Modern businesses are awash with information, ranging from lengthy legal or financial documents, lists of customers who have made purchases in the past six months, brief internal memos or copies of invoices. These come in two basic forms - structured (data typically held in databases) and unstructured (Word documents, PDF files, paper documents etc.). Whilst the handling of structured data is well established, storing and accessing unstructured information poses a number of problems for traditional IT systems.
This is where a document management system (DMS) steps in. Essentially it provides a solution for addressing the wide range of unstructured information that a business typically generates and gathers.
This can be in the form of electronic documents such as word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, PDF files and emails through to audio and video files. Equally it can be the paper-based documentation that a business might generate or receive. It does this through the use of a document scanner, used to convert paper documents to a digital format, and indexing software which ensures that the scanned document can be located easily once it has been stored.
Importantly, document management also provides a business with the capability to link together the scanned and electronic documents, and enable them to be accessed by a common ‘key’ such as a customer number (e.g. an electronic invoice might have a paper-based purchase order and a PDF version of a contract associated with it, all of which need to be related).
There are a range of business benefits frequently cited for DMS, including:
- Reduced storage space and associated costs - the cost for filing cabinets and office space to store them can be significantly reduced through low-cost data storage.
- Improved access and efficiency - once a document is scanned, it becomes accessible from any computer by any authorised member of staff. Documents can be shared and routed automatically and tracked as they move from one person to another.
- Improved document search – there is greater flexibility in searching for and retrieving the required document(s), particularly through the use of full-text indexing and full-text search capabilities.
These systems can also ensure that sensitive information is not shared with anyone who doesn’t have the necessary access rights, track how often a document is accessed and by whom (more on this later) and remind users when they are due to update or review a document.
The role of digital dictation
Digital dictation is often the starting point for many of the documents that are ultimately stored in a DMS. Audio files are sent through to internal support staff or external service providers for transcription and the resultant documents circulated internally or sent out to clients, patients, business partners etc. Both of these can then be filed and indexed in a way that will make it easier to retrieve them at a later date.
Through its indexing capabilities the DMS can link files that might otherwise take many hours to locate. For example, as a result of a dispute there may be a requirement to find a contractual letter, the original audio file containing the dictation which generated this, a PDF file that was referenced in the letter, and an email exchange discussing the contents of the letter. In many working environments this could prove to be a lengthy exercise, but the DMS can provide a simple and efficient way of achieving this.
Control and compliance benefits
DMS can also provide the authors using digital dictation software with a number of significant benefits in terms of how their documents are controlled and managed once they have been stored:
- Version control: As the name suggests, version control is used to manage or control different versions of a document as it goes through the authoring and approval process. A document management system can track edits and provide a document history. The result is that one document is stored, incorporating all of its versions, in one location, so that all of the changes can be clearly seen and members of staff always have access to the latest version.
- Audit trails: Linked to the above, document management systems incorporate audit trails that can track every change to a document throughout its lifecycle, including who made what changes, when, and in what sequence.
- Compliance: One of the benefits of establishing audit trails is that they are invaluable in demonstrating compliance since an organisation is able to authenticate the validity of information stored and demonstrate it is adhering to industry-related regulations and requirements.
And finally, we should not forget the ways in which the integration of digital dictation solutions and document management systems can assist the growing number of hybrid workers. Such workers are required to create, check, approve and access a range of business documents irrespective of their location. Dictation systems can facilitate the production of such documents, whilst the DMS will ensure that the authors and their colleagues will always be able to access and work with the most up-to-date versions of documents.