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Reinventing Document Management for Modern Business
Document management tools were originally designed to deal with static documents that emulated their paper counterparts. But as content delivery becomes increasingly dynamic and collaborative, document management must change as well.
Posted Oct 23, 2001
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The document is the default format in which organizations create, store and share knowledge. But document management systems that emphasize static publishing, version control and maintaining archives lag behind in today's increasingly digital and collaborative workplace.

Most early systems for managing electronic documents were built on the library model, with card catalogs and procedures for checking materials in and out. That system worked when electronic documents generally mirrored their paper equivalents. But as discussion threads, chat rooms and portals play an increasingly important role in knowledge work, the definition of a document is beginning to change. Instead of "document management," many vendors, analysts and customers now refer to "content management," shifting emphasis to the substance of a document instead of the form in which it is stored.

"A document is no longer just a piece of paper. It can be a Web page, an e-mail message or a screen displayed on a handheld device," says Mike Massey, vice president and general manager of Xerox e-Services, the company's consulting division in Rochester, N.Y.

According to Robert Weideman, vice president of marketing at Cardiff Software Inc., a vendor of business automation software in Vista, Calif., new document management systems must address modern business processes. "People scoff at the term 'paperless office,' but what is different now is that every worker is wired, and HTML, PDF and XML are pervasive," he says.

The Next Wave

Advanced document management, many observers contend, should move beyond storing and delivering static files to facilitating collaborative processes. Xerox's Massey asserts that an effective system should be able to capture not just the information within a document but the steps in its creation. Without a way to retrace the steps that led to a particular business decision, knowledge workers can't apply the lessons learned from one decision to the next.

Well-known KM proponent John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid, a Xerox PARC research colleague, suggest in "The Social Life of Documents," an essay originally published in 1995, that documents should no longer be understood solely as containers for content. They argue that information without context is of limited use and that document management systems should support the collaborative activities of communities of practice.

Whether or not you accept Brown and Duguid's assertions about the social role of document context, document creation has clearly become a collaborative process. Teams of content producers can now be dispersed across multiple locations. Many global enterprises spread the responsibility for creating and maintaining documents throughout their organizations. These activities require new ways of distributing and handling documents. E-mail is fine for sharing files, but it doesn't support real-time collaboration and typically isn't linked to a document management system.

Some vendors are getting the message and moving away from the indexed-repository model toward one that supports collaborative work. For example, Livelink from OpenText Corp. of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, now integrates project management and group scheduling features with document management. Similarly, iManage Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., has added discussion, calendaring and workflow tools to its document management product line, creating a collaborative platform called Worksite.

According to Susan Feldman, director of document and content technologies research at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., such repositioning represents a substantive change in these products. "Real-time tools make it possible for a team to work on all aspects of a document simultaneously and to develop a unified approach by having discussions around that document as it develops."

Management for the Masses

Specialized tools such as these require companies to invest in infrastructure, maintenance and training beyond that required to implement document creation tools. Microsoft Corp. is attempting to use these additional needs as a way to promote its SharePoint Portal Server and the collaborative tools found in its new Office XP productivity suite. "We want the tools used to create documents to be integrated with the overall system for managing them," says Gytis Barzdukas, Microsoft's group product manager for SharePoint Portal Server in Redmond, Wash.

Traditionally, document management systems are deployed only where there is a perceived need for precise tracking of information. For example, an R&D department's need to track the issuance of patents might justify the deployment of a separate document management system.

In contrast, SharePoint Portal Server is designed to take advantage of the fact that most companies are already using Microsoft Office to create documents. With SharePoint installed on their network, users can save and open documents using menu commands within Office applications.

In addition, SharePoint's search technology can use the version tracking and metatagging features already built into Office. Available in Office for years, metatags weren't much use in an enterprise setting because they didn't feed into a central document repository. SharePoint Portal Server provides such a repository for information stored across multiple data sources.

