The Two-Way Web
- By Patrick Marshall
- Jul 31, 1997
How quickly radical chic becomes passe. It is, for example, no longer a sign of being on the cutting edge for a state or city government agency to have a World Wide Web site. Indeed, hundreds if not thousands of Web sites are being offered at the state and local level as a sort of public bulletin board for posting anything from tax forms to subway schedules.
What is new is that some pioneering sites are beginning to move off that well-trod path toward the next frontier: the return trip. Instead of simply posting documents for the public to grab, some sites are starting to allow staffers to perform their work across the Web, not only downloading documents but editing and replacing them.
"It's made a big difference in the way we do business," said Stacie Burnham, an information management specialist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, referring to the addition of Documentum Inc.'s new RightSite Web extension to the company's local-area network-based Documentum Enterprise Document Management System. According to Burnham, the biggest benefit of integrating Web document management with LAN document management is that it brings remote workers right into the office system without decentralizing workflow.
"We're regulated by the [Environmental Protection Agency], the state of Tennessee and the Department of Energy," Burnham said. "We have about 100 users at our Portsmouth, Ohio, facility and about 30 users in Oak Ridge, and RightSite allows us to plug everybody into the same document database from start to finish."
The start of the process is typically when an analyst submits a report to a home office via a Hypertext Markup Language form using Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator. Analysts also can access previously filed documents and make changes; the system will record who made changes to what documents. Then staff members in the home office add keywords to the documents and generate a workflow "tracker" for the report. "For example," Burnham said, "the form asks whether the report is supposed to go to DOE and what date it is due. Based on those answers, we send a schedule to the analysts via e-mail. And we use Documentum's workflow manager to generate that schedule."
Once the report is finished and is declared a "record copy," permission will be altered so that users cannot edit it. Once the document is cleared for public release, the permissions will be changed again to allow read-only access by all users. "The documents can be accessed through Documentum or via any Web browser on the intranet," Burnham noted. "Most of the regulators have accounts on our intranet, and we have plans next year to go public on the Internet."
Before RightSite, Burnham said, completing this process involved maintaining redundant document databases and a lot of rekeying of data. "We've been able to eliminate all of those other systems," she said. "RightSite allowed us to deploy across three different sites. Our managers can even access the system from hotel rooms or [from] home."
Web Browsers: Inexpensive Clients
What first attracted the Alberta (Canada) Energy and Utilities Board to the idea of a Web extension to its document management system was the low cost of the client software. The utility board recently adopted CyberDOCS, a program that offers Web access to PC DOCS Inc.'s DOCS Open document management system. "It's got great economy of scale," said Murray Lorenzo, a project leader with the utility. "We've got 100 people publishing reports and other documents within the organization and about 600 outside the organization. We've bought 14 licenses of DOCS Open for those who administer the system. But why buy 600 clients of DOCS Open when you can use inexpensive browsers to access the system over the Web?"
There are only two snags, Lorenzo said. First, the current version of CyberDOCS does not support version tracking over the Web. Instead, it simply provides access to DOCS Open libraries. Second, CyberDOCS does not auto-convert documents to and from HTML format. "We knew those features were missing," Lorenzo said. "We bought into CyberDOCS with the vision of CyberDOCS 2.0. But we've been happier than we expected with Version 1.1. It's more of a finished product than we expected, and it has a great search engine." CyberDOCS 2.0-which is expected to include version tracking and HTML conversion-is expected to ship this fall.
Single Point of Access
For Emory University in Atlanta, the main attraction for adopting a document management system with Web capabilities was providing users with a single point of access to data. "We're trying to move toward electronic information [and] against paper information," said Kevin Dunn, a systems integration analyst at the university.
"Having one point of entry-including e-mail, faxes, voice mail-is the real goal. But we want to include workflow tools and document retrieval, and e-mail universal inboxes don't offer that," he added.
Remote access also is important to Dunn. Among the hundreds of users at the university and spread out among five Atlanta-area hospitals owned and managed by the university, there are about 250 users who need to access the system remotely every day.
