Document Management Systems

Document Management Systems

Buyer's Guide

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Introduction Applications Benefits Features ASP vs Cloud Hosting Hardware Usability & Implementation Choosing a Seller Pricing Installation & Support Buying Tips

Introduction to Document Management Systems

If you were to throw open the windows in your office on a windy day, what would happen? Would chaos ensue as paper flew everywhere? Would even employees who primarily use their computers have trouble getting work done as important records fluttered away? If yes, then perhaps it's time to stop the paper chase and consider investing in a document management system.

A document management system can transform the way your business operates. Whether you're solving a paper problem or simply improving the way you handle electronic records, the right document management system can provide significant time and cost savings amongst other benefits.

As you investigate your document management options you may run into some confusion regarding the name. Some companies call their systems "document management systems" others call them "content management systems." Both are software programs used to store, secure, search, and track electronic files like emails, spreadsheets, images, and PDFs.

Also available on the market are systems that simply scan, capture, and index paper documents. These are sometimes called "document imaging" or "document capture" systems. By talking to a qualified document management provider you can get help sorting through your available options and finding the right solution for you.

This BuyerZone Document Management Systems Buyer's Guide covers both document imaging for paper conversion and document management for electronic files. Almost all sellers in this arena offer both.

No matter what line of business you're in, efficiency is a component of your profitability. A document management system streamlines your operation, enabling you to be more responsive and cost-effective throughout your organization.

Document Management Applications

Document Management Systems

Document management solutions have the ability to improve your business processes without changing them much. This makes them ideal across a wide range of situations and industries.

Who uses document management solutions?

More and more industries are falling under the influence of legislation that requires specific procedures for records keeping. Financial services companies need to be able to prove that information is unaltered to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley; medical practices have to prove that their records are safe from prying eyes to comply with HIPPA. The legal industry, too, has specific requirements related to discovery, including full-text searching of massive numbers of documents.

For businesses in these highly regulated industries, document management solutions are by far the best way to ensure compliance with strict security and record-keeping rules. It's important to note, however, that such systems can only help your company become compliant, they don't guarantee it. But, the right procedures and behaviors do. No matter how secure your electronic records are, if an employee prints sensitive information and takes it to lunch, you're not in compliance.

Departmental applications

Almost all companies have certain common business units that can benefit from document management. Human resources and accounting departments, for example, are traditional heavy users of paper files and some of the biggest beneficiaries of a document management solution.

Procedural applications

Other applications for document management include compliance with the Patriot Act, which requires immediate government access to certain records, and ISO 9000/9001 certification, which benefits from having the ability to prove your data is secure and unaltered. Manufacturing and government are two sectors that pursue document management solutions for these broader regulatory reasons.

In truth, any organization that wants to put procedural processes in place can benefit from document management. Such systems are used to enforce naming conventions, ensure strict approval processes are followed, and generally add consistency to existing procedures.

Benefits of Document Management Systems

The benefits of document management are sometimes obvious (they save you from drowning in paper files), but sometimes are more subtle.

Cost savings

If you have employees who spend most of the day filing and retrieving documents, then you are dealing with one of the biggest hidden costs of a paper-intensive business. Let's say it takes a $20/hour employee five minutes (a very conservative estimate) to walk to your records room, locate a file, act on it, refile it, and return to his desk.

At just twelve files per week, that's over 52 hours per year spent filing - which adds up to over $1000 in wages. At thirty files per week, those number increase to 130 hours per year and $2600 - for only one employee. A system that makes it possible for employees to find and work with documents without ever leaving their desks can instantly improve efficiency and slash costs.

Document management systems also eliminate so-called "lost document" costs - the time it takes to recreate a document that's been destroyed or misplaced. Based on research done in this area, some suppliers estimate the cost of replacing each lost document is $120 or more.

Additional cost savings come in the form of office space that can be freed-up by eliminating paper records. With real estate costing $15 to $40 plus per square foot in many major cities, converting records rooms into usable office space can save considerable amounts of money. In other cases, companies are able to eliminate the cost of warehousing years of archived records.


