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What is

Document Management?

The guide to document management

Document Management Definition

Chances are, you already have some form of document management — even if you’re not calling it that. Digital Document management is using software to organize, manage, and track your business’ files. This includes every stage of the document lifecycle from drafting, sharing amongst colleagues or clients, conducting reviews and approvals, and saving the final version to a central location for business-wide visibility.

When it comes to how documents are organized, there are two schools of thought. That’s using either folder structures or metadata. Folder structures are the more traditional approach and will be familiar to anybody who’s used their file explorer to access documents. Going this route means documents are organized under a series of folders and sub-folders, creating a clear hierarchy of information. Folders and files are considered intuitive to use and helpful in situations where you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and want a snapshot of files for a client or team. Metadata doesn’t follow the same hierarchy and instead uses descriptive information linked to files to tag documents. For example, information like titles, dates, client names, and keywords can be used to search for and retrieve documents. This method makes files highly searchable and has the benefit of being able to categorize a file under multiple tags instead of a single folder. However, it relies on everyone tagging consistently and knowing what to search for.  

What is a Document Management System?

Document management systems standardize document workflows and provide easily repeatable processes at scale. Think of all the document admin that you do throughout the day: Creating standard documents, generating folder structures/tagging files, and requesting documents. When done manually, these everyday actions take up much more time than necessary. To keep time spent on these tasks to a minimum, a document management system (DMS) will often have purpose-built features and integrations. For example, a standard DMS will feature a client portal, text search, and email management and filing built in while also integrating with practice management apps.

Document management systems can often be tailored to a specific industry to suit the workflows and apps of that niche.

Here’s a breakdown of what that looks like:

  • Engineering document management systems
    • Engineering firms require the ability to handle different file types so designs can be stored in the same location as related documents. Engineers may have a preference toward cloud document management systems as they provide remote access for on-site visits, making it easier to record information and update details on the go. Having these features at the ready increases the likelihood of projects being delivered on time.
  • Legal document management systems
    • Any document under review in a law firm must have an audit history detailing the changes that have been made. Many firms require document templates that can be updated with client information. This protects the reputation of the firm by preventing costly data entry errors and allows lawyers to delegate to lower-cost staff.
  • Accounting document management systems
    • Accounting document management systems add value to a practice with security features to safeguard sensitive financial information. They also integrate with the accounting apps in a practice’s tech stack to remove the hassle of double handling information. With the right document management system in place, accounting practices can maximize their billable hours.

Regardless of which industry you operate in, document management systems are designed to centralize key business information and save time on manual workflows.

How Does a Document Management System Work?

A document management system covers three key functions:

  1. Document capture
    Like the name suggests, document capture is the process of gathering documents from different locations. A common example is transferring paper documents to a digital format so that businesses can keep  their continuity when moving to a DMS. Document capture can also refer to saving emails so that  businesses have all the context from their interactions with clients. Captured documents then undergo indexing where information such as file type, creator, date last modified etc. are applied to them for easier sorting and identification.
  2. Document storage
    Document storage is where all documents are eventually saved and accessed from. More specifically, it’s where institutional knowledge and client information is organized and made available to your team. The flip side of storage is document security. If files are all being accessed from the same place by a number of staff members, the platform holding them needs to be secure. The first measure in place is data encryption, which locks documents until the appropriate credentials are given (e.g. until a staff member has logged in). This is followed by access controls which allow administrators to choose which staff can access particular files.
  3. Document retrieval and sharing
    Businesses with thousands of files need efficient ways of finding the needle in the haystack. Document retrieval uses features such as full text search to provide instant access to documents which can then be shared with colleagues and clients. Document management systems offer these end-to-end workflows so staff members can draft, review, and share documents all from a single platform.

Cloud Document Management

It’s reported that by 2025, 85% of organizations will be cloud first. This falls in line with the larger trend of cloud adoption which has transformed the way businesses operate. These days businesses can access their information from anywhere. All that’s needed is an internet connection, a browser, and access rights. As a result, cloud based document management systems have become an essential tool to increase efficiencies and cater to new ways of working. That includes the 58% of the American working population who are able to work from home for all or part of the week according to a McKinsey survey. In comparison, on-prem technology doesn’t provide the same flexibility — unless you also invest in remote availability (e.g. VPN) connection for each of your staff’s devices.

An advantage of cloud based document management is that it absorbs the cost of IT managed services. With on-prem document management, it’s common for the business themselves to be responsible for server maintenance whether that’s doing the work yourself or supervising an external vendor. When your DMSdocument management system sits in the cloud, your software provider tackles all of the maintenance, updates, and support tickets from your team.

