The term ‘document management’ has been employed by marketers to describe a broad spectrum of business functions including document scanning, version control, document retrieval, document creation, electronic and paper archiving, document retention, and more. Despite the multitude of definitions, at the core of a robust document management system is an indexing system that is configured to easily capture metadata attributes that map to a customer’s business process.
When introducing document management concepts to people for the first time, I recommend beginning the discussion with an overview of how metadata attributes are used to index documents. While the idea of indexing documents is new to many workers, the concept of structuring data for search and retrieval dates back centuries. As far back as records were kept, hand written documents such as birth certificates were stored in folders and boxes based upon an agreed upon structure designed for easy document retrieval. Shelves, filing cabinets, boxes and folders were used to implement a logical sub-structure system for bulk storing documents. An early example of the records storage process was used by governments for maintaining birth certificates. The storage of birth certificates could be maintained in a filing cabinet labeled by the Hospital’s name, in a drawer marked with the year in a folder named by the month. In the birth certificate example, Hospital Name, Year and Month are metadata attributes designed to allow for efficient document retrieval.
With the evolution of affordable shared file servers, everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. Workers are now producing exponentially more documents (thankfully most are electronic), yet the process of storing and retrieving the documents is similar to existing paper-based storage techniques. Despite the advances in technology, most businesses are storing and managing documents on shared file servers using folder structures that essentially mirror the paper filing process. With the paper-based birth certificate storage example above, would the storage and retrieval process be different if all of the birth certificates were digitally scanned on to a shared file server? Probably not. There would be a folder named Hospital with sub folder of Year containing a child sub folder for each month of the year. Within the individual month folders would be the birth certificate records with a naming convention like “social security number – last name.pdf”.
Digitizing manual processes can generate great efficiencies, especially with what I refer to as “sneakernet” – people running around retrieving and moving documents by hand. When a request is received for a copy of a birth certificate on a shared file server, a clerk would easily be able locate the original records from their PC instead of physically rifling through a filing cabinet. Storage based exclusively on a folder hierarchy fails when there is a requirement to retrieve information not represented by the folder structure. Imagine, for example, an immediate need to gather all birth certificates with Dr. Smith as attending physician over the last 9 months. If the doctor’s information is not associated with the folder structure or part of the file’s name, manually opening and reading through the content of all the documents throughout the storage system is the only option for gathering the required records.
When properly implemented, document management systems allow users to store documents in a logical folder structure while also including useful metadata attributes and full-text indexing capabilities. The combination of a logical tree-based folder structure and metadata provide users the ability to quickly navigate to documents or to perform detailed searches for the information they need. The additional metadata associated with each document generally allows for a flatter (fewer sub-folders) storage hierarchy meaning easier navigation and fewer misfiling of documents because the metadata attributes are displayed on the screen along side of the files as sortable column values. In addition, metadata attributes and full-text indexing allows for searching that breaks the bounds of a folder structure eliminating costly labor intensive searches when the search criteria doesn’t match the folder structure format.