Aug 09 2019
Digital Workspace

What Is an Electronic Document Management System and Why Do You Need One?

As government records transition from paper to digital over the next few years, DMS software will become more critical than ever.

The federal government may store and maintain hundreds of years’ worth of paper documents, but over the next few years, everything is going digital

After Dec. 31, 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration will accept only electronic records from agencies. By the end of this year, agencies are expected to manage all permanent records electronically to the fullest extent possible in preparation for the 2022 deadline.

In June, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to agencies on the transition, noting that agencies must ensure that “records are created, retained, and managed in electronic formats, with appropriate metadata.”

Agencies with permanent records collections “need to think about either getting those records into federal records centers ahead of the deadline, or finding some way to do large-scale digitization of that content,” David Miller, director of records management services for NARA’s Federal Records Centers Program, tells FedTech

Part of agencies’ efforts to digitize paper records and store them in a manageable format will involve greater use of electronic document management systems.

What Is a Document Management System?

Simply put, document management is how agencies and other organizations store, manage and track electronic documents.

Document management allows agencies to “capture, track and store electronic documents such as PDFs, word processing files and digital images of paper-based content,” IBM’s website notes.

Document management involves the “use of a computer system and software to store, manage and track electronic documents and electronic images of paper based information captured through the use of a document scanner, ” according to the Association for Information and Image Management.

A document management system (DMS) is software that controls and organizes documents throughout the agency, and, as AIIM notes, it “incorporates document and content capture, workflow, document repositories … output systems, and information retrieval systems. Also, the processes used to track, store and control documents.”

As IBM notes, most DMS systems today include the following components:

  • Metadata is usually provided for each document, and includes the date a document is stored, its title and a description.
  • Indexing, retrieval and search lets users find documents based on document identifiers, metadata and content.
  • Security features protect documents, control access and support compliance.
  • Workflow lets administrators control the way documents flow through the agencies.
  • Collaboration tools allow users to edit documents at the same time, and track and monitor changes.
  • Versioning tools let users retrieve previous versions of documents.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how agencies are embracing document digitization with gusto.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Document Management System?

Agencies can benefit from DMS in numerous ways. Many agencies, especially large, federated ones, have documents spread across large geographic distances, in multiple locations and in different repositories, such as public or private networks, shared drives, hard drives, filing cabinets and email systems. 

“Multiple repositories and information silos present challenges. Organizations face higher risk of damaged or lost files, errors and redundancies,” IBM notes. “Paper storage may require significant physical space.” Additionally, without document management, the location of important documents may become lost if personnel leave an agency.

DMS helps agencies keep documents organized and easily searchable. “By instituting consistent, enterprise-wide use of metadata … and content classification and categorization (taxonomy), the effectiveness of searches (index and text) can be enhanced significantly and make possible searches across multiple collections of materials that are distributed across several repositories,” NARA says in guidance on evaluating commercial off-the-shelf electronic records management (ERM) applications. 

“Agencies should ensure that data taxonomy, metadata standards, and a partition in content in relevant collections are developed and implemented for their ERM projects,” the document adds.

Additionally, DMS systems “can integrate disparate documents for greater control, access and process efficiency,” IBM says, and they offer “significant advantages in terms of information retrieval, security, governance and lower cost of operations.”

Document management systems save time and money for agencies and help them keep track of sensitive documents and who has accessed them. This is especially critical for agencies that handle sensitive or classified information.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: See how agencies are moving toward digital records. 

Document Management System Platform Features

NARA’s guidance for adopting commercial ERM applications is based on the experience of the Environmental Protection Agency, but NARA notes that the principles set forth could be used by other agencies to evaluate similar commercial off-the-shelf products.

The process for adopting document management systems and other similar technologies is influenced by many variables, NARA notes, such as:

  • The size of the agency
  • Its approach to technology and ERM (centralized, decentralized or distributed)
  • Its existing technology infrastructure (as well as anticipated changes in the information architecture)
  • Availability of IT personnel
  • The skill sets required for development of an ERM operational strategy and ultimate deployment

The main steps to take when evaluating commercial DMS or ERM software include determining the agency’s requirements, weighing criteria and creating a scoring guide, evaluating and scoring vendor products, and determining the product recommendation and creating a final presentation to the agency’s governing body for making IT decisions.

The List of Document Management Systems You Need to Know

There are numerous options for agencies, including IBM’s FileNet suite, which the company says offers “lifecycle management, transactional content processing, document management, content consolidation, content based application development, and compliance and governance.”

Agencies can also turn to specialty options from smaller firms, including eFileCabinet, M-Files, Alfresco and more.

“Aligning ERM performance outcomes with your agency's vision, mission, strategies, and goals, and quantifying benefits derived from ERM to measure success, will provide additional material for the ERM team's communication with management and the rest of the agency as part of celebrating successes, discussion of existing challenges, and plans to overcome them with further improvements,” NARA advises. “This will reinforce the notion that the ERM project is not finite, but will continue to evolve as the needs of the agency change and functionality is added to the technology solution.”

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