If you're not taking data security seriously, you should be. Threats from outside and inside your company jeopardize the integrity and value of your most important information. Document management systems can provide several layers of security against identity thieves, hackers, disgruntled employees, and the prying eyes of the competition. Standard security measures include:

  • Multiple levels of password-protected access for groups and individuals
  • Encryption of document contents
  • Audit trails showing who has accessed or updated documents
Disaster recovery

Whether your existing documents are paper or electronic, chances are you don't have adequate disaster recovery plans in place. Document management systems protect your paper records by creating electronic copies that can be backed up in multiple ways. They also can include off-site data backups and other steps to ensure that a fire, flood, or break-in won't cripple your business.


Even as the web makes it increasingly easy for employees to work remotely, paper records remain a serious roadblock for widely distributed organizations. The right document management system allows your employees access to vital records wherever they may be.

Furthermore, by allowing more than one employee to look at one file at the same time, document management systems can improve office efficiency. And as previously mentioned, multi-layered access allows employees to see and change only the documents they're authorized to handle.

Process consistency

One benefit many larger companies see from document management systems is the ability to enforce consistency in document handling processes. Different departments may have different approval processes - but once those are defined, the system will make sure they're followed. No longer will inconsistency in filing and naming conventions hamper your workflow as you add new employees or cover for vacationing staff.

Document management in action

One document management seller offered this example of how document management solutions can transform a business. A salmon distributor based in Seattle would move their entire operation to Anchorage every summer for fishing season. This included putting their corporate servers and pallets full of paper files on a barge and sailing them up the coast. At the end of the summer, they'd pack everything up and get back on the barge.

Not the most efficient business plan, perhaps, but they couldn't operate without their records. Once their document management system was in place, all they had to do was bring a laptop and small scanner with them to Anchorage, and they could still access all their records as if they were back in Seattle.

With all of those benefits in mind, your first real step toward purchase is to evaluate the current needs of your office and pair them with the streamlining potential of the features available through a document management system.

Document Management System Features

As you evaluate different document management software packages, keep in mind that your choice should be based on your specific business needs: tools that are useful for one company may only serve as a distraction to another. Comparing several document management solutions can help you figure out what works best for you.

It's best to make comparisons by getting live product demonstrations. Whether it's face-to-face or online, a live demo will allow the seller to show their strong points while giving you the opportunity to ask questions.

How to evaluate document management software

The most important aspect to consider is ease of use. If creating, filing, and retrieving documents isn't easy and intuitive, your employees may resist using the system, decreasing your ROI.

Seeing the software in action is the only way to really judge ease of use. You can accomplish this via live product demonstration or by visiting a company who is already using the system (ask for referrals from the sellers you are evaluating).

Systems that use familiar metaphors such as file cabinets, folders, and paperclips can help even the least computer-savvy employees catch on quickly. The interface should also provide easy access to the screens you use most without being overly-cluttered with buttons.

Other general attributes to consider:

  • Architecture - Many companies today prefer non-proprietary systems: in document management, this means that the system should store your documents in their original formats and run on a range of hardware, and be easily transferable.

  • Customizability - Because their function is so central to your everyday operations, the system you choose should be customizable to match your business processes.

    In many cases, the seller will be able to integrate the system into the applications you use today, making use of the system almost transparent.

  • Scalability - The system needs to be able to grow with you - both in terms of how many users it supports and how many documents it can handle.

  • Modularity - In the best-case scenario, you'll be able to buy only the functionality you need at first, and add more as you expand your use of the system.

There are also more specific document management software features you'll need to investigate:

  • Security - The more granular the security options, the better: security rules may be applicable to the entire system, per cabinet, per folder, per document, or even to specific sections of documents. Systems that rely on Windows security capabilities alone are not considered very secure.

  • Searching - Is it easy and logical? Can you easily call up all related documentss - all W2's, for example, or all documents with a certain customer number?

  • Compliance - Auditing features can track activity by user and by machine. In some industries, you'll need to prove that documents are unaltered.

