U.S. businesses generate more than 4 trillion paper documents per year and those documents are proliferating at an annual rate of 22 percent. Many small businesses are still stuck in the paper world for much of their daily work. Document management systems identify, capture, and store information to be later retrieved, distributed and exchanged. The paradox for business today is that even though these systems typically produce a return on investment within a year, the implementation process presents significant technical, financial and operational barriers.
There are enormous advantages to storing documents electronically rather than in printed form. They take far less physical space, are less susceptible to damage from fire and floods, and can also be easily indexed, archived and retrieved. Now that more small businesses have fast scanning technology built into their copiers, added software can create a capable document warehouse.
The benefits of a document management system include:
- Easy document backup
- Quickly find misfiled documents
- Fast document filing that integrates with other software packages
- No wasted trips to the filing cabinet
- Immediate document movement from one location to another
- Full visibility about where a document has hung up in a workflow
- Less error prone
- Faster form filing using pre-filled data
A document management policy is only as good as its retrieval performance.
The remaining challenge is to create and maintain document storage protocols that employees will actually use. While every business and every industry have different requirements, effective document management protocols share the following three key characteristics:
Clarity. The clearer the rules, the more likely they are to be consistently followed. Employees generate and receive a variety of documents, from emails to reports. Each business must make decisions about the documents to keep, where to keep them and for how long. Legal and regulatory requirements, industry-specific standards or internal guidelines surrounding ongoing and recurrent projects will influence these decisions. Once made, the protocols must be communicated to the employees responsible for managing the documents under their control.
In a health-care environment, for example, patient charts may be kept for the life of the patient or even longer. Deleting or destroying these records must be clearly prohibited, and office staff need a solid understanding of when to move inactive records out of first-line storage and into an archive. In a retail environment, receipts and other records of financial transactions may be batched chronologically by week, month and/or year and deleted/destroyed after the IRS-established deadline for retroactive tax audits. In this case, staff must be aware of the need to include all validation of financial transactions and what the target dates are for batching and destroying records.
Simplicity. Make the rules for managing documents as simple as possible so employees will follow them. With few exceptions, specific timeframes and document types need to be identified. In a construction environment, this could mean a one-year timeframe for keeping all drawings, purchasing logs, staff scheduling and payroll records and client correspondence for each project. In a real-estate environment it might mean transitioning all legal, marketing and inspection records of a sale into an archive 30 days after closing. A document management policy is only as good as its retrieval performance. Simple rules for storage will increase the likelihood that information will be stored appropriately.
Automate where possible. Almost all the threats to a competent document management policy are tied to human error. People make mistakes, they get interrupted, they forget, they wander from the procedures. Document management solutions that harness the power of automation are an effective way to avoid these threats. Automating the processes–from naming to storage–gives businesses the ability to standardize the way documents are created and retained. In a legal office, software can automatically prompt staff members to designate an archive or destruction date. A back-end archival process can collect and store those documents on an offsite server as part of the nightly system backup. A non-profit organization, for example, may add an automatic field to its online donations records indicating how long they should be kept; destruction would be tied to a recurring automated process based on the contents of that field.
While building a home-grown document management system is possible, businesses without an in-house IT presence can partner with a third-party to design and manage a customized solution. Companies like NPI Technology Management have the resources and experience to apply best practices to Document Management.