Taming the document beast

Wait!" John said rather stressfully to the group assembled for the conference call. "Page 3 of my document is different from what you are describing. Which version of the policy document are you using?"

Susan replied, "We're going over the Aug. 25 version of the policy, John. Let me e-mail you the late-August revisions that I have here on my PC."

Does that scenario sound like something that could happen at your agency? This example raises two tricky document management issues. First is document versioning — something that is particularly problematic when large groups work on official agency documents together.

The second is maintaining documents on individual computers. Both problems can cause delays, errors and additional costs when compared to managing agency documents using a repository-based document management solution.

There are several mature commercial solutions that can help agencies better manage documents, whether office documents or Web formats. Open-source developers have done a fairly good job of providing document management for Web formats, but they have not yet widely addressed office document management.

Selecting a commercial solution for your agency is not easy. Subtle differences exist among them that make one a much better fit than another for a given agency. Because document management can affect all agency users, careful evaluation is needed.

We recently evaluated three commercial document management products — Documentum Inc.'s Documentum, IBM Corp.'s Lotus Domino Document Manager (formerly Domino. Doc), and Xerox Corp.'s DocuShare. We found that there are definite differences among these solutions, and we defined an evaluation checklist to help agencies better tackle the task of analyzing which solution might be best for them.

Checking It Out

There are roughly a dozen areas to evaluate when considering a document management solution. Whether you're seeking better document management tools or jumping on the document repository bandwagon, you'll need to include at least one administrator/developer and perhaps a half-dozen users on your solution-selecting team.

Infrastructure

There are three fundamental questions to answer when comparing the infrastructure of document management. First, what are the platform requirements for the server and client sides of the solution?

If your agency is already running Lotus Domino on IBM's iSeries and using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Corp. Outlook clients, then Lotus Domino Document Manager would be an easy fit. By contrast, if your agency is using Linux on the server and desktop to reduce expenditures and increase choices, DocuShare may be a good solution, because of its Linux server support and browser-based access point. If your agency already uses Oracle Corp.'s database for other processes, the Documentum solution, which is available for Microsoft Windows and Unix platforms and supports Oracle, may insert easily into agency processes.

Besides examining how a given solution will fit into your environment, you'll want to identify other necessary hardware and software licensing. Will document management be implemented on existing servers or will you need to purchase new ones? Will additional operating system or database licensing be needed to support the document management repository?

The third infrastructure question to analyze is how well a given solution will scale and allow you to maintain a high-availability environment. For example, for large collections of documents, can you integrate your document management solution with a storage-area network? Documentum supports this. Can you replicate document repositories across a distributed agency infrastructure to increase high availability? For example, Lotus Domino Document Manager can use Domino replication to increase document availability.

Administration

Managing a document management solution will require a number of skills, including knowledge of server operating systems, security practices, database management and integration with other agency applications and desktop environments.

During our evaluation, we found DocuShare to be the easiest document management solution in terms of setup. We had a fully functional solution within a couple of hours. We particularly liked that all administration tools were made available in a single, easy-to-use browser-based interface. We found it simple to set up users and groups within DocuShare, and we liked that it supported Secure Sockets Layer and integration with directory services, such as our Lightweight Directory Access Protocol server.

The Lotus solution took us a bit longer to set up because we needed to install and configure a Domino server first. The process would be less time-consuming for agencies that already use Domino.

Likewise, we took longer to install Documentum because we wanted to integrate it with an IBM WebSphere environment. Documentum is especially strong on integrating with other agency assets, including application servers, enterprise resource planning products and customer relationship management solutions.

Agency evaluators will need to define how a document management solution will fit in the server infrastructure and what server-side integration is needed.

Client Interfaces

End-user integration and administration are also important. Our three solutions supply browser-based interfaces to reduce desktop administration costs and support a variety of platforms. The browser-based clients for all three are very straightforward. However, platform-specific interfaces that integrate tightly with user operating systems and applications are also available.

For example, we liked Documentum's Desktop — an operating system-specific client that integrates with Microsoft Windows Explorer and various applications, including Microsoft Office. It was easy to drag and drop documents to and from the repository. The same client is also available for Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh applications, but no operating system-specific client is available for Linux.

By contrast, Lotus Domino Document Manager users will not need an additional client interface. Documents from Microsoft Word and other client-side applications can easily integrate with the Domino-based repository. Moreover, Domino Document Manager is easily accessible from Windows Explorer.

DocuShare users can choose among the Web interface, a Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning (Web folder) interface, a Microsoft Windows client or an e-mail client (limited to Microsoft Outlook only). Agencies will need to examine client-side requirements carefully to reduce administration costs.

Client Tools

End-user experience is one of the most crucial parts of selecting the best document management solution. During your evaluation, ask a half-dozen users to rate client tools from one to five after interacting with the solutions you are considering.