Another key benefit is the security of the cloud. Contrary to popular belief, cloud data is much more secure than on-prem. For starters, the data is encrypted and stored in data centers which don’t have the same vulnerabilities physical servers do. Cloud providers also have a 24/7 security operations center (SOC) that’s constantly monitoring and investigating potential cyber threats. This level of protection is vital given that working from home has increased the frequency of cyberattacks by 238%.

Cloud based document management helps bridge the gap between the office and home by providing flexibility for staff and top-of-the-line security.

Document Workflow Management

Improving your document workflows will help you save time throughout the week and comfortably manage compliance. 

A common example is the process of document approvals. This is simply an agreed upon way in which documents are received and reviewed.  In other words, the steps that need to take place before documents are either submitted to clients or published internally. A document approval workflow involves assigning colleagues a file to review so the sender has visibility over their progress. This shortens the window from submission to approval. 

Another important but fairly mundane workflow is document retention. This is a compliance standard which requires filing documents and securely disposing of them. Covering all the bases requires an efficient system for storing and maintaining your documents. A proven method for document retention is to create folders with labels such as “Personnel Records” or “Invoices” so that you can quickly find the information you need when you need it. Once that’s set up, you need a way for clients to upload files directly to their folder. This could be a client portal that’s linked to your document management system. Having this measure in place takes away the burden of collecting and saving documents from staff.

Document Management Benefits

Document management systems are designed to save time by standardizing and automating all the document admin tasks that businesses grapple with day-to-day. Here are some key benefits you can expect from implementing a DMS:

Standardized document workflows and easy file navigation

  • It’s not uncommon for staff to get lost amongst duplicated folders or be unable to access a file that’s kept on an individual’s computer or in an email thread. Document management systems remove inconsistency from your processes by providing set workflows for staff to follow. For example, say you’re losing visibility of client correspondence because staff are receiving too many emails and are having to manually save them to client folders. Document management systems have features such as email management to automatically save client correspondence so that emails are saved where they should be and are accessible to the wider team. This level of standardization helps teams find the information they’re looking for without delay.

Prevention of costly errors

  • Working with a high volume of documents and a wide range of clients opens the door for mistakes. Simple, but costly, errors like sending an outdated version of a document to a client can cost you their trust and, if done enough times, their business. Document management systems protect you against such mistakes with features like version control so you can collaborate on one document without making copies. This means you don’t have to risk sharing outdated information. When integrated with your other apps, you can also benefit from one source of truth which keeps your client data consistent no matter where it’s used. The end result is a high level of trust with your client base and opportunities for referrals.

Enhanced client relationships

  • Document management systems support the later stages of the client lifecycle such as retention and loyalty. Once you’ve done the hard work of bringing on a new client, the emphasis moves to your day-to-day interactions. Take the process of sharing and requesting files for example rather than going through an extended back-and-forth over email or a specialized app, a DMS allows you to complete these actions without multiple steps. An added benefit is that clients are able to review their documents independently by logging in to their portal. Following this workflow is an easy way to deliver the seamless interactions that clients expect. From there you can receive feedback and sign important documents faster, ultimately improving your turnaround time.

Vendor consolidation

  • The best DMS technology has features and functions that span the entire accounting, legal, and engineering workflows. This makes point solutions — like digital signing or PDF creation solutions — redundant, allowing you to consolidate your software and save money. Not to mention you won’t need to pay additional fees for IT upkeep. Your DMS provider will be making ongoing updates, whether that’s a small tweak or a brand-new feature. Best of all, everything appears in your system without you having to lift a finger. 

Challenges with Document Management

Like any digital transformation project, implementing a document management system is an investment that requires a bit of forethought and planning to succeed.

This starts with the process of migrating files into a new system. We’d argue that you should migrate all documents from your old system to ensure the smooth on-going operation of your business, however some businesses choose to not migrate a thing. Instead, they’ll add new files to their chosen DMS. If they ever need a historic file, they’ll retrieve it from their old system and manually save it — the same goes for paper documents. Although having a ‘backup’ version of your files can be beneficial, not migrating everything into your DMS means you won’t have a single source of truth. As a result, you’re losing out on one of the key efficiencies a DMS can provide.