Emory is implementing Optix-WEB from Blueridge Technologies. "This is going to be a gradual process," Dunn said. "So far we've only made documents available on the Web through simple check-in and check-out. The Web version of Optix doesn't yet track changes. But we're planning on moving to more workflow."
Dunn envisions a system where departmental budgets would be sent to the appropriate person electronically, and once the financials have been massaged, they could be sent directly to the banks.
Similarly, a new document management approach could alleviate the circulation of duplicate paperwork. "Right now our ledgers are being produced off the IBM mainframe, with printed reports sent to every department in three-ring binders. There might be 10 people in each department receiving these," Dunn said. "That's a tremendous amount of paper wasted.
"They're chomping at the bit here," Dunn said of the prospect of fully integrated Web workflow. "Everybody wants one-point access to the whole system."
Managing the Web
While Web extensions to LAN-based document managers offer new accessibility to LAN document databases, they also offer new tools to tame the booming growth in documents that originate on the Web itself.
As many Webmasters have already found, the tools provided by Web servers and Web publishing software are generally not up to the challenge of managing larger databases of documents.
"By now we have a pretty well-developed intranet," Oak Ridge's Burnham said. "But it has become an administrative nightmare. We're now looking to store all of our corporate Web documents in the Documentum system to make it more manageable."
Having a single document system that spans the network, the Web and printed copies offers unexpected benefits. "We can manage both hard copy and electronic and hard copy distribution of documents," Burnham said. "And we can even have notifications automatically sent to appropriate people when a new version of a document is saved in any media. Managing it all from one place is a big plus."
Patrick Marshall is senior writer at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at [email protected]
Look Before You Leap
Those who have already started down the path of integrating Web access with LAN-based document management warn that there are several factors you should consider before selecting a product.
First, consider what format your legacy documents are in and what conversion tools are offered by the document management system. "You can't underestimate the importance of formats that your legacy documents are in," said Murray Lorenzo of the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. "It can be a huge effort to make the older documents consistent. One thing that attracted us to CyberDOCS is that it brings a full infrastructure that will encompass automatic format conversion."
The most often-cited concern, not surprisingly, is security. "You'll want to make sure the program you adopt will provide the tools you need," Kevin Dunn of Emory University advised. "If I have an account assigned to me, it would be great to get at it from the Web, but how do I keep other departments from seeing my stuff? How granular can you go? Line items within a report?"
Even more important, Dunn said, is to consider the effects of the new system on your organization. "There are a host of unanswered questions," he said. "Should we start destroying paper documents? What is the legality of documents stored on imaging systems? Should we start adding e-mail to our indexes?"
You should not get too paranoid about security concerns, however. The fact is, moving more strongly into electronic document management can also result in enhanced security. "In truth," observed Marsha Lewin, an information systems consultant and principal of Marsha Lewin&Associates, "I can walk into a place and pull out the paper document while you're at lunch, can't I? If it's stored on a secure electronic system, that won't happen."
Finally, expect the increased flexibility of your document management system to affect the way your organization works. Most of this will be positive. "Documentum has become the command center for everybody in the program," said Stacie Burnham at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "It's made people more proactive about their work. [You] can view information now about what others are doing even if [you] can't change it, and you don't have to wait for something to hit your desk. You can look for what's going on."
Lewin agreed. "When you move from paper-based libraries, you don't do business the same way, and the changes are at every level. At the most basic level, you no longer need to physically move files from one department to another, and that can save a lot of time and dollars," she said.
But any organizational change also presents opportunity for resistance. "People often don't see how they can be reshaped or remolded," Dunn warned. "We're trying to do away with paper documents, but there are departments here that are based on paper documents, and they're fighting to keep them. In the past, they've been getting money to purchase filing cabinets and storage space, and now they're having their budgets for that cut. In the short run, it can generate bureaucratic infighting."
Patrick Marshall is senior writer at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at [email protected]