  • Access - Some systems require client software on each computer that will access the system; others only require a web browser. Make sure to consider your remote users.

  • Workflow - Document management software can automate approval processes, editors, and other document routing. Extensive workflow rules can be a distinguishing factor between small to mid-sized solutions and true enterprise-level systems.

  • Compatibility - Microsoft Office integration allows you to check-in and check-out documents while working in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. E-mail integration allows you to send direct links and share native documents with remote customer. And some systems allow you to generate PDF versions of your documents.

    Make sure you take into consideration the needs of remote employees: do they need access from mobile devices? Tablets? Macs or PCs? Check with your provider to see if the system supports these configurations.

  • Open Source - Some businesses prefer open source software, as it can offer a more adaptable, cost-effective alternative to proprietary systems. However, this may require you to have staff with the knowledge and experience to implement company specific coding.

Depending on the sensitivity of your data - a concern for just about any business connected to the web these days - the next decision in your process is going to be a relatively easy one: hosting.

ASP vs Cloud Hosting Solutions

An important decision to make when choosing a document management system is where you want the software to be hosted. An in-house solution is usually referred to as a client-server system; seller-run applications can go by many names including application service seller (ASP), software as a service (SaaS), web- or browser-based systems, and cloud computing.

Document Management Systems

Both options provide distinct advantages: consider which are more important to you.

Client-server solutions

If you choose a locally hosted program it will run on your computers and store data either on your hard drive or on a network server in your office. This familiar setup gives you the greatest control over every aspect of your document management system.

Document management applications are built on proven software that is highly stable and requires little database maintenance. You will need to have access to either outside consultants or highly specialized IT staff to address any hardware or software issues that arise. You will also need to make regular backups in case of a system crash. You can schedule backups that copy your data to off-site computers fairly easily. (Interested in remote backup services? Get free price quotes today.)

If you choose the client-server route, you'll purchase or lease your system including software and servers.

ASP solutions

In the current era of "cloud computing" many companies are choosing ASP solutions. With this setup both the application and data reside on the seller's servers, and your staff gains access via web browser or specialized client software.

With ASP solutions your database is maintained by IT professionals at the seller's office. Multiple layers of firewalls and security, uninterruptible power supplies, fail-over (instant switching from one computer to another in case of a crash) and reliable backups are all standard operating procedures for these sellers. Together these features virtually guarantee that your critical documents will always be secure and available.

If you choose to go with an ASP solution be sure to ask prospective sellers if your data will be stored in an SAS 70 audited facility. These highly secured data centers are checked by third party auditors to ensure the strictest standards in security and compliance are followed. You will also want verify that your data will be encrypted when transmitted in both directions over the Internet .

The biggest risk of using an online solution is that they require an active Internet connection. Since no Internet connection works 100% of the time (your internal network may fail, your ISP may experience an outage, or an Internet worm may cause congestion) you may not be able to access your documents at all times. These types of outages are rare, but you should be aware of the possibilities.

With online sellers, payment is more likely to involve a smaller setup fee and then ongoing monthly payments based on usage. Read on to find more info on choosing a document imaging company.

Which is right for you?

Some business executives may feel more comfortable with an in-house solution. Next generation IT staffers, however, often prefer the ASP model, and there has been exponential growth in this sector. Here are three major areas to consider:

  1. IT staff. If you have in-house IT staff, a client-server solution may be your best option - but make sure you involve IT in the purchasing decision. Smaller businesses with little to no computer expertise are probably better off choosing an online solution.

  2. Customization. ASPs can easily make basic changes in appearance and functionality, in effect giving you more control over the application than you would get from an internal IT team. However, if you need extensive customization and integration, client-server can provide more flexibility. Remember that you will pay a premium for the extra customization work, though.

  3. Sensitive data. If your documents include sensitive data such as Social Security numbers, banking records, or other information that you are legally required to protect, your first instinct may be to keep it in-house so you can be directly responsible for it. However in many cases, ASPs can provide better security than you could in your own data center with more layers of security and larger IT staffs.

