Small businesses cannot avoid creating word documents and other files. It's simply part of running a business to generate important documents that must be stored either for internal operations, clients' reference or government compliance. In the past, filing cabinets typically lined the walls of every office, regardless of the industry. As technology has evolved, so have methods of document management. However, while document management might seem like a straightforward concept, there is often more to it than meets the eye.
Understanding how to properly establish and maintain a digital archive is critical to keeping your documents secure, accessible and adaptable to your business's needs. Document management can generally be broken down into three broad categories that a small business must consider. Each represents an important element in setting up your archives to help streamline business operations and secure important files. These tips will help you make sure you get it right the first time.
The first step in establishing a digital archive is scanning documents or importing your existing records into a centralized system. Document management systems are designed to make it easier for you to establish and maintain a complete digital archive of the records your business requires.
"Records can be scanned when they are received or being processed … or you can assign an internal employee to scan in batches on an agreed-upon frequency that can range from daily to annually," said Jim Collins, president of Chicago-based document imaging company Datamation. "If you prefer not to use internal resources, you can outsource this work to a document-scanning service bureau who can go through your records, batch-scan everything and deliver you the digital files."
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Digitization of paper records begins with a process known as document imaging. Imaging typically involves scanning documents into your document management software. Most document management systems use what is known as optical character recognition (OCR) to automatically identify and index documents based on the text that is on the page. [Interested in document management software? Check out our best picks.]
"Today's OCR programs are extremely intelligent and can accurately detect a high percentage of printed and handwritten text," said Faith Kubicki, content marketing manager for document management company IntelliChief. "That said, each program's accuracy rate depends on the quality of the document that's being put into the system. If pages are smudged or stained, or images are blurry, the program may have a harder time recognizing the information."
While much of the digitization process can be automated in this way, it makes ensuring accuracy essential. The next step of digitizing your archives is establishing a system for quality control.
To be sure your documents imaged correctly, many document management systems allow you to set a "custom confidence rate," which means the software will only accept files that meet that threshold. For example, if the software believes it has imaged a document 90 percent accurately but your custom confidence rate is 95 percent, that document would not be accepted without manual review and approval.
"All records that are digitized must be quality-control reviewed for accuracy, integrity and completeness," Collins said. "This can be done either right at scanning or after by checking the images."
Also, of course, take the time to remove staples, paper clips and other obstructions from paper records before scanning them into the system.
Once you have digitized your documents and imported any digital files you need, you must organize them for easy retrieval. Your archive is only as good as its accessibility – just as you wouldn't want to search multiple file cabinets for a specific document, you don't want to pore over a vast, disorganized digital archive.
Luckily, most document management software begins the organization process for you with OCR. The software identifies certain keywords and elements in the document and affixes metadata that automatically indexes your documents for you. However, to be truly organized and accurate, it's wise to further delineate documents from one another by adding more details and metadata manually.
You have two major options for storing your documents: on-premises servers and cloud-based platforms. On-premises servers demand a higher upfront investment and in-house IT resources for ongoing maintenance, but they give you greater control over your documents and place them under the umbrella of your security measures. Cloud-based platforms remove the burden of maintenance and generally cost less, but you're trusting a third party to manage your data for you, potentially creating additional vulnerabilities.
"Both [on-premises and cloud storage] options are viable, but the cloud provides an automatic offsite backup," Collins said. "This is increasingly becoming the storage choice for most companies. Most cloud sites are certified, secure and very efficient."
It's important to do your research on any cloud storage provider and ensure it meets your standards of security. Collins added that it is wise to maintain your own disaster recovery backup for all records and systems.
"This backup can come in many ways, such as having a scanner to scan and archive records, storing important files in multiple locations, and establishing policies and practices to capture documents and keep them secure as a regular practice."
Security goes beyond simple storage considerations. Your archive is going to contain all your business's documents, including the most sensitive ones. As data breaches become more common, it should be a top priority to ensure your archive is as secure as possible.
"When selecting a software program, small businesses should also look for configurable firewalls, active directory authentication and SSL technologies," Kubicki said. "They should also find a system that provides them with a comprehensive, uneditable record of every single time a document was accessed (and by which employee)."
In addition, most document management systems include user access permissions, which allow admins to determine which users can access, or even see, certain files stored in the archive. This helps keep vulnerabilities to a minimum for confidential information.
"It's important for small businesses to customize their access permissions, especially when multiple departments are using the same document management system," Kubicki said. "This ensures that financial data stays within accounting, sensitive employee information can only be viewed by HR, and so on."
Understanding how long you should retain certain word documents and files helps improve security and free up storage space. Some documents don't need to be kept permanently, while others are important enough to retain.
"Going back to what was mentioned above, most documents shouldn't be stored in perpetuity," Kubicki said. "For instance, the IRS recommends that small businesses retain financial records for seven years. But when it comes to internal business documents, like supplier contracts and customer order records, it's normal to retain those for longer."
Finally, once your archive is fully digitized and organized as to be easily accessible, your team needs to be able to revise documents on the fly, without creating contradictory edits. The best document management systems have built-in tools to help teams collaborate.
"Good systems will track versions of all content, allow multiple simultaneous access to the same documents, and facilitate production collaboration," Collins said. "For more complex applications, workflow can add structure and accuracy to defined processes through routing, approvals, signatures, checklists and reminders."
Collaboration tools help your team work seamlessly together right within the document management software, as well as prevent contradictory edits from occurring on a document when multiple users are trying to access it. These tools are essential for teams that aren't just storing files, but constantly revisiting and reworking them.
Want to learn more about document management?
Managing your files doesn't have to be difficult. With tools like document management software, it's easier than ever. But there is no substitute for understanding how to best digitize, organize and manage your archive. If you're looking for a document management system for your small business, visit our best picks for document management software for reviews of some of the best solutions on the market.