The collaborative functions in Office XP, such as the ability to selectively track each individual's changes, align content creation with business processes and relate them to the SharePoint document management system. For example, you may want to track only the changes your boss makes to a document. SharePoint automates the process of updating and logging the changes.

Seeking Common Ground

Ultimately, of course, an enterprise must decide whether its people--and which of them--need to manage documents themselves, rather than leave the task to system administrators. "In studies we've done at Xerox, we've found that only about 15 percent of the usage of a document management system is in the creation phase," says Massey. He adds that standalone document management systems, such as those from Documentum Inc. and FileNet Corp., involve too much overhead to be used just for providing access to documents.

Most systems cannot automatically reflect changes made to a document created through a collaborative process, says Rod Satterwhite, chief counsel and head of the knowledge management committee at McGuireWoods LLP, a law firm in Richmond, Va. He sees a need for such tracking, complaining of a "silo effect" that occurs when an organization stores documents in one repository and uses a different, often incompatible system for online collaboration.
"What most often happens in the legal environment is a lawyer drafts a document and e-mails it to a client, they make their changes, and then they e-mail it to me," Satterwhite explains. "I have to manually insert that document into the document management system with the changes."

McGuireWoods is using Docs Open from Hummingbird Ltd. of Toronto for document management and eRoom from eRoom Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., for online collaboration. Although eRoom has added document management capabilities to its latest version, Satterwhite sees this as a liability. ERoom's capabilities in this area conflict with the firm's document management system and those of its clients, and they are not robust enough to replace Docs Open.

As a result, for now at least, Satterwhite still has to manage documents manually. "You end up with multiple versions of documents from multiple players, and that defeats the purpose of document management," he says.

Satterwhite wants a way to tie the two systems together. The firm's IT department is working on correlating version control through eRoom's application programming interface. But even if that works, the problem of integrating with client document management systems remains.

Portals have emerged as a means of access to information distributed across various systems, but they don't allow knowledge workers to interact with information once they've found it. Satterwhite suggests creating a centralized repository that allows secure windows into each party's document management system. "There needs to be some standard that, regardless of what extranet or document management system you are using, can make them all talk to each other," he insists.

Toward Dynamic Documents

If the document should be a snapshot of a collaborative process, then the system that manages it must be able to adapt to changes in terminology and to the changing needs of document users. Basic document management systems collect discrete sets of information and organize them according to a corporate taxonomy and the metadata contained within them. But creating a taxonomy is complex, and the resulting structure can be rigid. To serve enterprise collaboration needs, advanced document management systems will have to update themselves automatically as contents change.

Furthermore, the elements of those documents must be discrete enough to enable customization. A document management system will have to understand which pieces might interest a particular person performing a search and be able to assemble a new document on the fly.

IDC's Feldman calls these chunks subdocuments. As an example, she cites medical studies, which include regularly occurring sections such as methodology, treatment and a list of references. "Suppose you want to pull out just the treatment section for 300 drugs and put them into something you hand new residents as they come into your hospital," she says. "Subdocuments could be pulled out automatically and integrated into a new reference work." Such a capability also could update particular sections as new information comes in.

The logical outcome is that a document no longer need exist as a single, discrete computer file stored on a hard disk. Virtual documents might instead consist of elements that reside in multiple repositories within an intranet or across an extranet. "An enterprise can write a paragraph about its mission statement that gets included both on its Web site and in its annual report," Feldman notes. "Being able to snatch a piece of digital content and incorporate it into a larger work makes it easy to assemble a document." Although that can be done today by cutting and pasting or by storing sections as separate files and reassembling them by hand, tomorrow's document management systems will automate the process.

The prime candidate for a universal means of tagging information that all document management systems, regardless of vendor, can understand is eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Nearly all major document management vendors, including Documentum, FileNet, Hummingbird and OpenText, are embracing XML and exploring ways to facilitate dynamic assembly of both online and printed documents.

Technologies, of course, cannot mandate human collaboration. But when interaction occurs, tools such as these will streamline the work that results in business benefits.

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