Think you need document management? You’re probably wrong
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Think you need document management? You’re probably wrong

Ernest Penland, Director, Document Management Systems, Virginia Tech
Ernest Penland,  Director, Document Management Systems, Virginia Tech

Ernest Penland, Director, Document Management Systems, Virginia Tech

It starts with a phone call, maybe an email, or, it could just be a hallway conversation with a colleague.  Their department has too much paper.  Too many processes pump out forms to be filled out, submitted, approved, signed, recorded, and filed.  Whole rooms, filled with filing cabinets, are dedicated to the filing of all these documents and you suspect other departments have the same problem.  It’s obvious; there must be a more efficient way!  As IT, it’s your job to dig the organization out of the mountain of Meade and into the 21st century.  It’s 2019, how are we still doing this?  Like many IT projects, there may be more to the picture than what you first see.  The request to embark on a new document management project might be telling you a lot about what your organization really needs than it first appears.

Document management systems store digital documents, often the scanned PDF versions of paper forms generated by other processes.  The technology has existed for years and is nearly ubiquitous now.  Chances are your organization has a few capable systems already.  Initially designed to reduce an enterprise’s reliance on paper, it’s now quite common to find the systems employed as cold storage.  They’re where your business processes come to die, submitting a ghostly digital remnant of themselves to the ether to be indexed.  The problem with this is that rather than driving us to become paperless, the systems have just encouraged us to become better recyclers.  Paper still exists and is surprisingly resilient in organizations.  Process efficiency gains from document management often happen on the backend of the business process rather than on the front because of the relative simplicity of integrating a system into the end of a process versus someplace else.  It is far easier to store the artifact of an existing process than to reimagine the process which means your efficiency gains are only in the subsequent document retrieval and you left a lot of potential gains on the table.  Often the very initiators of a document management project are even reticent to remove paper completely, citing the document’s criticality to the business process and their familiarity with it.  They simply want a place to store that PDF where they can reference it if required.  Why is that?  Today, in the age where you can finance a house online without ever touching a piece of paper, what is the purpose of a paper document and why would an organization cling to its paper? 

  ​Many document management systems come with some limited form of workflow functions built into them, but a fully featured BPM system can eliminate all but the most embedded paper processes 

When you consider the relationship between documents and business processes some unexpected concepts of the role of paper begin to emerge.  Certainly, in highly regulated industries such as healthcare or in very disciplined organizations, the requirement to keep strict control over document access and versioning become obvious, yet these are not the scenarios many of us will often encounter.  Many times, IT is approached with a process that has existed and evolved for so long that formal control over the operation doesn’t strictly exist and documentation exists only as a bullet item at the bottom of some well-intentioned employees to do list.  In those situations, the paper document serves a couple of critical roles in the process.  First, possession of the document represents the process’s current state.  The document is really a token that is passed around the organization, gaining signatures, approvals, and metadata as it flows through the business process.  Second, the document is the mechanism by which process controls are implemented.  Again, possession of the document represents control of the process.  Once the document is processed, data is extracted and entered into other systems.  Sometimes this happens as part of its entry into the document management system, but regardless, the important aspects of the document are almost always stored digitally along with the document as metadata or index information necessary to retrieve the document again later.  The metadata, it turns out, is the most useful part of the information stored in the document management system since the paper document is what enforced controls on the business process.  The metadata is the valuable result of the process, but the paper is the control and, for your document management project to truly bring value to your organization, it must assume the control the paper represented and that’s, strictly speaking, not document management but process management.


There is a better way.  When you hear a request for a document management project, take some time to explore business process management, or BPM, often known as “workflow”.  BPM digitally models your business process, often beginning as a web-based digital form.  Organization information from the ERP along with business rules modeled into your process will inform BPM on how to manage the various approvals and notifications needed within the process and it’s even possible to shuffle digital information off to data transformation or integration processes as it is collected or approved.  If you still need that PDF to reference once your process is complete, well most BPM suites can accommodate that and load it into your document management solution as well.  Most functional users are not well versed on BPM and its capabilities, but they do understand the need to get rid of filing cabinets and that’s where their document management requests come from.  Indeed, many document management systems come with some limited form of workflow functions built into them, but a fully featured BPM system can eliminate all but the most embedded paper processes.  When your users ask for document management then, ask yourself:  are they really asking for BPM? 

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