How easy is it for your end users to add, change or remove documents? We found it easy to interact with Documentum and DocuShare. By contrast, users who are not familiar with Lotus Domino will need time to effectively use Lotus Domino Document Manager. However, existing Domino shops will find the Lotus solution simple.

Other questions to ask: If your site is using an office application, such as OpenOffice or Corel Corp. WordPerfect, how easy is it for users to interact with the document repository? What file formats does the solution support? Can you manage both office documents and Web content in the same solution to reduce costs?

Finally, have your testers try to create and modify documents using a multiversion approach. Have them create different sets of output based on the intended document audience and route documents for peer review or management approval. All three of the solutions we evaluated are strong on client interaction, so it is difficult to say that one is clearly better than the others for end users.

Be sure to also test document management with any collaboration tools you use. For example, Lotus Domino Document Manager can integrate with Lotus QuickPlace, and Documentum integrates with the company's eRoom solution, so users can work jointly on documents during a collaboration session and then save the results in the document repository.

Document Accessibility

It is one thing for your users to be able to create, modify and store documents. But what if your users need to quickly locate documents in a large repository? Also, how easy is it to set document permissions to prevent unauthorized access? Can you group documents according to department?

We liked DocuShare's search tool. It allowed us to quickly locate all doc-uments related to sales activity for the past year with our top 10 mythical customers. Documentum enabled us to search on content to retrieve documents pertaining to research and development activities during the past 90 days.

We also liked Lotus Domino Document Manager's hierarchical structure, which let us segregate documents by categories, departments or any criteria we chose.

DocuShare did a good job of letting us keep certain documents private. For example, we were able to limit permissions to personnel data to human resources staff members. Likewise, Lotus Domino Document Manager let us select which users and groups could access various file cabinets, and Documentum also limits access based on user's roles.

Document Versioning

One of the biggest reasons to use a document management solution is to eliminate problems with versioning. Users should be able to check documents in and out to work on them. A checkout should prevent others from using the document at the same time. And users should be able to retrieve the previous version of a document at will to take it in a new direction, if needed.

Of the three solutions we examined, Lotus' product took more effort to check documents in and out. However, it did a fine job of tracking versions and keeping other users from modifying documents we had checked out.

We checked documents in to and out of both the DocuShare browser-based interface and Microsoft Windows Explorer. A click in the browser let us modify various documents, and we could view version history by right-clicking documents in the Windows Explorer interface.

Other document characteristics that should be evaluated include support for multiple languages, auditing and compliance with various standards, such as ISO 9000. We found that the Documentum solution excelled in these areas.

Document Routing

Document management systems can also be used as the foundation upon which to build business process workflows. Your document routing requirements may be as simple as notifying a particular user group that a document is available for peer review or approval. Or, you may need to route a document across several departments and obtain additional input from the results of an external application.

The solutions we examined let users perform basic routing. For example, it was easy to use DocuShare's routing to send documents. We simply selected the recipients, supplied a subject and brief comment, and DocuShare routed our documents. We could also receive notification on the status of our routing activities.

Agencies that want to build more complex workflows can do so with some document management solutions, including the Lotus and Documentum products. For example, you might wish to maintain a rolling spreadsheet that depicts the overall trends in agency processing and route this spreadsheet via a custom workflow to gather data from various databases and applications. You could then have the spreadsheet arrive at an analyst's desk, for a data summary, followed by distribution to specific users.

User Change Notification

How critical is it for users to know when a document has changed? The ability to set and receive change alerts can be important, especially for time-sensitive material.

The solutions we examined let us send alerts via e-mail to users when a particular document required review or approval. We especially liked DocuShare's subscription feature, which let users closely track a variety of events, such as when a new document was added to a collection or when a document was checked back into the repository.

Developer Tools

As previously mentioned, agencies can implement a high degree of workflow automation using a document management solution. However, complex workflows will require some programming effort.

The solutions we examined offered application program interfaces and/or software development kits. It is essential to validate that programming support will correspond with your existing developer tools, skills and paradigms. For example, DocuShare provides support for Extensible Markup Language, HTTP, Java and Microsoft Windows client development.

Training, Documentation and Cost

These last three evaluation points are fairly standard when examining products prior to purchase. However, for document management solutions, these three areas are critical because nearly every user in the agency will be affected by the solution that is chosen.

The best solutions are those that give users the impression that they are self-managing documents.

During our evaluation, we found that instructions are available for all three solutions — whether we had on our administrator, developer or end-user hat.

Finally, the question of cost — of initial purchase and ongoing maintenance — is a crucial one. An agency can plan to spend a few thousand dollars or more to implement a document management strategy. Some solutions, such as Documentum, may have a higher price tag, which needs to be carefully weighed against their functionality.

Evaluating document management solutions is not easy. Information technology departments will need to work with end users to carefully map agency requirements against several solutions before purchasing one.

With a document management solution in place, overall savings can be realized by reining in the documents that roam throughout agency hard drives.

Biggs is a software engineer and freelance writer based in Northern California. She has more than 15 years of business and IT experience.

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