Since both options provide secure, reliable document management options, a final way to make the choice is to consider which of the potential downsides you fear more: being unable to access your documents while your Internet connection is down, or losing data and time because your server crashes.

You can also start off with a hosted service, then move to an in-house solution: ASPs should offer a seamless migration path that will allow you to easily export your data. If you're unsure of which direction you should go, this can be an easy way to get started without committing fully to either direction.

After settling on the necessary features and type of hosting you need, the next step is to piece together the hardware components.

Hardware Features and Recommendations

There are two main hardware components you may need:

  1. If you're running a document management system in house, you'll need a server
  2. If you're going to be converting paper documents, you'll also need a document imaging scanner

Your seller should provide you with appropriate specifications for the server, and in some cases will sell it to you directly. However if you have a preferred computer hardware provider, you will probably be better served buying from them. Just make sure you follow the recommendations from your document management seller and your IT staff for processor speed, RAM, and hard drive space. Please note, not all solutions require a server purchase.

You may already have the document imaging scanner you need in-house: your copier. A modern digital copier with an automatic document feed and network connectivity can be exactly what you need to keep up with your day-to-day scanning needs. Almost any network copier can be used with a document management system. (Need help choosing a copier? Read our Digital Copiers Buyer's Guide.)

If you're buying a document imaging scanner, the seller can provide valuable assistance. They'll be able to recommend certain brands or models that will work well with their software. Often, they can sell you the hardware directly, which can simplify your purchasing process.

When choosing document imaging scanners, you'll have to consider the balance between quality and speed. If you want to scan paper documents so that the full text is easily retrievable and searchable, you'll need optical character recognition (OCR), and that requires more expensive, high-quality scanning.

If your system will simply be storing your documents as images, the level of detail isn't quite as important. If you need color or wide-format scanning, you can expect to pay a little more for scanning services.

If you plan to scan millions of pages, you'll want a high-end scanner - one that can chew through files at around 150 pages per minute (ppm) - which could cost you $40,000 or more. A scanner rated at around 20 ppm, on the other hand, might cost around $1000. The slower machine can easily handle around 1500 new documents per week, but won't be any help in processing backfiles.

To meet higher scanning volumes, consider getting multiple scanners instead of one ultra-high capacity model. Three 40 ppm machines will be considerably less expensive than one 120 ppm device. Plus, they'll allow three people to work on scanning simultaneously, and provide you with the ability to continue working if one of them needs service.

Another way to find the best document management system is to review your business goals for the system itself.

Usability & Implementation

Quality document management systems can be customized to almost any situation, but some decisions need to be made up front. Without the right planning, you risk wasting time and money.

What problem are you trying to solve?

It may seem obvious, but that question is one you have to have detailed answers to before you start working with a document management seller. "We have too much paper" isn't a good enough answer. Be specific: "We need more remote access," "We want to cut filing costs," and "We have to enforce better security" are all better answers.

Gather details on what types of paper you're working with. How are they created, labeled, and filed? What are your needs like for retrieval or ongoing usage? If you can easily categorize your documents into types, such as delivery slips or W2s, suppliers may be able to offer specific advice. A rough count of how many new documents you'll need to enter per day is also useful.

Don't overlook your existing electronic documents: you'll want to be able to incorporate text files, PDFs, spreadsheets, and other important files into the document management system. Don't get over-aggressive: stick to the types of documents relevant to the problems you're solving.

Also look at your processes. What approval or editing steps should be built into the system? Which documents need to be permanently archived, and which should be editable? What types of documents need to be filed together for easy retrieval?

Then make sure you have management buy-in. Because of the costs and the transformative nature of document management systems, "grass-roots" efforts to implement them rarely succeed. With well thought out ROI analyses, you should be able to get executives on board.

Start slow

While you may eventually want a comprehensive, company-wide system, document management sellers strongly recommend you start by implementing a solution for one application in one department. It's much easier to get management support for a new effort that only affects a single department at a lower cost. Tackling one problem at a time also makes installation less disruptive.

