You’re creating more documents than ever. Managing them can be a massive chore

Document management has actually been around a long time. For example, the filing cabinet was invented back in 1893. While that kind of solution worked fine yesterday, today data is proliferating at an alarming rate, and everyone — including SMBs — is struggling to keep track of their paper and electronic files.

Most organizations have some structured data (in databases, for example), which they want to integrate with unstructured data (such as e-mail). And now a document is much more than a piece of paper — it can include electronic, audio or even video files.

A document management system can help you address the problem of unstructured documents.

According to a survey by Xerox Canada and Leger Marketing, 71 per cent of SMBs are afraid of misplacing electronically stored documents, but 66 per cent don’t have an internal document management plan or employ an outside service to manage their documents.

This is an expensive problem, says Xerox. On average, it takes employees more than one hour per week to find hard-copy documents at a cost of $2,152 a year to manage and store them. For businesses with more than 10 employees, this increases to almost two hours per week at $5,760 per year.

One reason for these charges is the up-front system costs. “When we look at traditional document management systems, they tend to be large and expensive,” says George Goodall, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research.

But small businesses have some of the same requirements for document management as larger enterprises, just on a smaller scale, says Goodall. Consider collaboration, for example. How many people work on one report or contract at your business? And if someone is using a dated or incorrect version of a document, what kind of problems could result?

Then there’s management. Contracts, purchase orders and invoices are all business records with real financial meaning, says Goodall. There are also compliance issues to consider. For liability and litigation purposes, you require a simple means of accessing your records.

And finally, there’s IT infrastructure management. The amount of unstructured data, such as e-mail, is growing at 30-40 per cent per year because people are creating more documents — and bigger documents, according to Info-Tech. This means businesses also have to scale their storage infrastructures by 30-40 per cent every year.

Focus on your key requirements, says Goodall. Are your issues related to document preparation and workgroup management? Compliance or litigation issues? Infrastructure issues? Each will have different applicable policies. From there, determine if you can institute policies that will get you 80 per cent of the way there. Only then should you look at your technology options.

One option is to build the capability into your existing network infrastructure to do things in a more structured manner. What documents belong where? Are there policies in place to manage where documents go? Are there people accountable for this? A second approach is to use some sort of portal functionality, such as SharePoint. While it doesn’t offer much in the way of management, it’s often a good first step, says Goodall.

A newer option is to go with a hosted solution, though as your infrastructure expands, you’re going to pay more. And you have to do your due diligence to ensure availability and confidentiality.

In a hosted environment, an SMB will ship documents to a central hub, where the service provider sorts the information, scans it and provides the SMB with a soft copy, says Bradley Hughes, research analyst with IDC Canada. While many larger enterprises are already doing this, it’s something smaller organizations can consider.

Bring in some expertise to do an assessment of your environment, he suggests, and find out how important document management is to your organization. How much money you could save? From there, decide if you want to start out small or go in whole hog.

The perception is that if you’re looking at a document management system, you’re looking at a very costly system that’s meant for large organizations, says Mohan Mailvaganam, marketing manager for office software solutions with Xerox Canada.

That’s not so much the case anymore, but while more tools are being developed for SMBs, remember that there’s no single tool that can solve all your problems. Instead, you should develop a strategy in conjunction with other products to create an integrated platform. Before rolling anything out, envision this strategy, says Mailvaganam. The first part of it should involve scanning, so you can start managing electronic documents. Software solutions can then help you bridge the gap between the paper and electronic worlds.

“If you let it fester,” he says, “(and) if you grow your business over a long period of time, you’re really causing more harm than good.”

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