How to get the most out of document management

Someone working on digital documents on a laptop
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Document management isn't a sexy new idea. It's at least as old as computing itself: as a child, I remember asking my parents why they needed so many little keys on their office keyrings, and getting the answer that these were for their individual, lockable output trays on the various printers and copiers they used.

The documents they handled were so sensitive that even a casual bit of misfiling could spell disaster - and individual secretaries were, even then, becoming anachronistic. So their employer had invested in a complicated, state-of-the-art copier that could keep track of who was making each copy, and deposit each user's prints securely into their own personal out tray.

Some years later, I happened to meet a programmer who had worked on the Post Office's OCR project - a project which transformed the business of letter sorting by electronically reading handwritten postcodes and turning them into those little blue dots you used to see printed on the outside of the envelope. It was a necessary evolution, he explained, as the number of letters being processed was outstripping the availability of workers to route the mail by hand.

Like the locking trays, those blue dots were reflections of the supreme importance of pieces of paper - and the growing difficulty of managing them. From one perspective, you might say that the Rise of the Machines began in the 1970s as a direct expression of the need for document management.

That's not to say that it's ancient history. Document management remains crucial in the 21st century. For sure, it's become something much broader than simply keeping track of sheets of paper: the QR code on your smartphone that lets you board a plane is a document, just as much as a letter from your landlord that lets you move into a new office. But the old issues - too many eyes on one type of document, not enough on another - remain as prevalent as they ever were.

All that's changed is that the modern equivalent of the lockable-tray copier has to deal with those who carry their sensitive data around on an iPad rather than in a cardboard folder (and who don't necessarily understand the limits of security when it comes to Wi-Fi printing). Indeed, there's still much to be said for the lockable paper tray, as a metaphor if not a reality. It may go against the optimistic precepts of certain computing gurus, but it's a practical solution to an everyday problem - and that's what document management is all about.

Paper trail

Small companies tend to assume that their workflow is too simple to justify investing in anything more than a filing cabinet or two. But even if you don't need to do much in the way of actual managing, technology can help. One of my old clients, in the course of a deal, ended up holding some sensitive documents that were (even by the standards of these things) very long. It rarely needed to refer to them, but had to retain them securely - which meant dedicating two full-height office cupboards, in a room with a locked door.

As you can imagine, the mere process of scanning in all this paperwork yielded huge rewards. The data was downsized into a single locked drawer, allowing the company to situate two additional staff in the room that had been freed up. In consequence, it ended up increasing its turnover by about a quarter of a million pounds a year.

That might sound like a special case, but that's the nature of the beast. Talking about document management in general terms has always been a challenge, because it's in the narrowest, most specialised roles that the technology most visibly pays for itself. Those who really need a lightning-fast write-once storage subsystem already know it; with the more generic stuff, like a simple scan and store process, it can be harder to point to exactly where the benefits are going to justify the investment.

Indeed, I come across plenty of businesses that are suspicious that costly document-management projects are scams or rip-offs. (Then again, that's not unique to document management - such accusations come up with IT projects of all kinds.)

Factor in a general perception of document management as simple and old-fashioned, and it's easy to understand why companies baulk at spending money on something that "ought to be easy". But even if we accept that some aspects of the technology are simple and old-fashioned, that's no bad thing. It's a classic geek mistake to think that every modern problem needs a rarefied, compute-intense solution.

Get the hardware right

You might assume that document management starts with a scanner, but it's nigh-on impossible to do rational document management if your printers aren't up to the job. If something starts out as paper, there's a good chance it's going to get printed out again at some point; we may want to save the environment, but people are more comfortable clutching a nice physical piece of A4 than referring to a digital representation of it.

Indeed, you should probably proceed on the assumption that people are going to print more than you bargain for - and the same applies to scanning. I've had arguments with companies who simply refuse to believe the figures for numbers of pages ingested per day into their document management systems.

In short, the best advice is not to skimp on the hardware, even if the initial cost seems higher than you'd hoped. Depending on your needs, you may be able to save money by investing in a big multifunction office printer with its own ADF, so it can tear through big scan jobs in minutes or seconds. By all means, test your procedures with a slow, clunky 29 inkjet MFP before you roll them out, but realise that thousands if not millions of sheets of paper are likely to pass through them before you next come to review your document management needs.

A few more practical points: if you expect to scan lots of big documents, scanners that move the paper past the head, rather than the other way about, are normally much faster.

(Read the PC Pro buyer's guide to desktop scanners in issue 278, p92, where you'll see reviews of Brother, Fujitsu, Plustek and Xerox machines. Or jump to the A-List on p18.) If you need to digitise lots of bound documents, camera mounts can grab high-quality snapshots while you turn the pages by hand.

Keep the goal in sight

The ambitions of document-management have expanded a long way beyond those early lock-boxes. One currently fashionable idea is seeking to connect together the many different apparitions of a customer across your diverse products and systems. The benefits are obvious, but if your CRM is in the cloud, your email server is 8,000 miles away, and your document scans are right beside you, it becomes quite a major project. Ask yourself whether it's worth the investment: you may well find that you're dealing with Pareto's 80/20 rule, as 80% of the data you're storing could well end up sitting dormant for the entirety of its retention cycle.

Indeed, while the benefits of document management may not all be obvious, there's much to be said for keeping things simple. As I've mentioned, it's an easy mistake to try to push the technology out of its comfort zone, and beyond what's really advantageous to your company. Keep focused on the practicalities and you won't go far wrong.