kind of file-sharing system, such as DropBox.  We don’t completely agree. The possibilities for collaborative work on file-sharing platforms leaves out functionalities such as revision and approval workflows, creating notifications when document content has been modified; creating collaboration-based documents like forums, wikis and blogs, creating notes on documents, controlling the entry and exit of documents (to guarantee that users don’t overwrite content that’s been modified), etc. Truth is, this type of platform is centered on the functionality of “sharing files,” just as its name proclaims.But there are more things that make a DMS a DMS.

Second Key Point: Complete control of metadata and document types
Businesses usually have document classification types, with document types which are key for the functioning of their business and which don’t have anything to do with a MIME-type classification of the file. These types of documents also require that support for certain specific data be included so that they can be described (metadata), and which go beyond the name and the type of file. A DMS has to be capable of not only providing support for metadata and types of documents: it also has to be capable of using this information when it comes time to recover content (supporting advanced searches and categorizations of agreement with metadata.) To this, the management of the life cycle of each type of document should also be added.

Third Key Point: Access security
This implies having the possibility of managing users, granting permission, connecting with business directories, etc. A DMS should have been thought out to guarantee that business-critical information stays under the strictest security controls. This, in fact, is one of the sharpest criticisms leveled at file-sharing platforms.

Fourth Key Point: Security of the contents
Knowing everything that’s going on with a document is mandatory with a DMS system (knowing who created it, who has edited it, who erased it and who’s consulted it). It’s not enough to create versions; you need to be able to restore them and consult them. In order for there to be security for the contents, we also have to talk about the ability to create outlines for the content, so that we can know the history of what’s been done to each document.

Fifth Key Point: Possibility of integration with other kind of ECM systems.
To consider something to be a real DMS system, it should offer integration support with other ECM tools like DAMS (Digital Assets Management System, for handling audiovisual content), document apture solutions, records management and the likes.

I’m surely forgetting specific functionalities, but I believe that this five groups of functionalities are the fundamental pillars of any document management system.

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