Once it's been implemented, sellers indicate that it's very common for a company to come back to expand the solution to multiple departments or processes months or years later. The success of the first, smaller solution leads to greater support for a more significant investment later. For example, a successful implementation in HR can serve as the launching point for larger, company-wide projects.

Scanning Old Documents

It's important to understand that you don't have to start a document management solution with a total conversion of all your old paper files. Sometimes a "scan forward" approach works best.

In a scan forward implementation (also known as "day forward" or "forward scanning"), a cut-off date is chosen after which all new documents will be scanned. Existing paper records are only scanned if they're used - in many cases, documents that don't get scanned after a year can be archived or simply thrown away. This approach means you can get started much more quickly since there's no delay while a backlog of paper is scanned. Once the value of the system is proven, you can then decide to start scanning older files.

The scan forward approach isn't for everyone, though - for some businesses, access to paper files is essential. In those cases, you may consider using a back file scanning service. Document management sellers generally don't do back scanning for you, but they will be able to recommend a file scanning service. These niche sellers have expensive high-volume scanners and plenty of staffers to operate them - scanning millions of documents for a single customer is not uncommon.

Typically your documents will be shipped to or picked up by the scanning service provider, but you can also get on-site service. On-site may cost significantly more, but if your files contain highly sensitive material, it can be reassuring to keep them with you. Once the documents are scanned, the service can provide CDs of the resulting images or put them directly into your document management system. They'll also destroy or return your paper documents, whichever you prefer.

Sellers within this niche are great because they typically don't produce the hardware themselves - instead, they specialize in a high quality of customer service. This level of service is typically built around easy implementation and overall simplicity. But services do vary from seller to seller.

Choosing your Document Management System Seller

The majority of the document management providers you'll work with are resellers, not manufacturers. Most manufacturers lack the large in-house tech support and sales teams needed to support a wide customer base. Instead, they support reseller networks who handle much of the front-line interaction with customers. Some manufacturers also sell direct but they tend to focus on large enterprise level customers. Learn more about document management companies.

What to look for in a reseller

The seller you choose should have experience in your industry. Some industries - legal and medical are the two best examples - have very specific needs from their document management systems, and so require a reseller who understands those needs. Don't depend on the seller to know everything about your industry, though: you're responsible for compliance issues, not them.

Longevity is another important consideration: you want someone who will be around to support you.

The supplier should also be able to demonstrate more than flashy features and technology, but how those features will help you. Look for suppliers who ask real questions about your business and describe how their product answers your needs.

Watch how long it takes the seller to respond to you. If they are slow to respond during the sales process, things aren't likely to get better once you've signed a contract.

Size of the company isn't that important - as long as they have the staff to support you, a smaller seller is fine; in fact you may get more attention than you would at a larger seller.

What to look for in software manufacturers

Remember to check out the software publisher each reseller represents, as well. Look for proven dedication to the system - make sure the software publisher is committed to updating and improving the software.

In general, look for publishers that specialize in document management. A recent trend in the industry is for makers of specialized vertical applications to add document management modules to their existing software. While this is an attractive option to companies who already use their software, it's not recommended. There are a couple of dangers with this approach.

First, tying document management to your business applications locks you into both solutions at the same time: you'll have trouble getting your documents out of the system if you decide to switch. Also, because document management is just a small component of their main business, it's hard to tell if they're committed to maintaining and improving the system.

Before you get on the phone with a potential seller, review the pricing info we've compiled through various sources listed below. You'll learn how to compare the costs of a document management system and avoid unnecessary fees.

Document Management System Pricing

Document management systems are a major capital expense. You can expect to pay thousands of dollars for even the most basic system. Just remember the economics we discussed in the Benefits section above: with a bit of cost analysis of your current paper systems, you will quickly realize the ROI potential of these systems.

Also, keep in mind that these systems are highly customized, so pricing will vary tremendously depending on the features and integration work you require.