A similar dilemma is not onboarding staff properly onto your new system. If your business doesn’t have a project champion leading the change, or a committee overseeing the process, it’ll be harder to realize your ROI. This is due to a lack of accountability in the process where staff must onboard themselves and are ultimately left wondering why they’re making the change in the first place. To get to your ROI, you’ve got to clearly state the value of your DMS and field questions so that colleagues are on the same page and can see the forest for the trees. You might even want to identify some quick wins and measure yourself against them as you go.

You can overcome the main challenges of document management by migrating historic documents and having onboarding processes in place for staff.

How to Choose a Document Management System

A document management system is a tool that will likely be used by everyone in your business. This means means making the right decision is critical.

First consider where you can unlock the most efficiencies. Begin by reviewing where you’re currently at and identifying gaps in your processes. If the system you’re evaluating won’t fill those gaps, it won’t be right for your business. Remember, selecting the right DMS can take time and it’s up to you to ensure a return on your time investment.

It can be tempting to settle for the first DMS that sounds like it’ll work. However, as your business grows, that solution won’t be nearly as sweet. Determine if the DMS has the ability to scale — and if that ability matches your business plans. For example, if you’re adding staff during a period of growth will you be nudging up against a storage limit? If so, you’ll be migrating to another system and repeating the process.

The right DMS for your business should have everything you need to streamline processes and keep business continuity, including an ability to work with a variety of document types like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more. That functionality should also be intuitive so there’s minimal disruption to staff once they’ve onboarded

The more tools and systems that can connect to your DMS, the better. The goal is to create one source of truth, which means having apps that can “talk” to each other so you don’t have to put up with double handling and constantly switching between platforms.

During this process, you’ll want to assess the team behind the software. They should provide comprehensive support during the implementation process — a process that isn’t hard but goes much faster when you have dedicated people to help you through it. That support should also continue after your business has been onboarded, with helpful documentation, self-serve assistance, and a responsive customer support team.

Make a confident decision by prioritizing the simplicity of use and the ability to integrate into other key apps in your tech stack.

Office 365 Document Management

If you’re an Office 365 customer, you’ll be able to choose from two out-of-the box document management solutions. Here’s an overview of both:

OneDrive for Business

Despite having similar names, OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are very different to each other, at least technically speaking. OneDrive is for personal, home use and functions similarly to Dropbox. Whereas OneDrive for Business is part of SharePoint Online and Office 365, a cloud-based collaboration platform for organizations.

OneDrive for Business is a personal storage location for individuals within an organization to store files in that organization’s Office 365 account. It’s built into SharePoint in a special area called a ‘My Site’ and is locked down for each individual. This means you must share files to give others access to them.

You can access OneDrive for Business through a web and mobile app. There’s also a desktop app to sync your files from Office 365 to your desktop.


SharePoint Online is one of the key components in an Office 365 subscription. It’s an awesome collaboration platform that provides businesses with a huge variety of options to help them be productive, including a range of document libraries, task lists, calendars, dashboards, intranets, workflows, and wikis. It can be customized heavily to suit individual organizations. It’s this flexibility to build whatever’s required that’s a great strength, but also a weakness, particularly for businesses with under 500 team members. Customizations can be time-consuming, complicated, and expensive since you need to employ someone to build it for you. We don’t recommend doing it yourself unless you have adequate experience. 

It’s possible to use SharePoint straight out-of-the-box, but team members who aren’t tech-savvy may find it difficult to navigate.

How SuiteFiles Streamlines Document Management

SuiteFiles is document creation, collaboration, and signing all in one spot. Our workflows are exactly what small to mid-sized firms need to grow along with their clients. We back your daily activities, integrating with Microsoft 365, Xero, Karbon, and more.  

SuiteFiles is a document management system which you can pick up and use from the get-go and one which your team and clients will actually enjoy using. Our product development and customer support teams are responsive – meaning you have people invested in you getting the most out of SuiteFiles.

Over the years, we’ve perfected our software for your end-to-end processes with integrations, automations, digital signing, and email management eliminating the app hopping and multiple subscription fees you’d otherwise need. We combine easy third party sharing with cutting-edge security without taking away ownership of your data. We’ve simplified the complexity of organizing, centralizing, and leveraging the information your business needs to perform every day.   

You should be spending your working hours serving clients and growing your business, not fighting with files. So, we designed SuiteFiles with quick, complete data migration and onboarding to get your team operational in as little as two days. Plus, our interface is easy to use and consistently refined.

By removing unnecessary back-and-forth, process delays, collaboration overhead, and toggling between multiple tools our time saving adds up. Our customers report saving 5 hours a week, per employee. That’s 6 ½ FTE weeks per staff member annually! 

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