A man throwing documents in the air

Most practitioners charged with leading the technology and infrastructure in the workplace find document management as a "very important" digital workplace technology, according to data in the 2019 Simpler Media Group "The State of the Digital Workplace Report." (Editor's note: Simpler Media owns CMSWire). More than 73% of them selected document management, beating enterprise search (66.3%), group chat/team collaboration tools (64.4%), knowledge management (63.5%) and mobile enablement (63.4%). Less than half of practitioners (42.9%) found artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning/automation as very important. They want document management before these other hyped-up technologies.

Here's the catch, though: only 12.6% of them said document management is working well in terms of effectiveness in the digital workplace. And that was last year, when workplaces didn't have to worry about the sudden, drastic onslaught of the work-from-home employees, which has risen to unprecedented levels due to the COVID-19 world health pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistic 2019 report, more than 26 million US workers had some form of work-from-home privileges as of last year, and that's only growing. 

So what about now? What can organizations due to ensure their document management practices are in check during the COVID-19 crisis that's going to leave employees at home for who knows how much longer?

Think of Document Management as Digital Currency

"Document management has been overlooked and under-loved for a long time," said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder of Deep Analysis. "Yet they are the systems where the most valuable and sensitive documents businesses create and use are stored and managed. Documents are essentially digital currency. If we lose or cannot find contracts, invoices and bills, then we literally lose money or businesses stop. Yet despite the critical importance of document management, few have invested well in these systems, fewer still manage them properly."

The move to remote work amid the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weaknesses of these document management systems, according to Pelz-Sharpe. He cited a case within the last month based on his research where workers, ordered to stay at home, were unable to do much of their work because they could not access the documents they need to do their job. In another instance, workers have been deemed "essential" and ordered to come into the office only because they could not otherwise access the documents they need to do their work.

Related Article: The State of Document Management in the Workplace

Thinking Strategically About Document Management

For all the talk of modernization and transformation, document management systems have been low on the priority list, according to Pelz-Sharpe. Legacy, on-premises systems still dominate, and their clunky and now somewhat antiquated controls are, in many cases, no longer fit for purpose, he added. "Moving forward, any organization should be thinking strategically about document management and how it should work and be integral to modernization efforts in the future," Pelz-Sharpe said. "I do, quite understandably, hear some claim that this can all be solved by moving to the cloud, but I think that is simplistic and doesn't really address the core issues."

Roles of System and Information Architecture and Information Governance

Ryan Smith, a former information management consultant who now works as senior manager for product marketing, OEM, for OpenText, said his advice for organizations thrust into the remote work environment with needs like document management, is that key decisions need to be made across three critical domains: system architecture, information architecture and information governance.

System Architecture Powers Document Management

System architecture refers to the technology employed to realize the document management program, according to Smith. Beyond content storage and organization, aspects to consider include remote access, secure collaboration and compliance management technologies, which are particularly relevant in work-from-home scenarios, he added. "Additionally, IT will need to balance costs with security and compliance while enabling an adequate user experience," Smith said.

Information Architecture Must Include Security, Compliance Balance

Architecture refers to the principles employed in the filing systems (i.e., taxonomy) that enable document management for an organization, according to Smith. "This includes the way sites, pages, libraries and folders, as well as metadata strategies and any file/folder naming conventions are designed and organized," Smith said. "Organizations must balance information security and compliance with general system usability and information findability when determining how rigid or flexible to make taxonomical standards." 

Information Governance Brings it Together

Information governance defines and enforces the rules of the road for documents under management, according to Smith. This includes, he added, where information is stored, who has access to it, how long it is to be retained, how it needs to be disposed of, as well as what processes and responsibilities are defined to ensure these rules are followed. "It is important to integrate information governance into the daily habits of employees so that it is a shared responsibility," Smith said. "However, it must be policed to an extent to keep folks honest."

"The good news is this isn't anything new," Smith said. "It has been my experience that the actions taken across these three domains are what drives document management program success historically. However, with the current situation the need to implement good practices across each is more urgent than it has ever been before."

Related Article: Tying Strategic Business Objectives to Information Management Strategies

Why Documents Are Integral to the Supply Chain

The current crisis reveals what some information managers have always known - documents are an integral part of the supply chain. Businesses critical documents all have a lifecycle, according to Pelz-Sharpe. It's one that often originates outside of the organization and will cross boundaries of customers, partners, suppliers and third party agencies. "We have the technology today for a 'new wave of information management,' but almost nobody has embraced it," Pelz-Sharpe said. "For example, we have AI to automate many currently manual activities at scale. We have blockchain to underpin shared information. Governance should not be a major issue. Much of that work can be automated intelligently. Most older systems can be migrated relatively easily and safely. Dramatically improved user experiences, plus the ability to safely and securely access anything, anytime, anywhere is widely available."

Start Focusing on Critical Tech Needs

The hope has to be that out of this pandemic, some lessons will be learned, Pelz-Sharpe said. Organizations need to stop focusing on sexy technology projects, and start focusing on critical technology projects. "However, the technology to fix these problems is widely available," he said. "What is missing has been the will and foresight to do something about the problems, and crucially the skill sets and expertise to analyze the business needs and to modernize approaches efficiently and effectively."

Build on Top of Familiar Tools

David Jones, VP of marketing for AODocs, contends the reason why many report that their document management systems don't work well is because many organizations take the "stick-based approach." They should, he said, use the "carrot-based approach." "By providing tools that people either already use or like using most, and then adding the document management and compliance pieces behind the scenes, users don't even know they're there," Jones said. "Building on top of tools that are already used in droves - think G-Suite - is a frictionless way to provide IT solutions to employees that apply document management and compliance principles without negatively affecting usability and productivity."