For entry-level paper conversion systems, including a server and scanner and software with all the basic indexing, searching, and security features, you might be able to go as low as $3,000 for a very small setup. At ten users, you're more likely looking at a minimum of $6,000 and often more. A medium-sized installation, with web access, auditing, and workflow features, and support for 100 users will probably run $25,000 to $80,000 plus. Costs for enterprise-level solutions for hundreds of users can easily reach half a million dollars or more.

For ASP models, you can expect minimum prices of $100 per month, and easily over $1,000 per month for mid-sized solutions. Support for larger companies can quickly top $2,000 per month.

See what other BuyerZone users paid for document imaging systems.

Some ASP sellers base their fee structures on the total number of images in the system, rather than the number of users. Since you've already estimated the amount of documents your system will be handling, you should be able to compare costs fairly easily.

Again, these are only rough estimates of your total costs. Sellers will break down the pricing in much more detail: hardware, software, customer service and support, training, installation, and maintenance.

If you're having archived records scanned, expect prices of between 2 and 20 cents per page. You'll pay more for on-site scanning, stapled or damaged documents, and indexing services. When you consider a million-file archive, you can see why many companies opt for the scan forward approach.

If your businesses doesn't have regulatory concerns, and you don't need network access to your documents, nor extensive tracking and security needs, then a smaller a turnkey solution for $200 or $300 may be sufficient - but the benefits are limited so you'll want to talk to a document management specialist to find out which solution is right for you.

Installation and Support

Document management systems are not the type of application where you take the shrink wrap off the box, install the software, and dive right in. You'll need to work with your seller to handle installation and training.

When you first meet with a seller, they'll ask about your plans and your business to get an idea of what capabilities you require. Then they'll submit a detailed proposal that outlines the costs and what they'll deliver.

Once you agree on a contract, the supplier will usually come to your office to do the installation and training. This can take as little as a day, but the average is closer to a week. Again it will vary considerably based on the amount of customization and integration you choose. Some suppliers may use remote access to do the installation without actually visiting your office in person, and of course if you choose an ASP solution, you won't need any work done on your premises.


In most cases, first line support will be provided by the reseller, not the software manufacturer. You'll see a range of support options: some sellers will offer you blocks of time that you can "bank" against future calls; some will charge a monthly support fee that includes an unlimited number of calls; some will simply charge you per call. Flexibility of contact options is important: find out if your seller offers support via phone, e-mail, instant messenger, and/or online chat.

Because of the complexity of document management systems and the fact that every installation is different, it's generally a good idea to opt for a service contract that includes unlimited support and upgrades - at least for the first year. After that, you'll have a better sense of how much support you'll actually need.

We've compiled these quick tips to help you get the best deal possible - not to mention a document management system that will remain functional and cost-effective for years to come.

Document Management Buying Tips

Be prepared to make an investment. Cost could easily scare you away from business document management solutions - take a deep breath and compare the prices to the costs of doing business the same old way. Starting with a limited role in one department can also help reduce costs and prove value before making a larger commitment.

Avoid all-in-ones. There's a trend in IT towards "appliances" - specialized servers that are completely configured by the manufacturer. For more straightforward IT functions such as firewalls or fax servers, appliances can be a fast solution. This approach is too rigid for business document management - stick with your standardized hardware solution, and your reseller should be able to make it work.

Don't worry about storage. Chances are, your storage needs are nothing compared to what some of these vendors see. Two million paper records? Just another day for them. Computer storage space is cheap and easy to add, so don't get distracted by vendors promoting the huge amount of space they provide.

Test your backup. If the system is being run in your IT department, make sure your staff and the vendor work together to create and test a very specific disaster recovery plan. Just having tape backups is worthless if it turns out that they can't be read later. With an ASP solution, make sure the process for disaster recovery is documented and available to you.

Think ahead about security. Does the system permit individual and group authentication and page-level security? Can documents be locked? Does the system provide a clear, auditable record of access and changes? Work with your IT administrator to decide what specific security measure you'll need, being sure to consider government regulations, industry standards, and corporate policies as part of your business document management decision.

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