Document management system success relies on proper scope

Document management system success relies on proper planning for the scope and needs of your organization -- not only today, but in the future, says consultant Steve Weissman.

It is fairly widely understood that successfully deploying electronic document management systems requires properly applying functions like check-in and check-out, version control and rollback when creating and protecting documents. The documents must also be available in whatever formats are required to deliver them in their respective media whether they started out on paper, as email text, sound recordings or some other configuration.

What often gets overlooked, however, is the need to do all of this in a way that can accommodate the scope and needs of your organization -- not only today but in the future, and as part of an overall content management program. Given the frequency with which companies buy one another these days, it is conceivable that yours might acquire another or be acquired at some point during your tenure. And when that happens, the document management systems in place right now -- if any -- likely will turn out to be insufficient, because it wasn’t implemented with the idea of scaling to embrace a larger entity in mind.

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One of the reasons this is so -- besides no one thinking about it -- is that “scalability” can be defined in so many ways that the issue is easier to ignore. For a lot of people, the term means simply the ability to throw more servers and more memory at the system should the workload cause performance to sag. From a technology standpoint, this certainly is one important characteristic.

And though response time -- to name one performance-related measure -- is something business users are sensitive to, it is far from a primary business factor.

Business factors affecting scalability
From the perspective of addressing the business need, scalability is less about the materiel and more about the work being performed. The factors that relate to and are affected by that work are more essential to the business; they will expand and contract in step with changes in the business itself. Because they will affect the burden placed on the document management system, that system must be able to size itself to the load.

This line of logic seems straightforward enough, but it quickly gets complicated when it comes to defining how that load is best measured. Typically, there are three ways to approach this:

  • By quantifying the number of documents the system is handling and will be expected to handle.
  • By quantifying the number of users the system is supporting and will be expected to support.
  • By quantifying and specifying the locations (homes, offices, countries, etc.) the system is serving and will be expected to serve.

Each of these can and will likely change during the course of any document management product’s lifetime, and it can be a real problem when, say, the document or user volume grows beyond the system’s capacity to handle it. Finding one with some built-in flexibility and the proper mix of contexts will afford a fair measure of future-proofing, and the exercise of scoping your context and selecting the most effective system is at the center of the scalability question.

Steps along the road
Preparing for the scoping project should encompass a few core research initiatives and some basic calculations to identify and estimate the kind of scale an organization should be looking at. Here are some examples:

  • The documents you need to manage should be identified, counted and classified, and the numbers of each type should be projected over the time the current or new system is expected to last. Parameters typically include age, type, frequency of use, whether those in hard copy format need to be converted to digital right away, whether they can be converted whenever they next need to be used or whether they even need to be converted at all.
  • A similar inventory and forecast should be prepared regarding the system’s users, not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of the roles they play within the organization. This is critical because some will place more importance on immediacy than image quality (e.g., sales reps submitting customer orders), while others might think differently (e.g., insurance claims adjusters needing high-resolution photos of accident scenes).
  • Geography-specific requirements should also be recorded and projected, for a highly distributed system giving users access from home or from their mobile devices will need different kinds of flexibilities and securities than a centralized system that permits access only from designated offices. Also, the laws are different around the world regarding where databases containing information about individuals must reside, so if you work for an organization that does business internationally, you might need a document management system that can support servers in multiple countries even if you run things from only one office.

Properly conducted, these tasks will result in a fairly clear picture of what your document management scalability requirements should be. Ideally, you would perform this work before issuing your request for proposal (RFP) so you can ensure that the RFPs you receive will actually address the needs that you have.

Besides maximizing the odds that you will end up with a system you will be happy with, this latter point also speaks to one last often overlooked scoping success factor: The ability to identify, qualify and limit the number of products to pick from. Simple Google searches will return long lists of possible candidates, and it is enormously helpful to be able to narrow that list by separating the wheat from the chaff according to some tightly defined parameters.

Steve Weissman provides guidance and professional training on content, process and information management. Weissman is president of the AIIM New England Chapter and principal consultant at Holly Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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