- Free document management software (DMS) is limited in features, functionality, security, technical support and regulation compliance.
- Free DMS is ideal for small businesses in unregulated industries that don't need advanced document management tools.
- To choose a free document management system, consider your budget, industry and needed features.
Many small business owners use document management systems to help them securely organize their important (and not so important) paperless documents into one location for easy access. Although some document management software (DMS) can be costly, businesses with limited document management needs and restrictive budgets can benefit from free document management software.
Document management systems aren't just good for organization. According to Pravin Vazirani, assistant vice president of operations at Chetu, they pose several other workflow advantages for small businesses that want a paperless office.
"Document management systems reduce storage space, aid in regulatory compliance, allow for better collaboration among team members using the same document, provide better backup and recovery services, and, as is to be expected, allow for organized and easy document retrieval," Vazirani said.
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Although some industries – like the legal, accounting and healthcare industries – rely far more on documents than most, Vazirani said that virtually every business has a need to keep vital documents and information well organized and easily accessible. A document management system fills this need.
The specific features you need in a document management system will depend on your business size, industry and preferences. Consider which features you need, how tech savvy your team is, and how much money you have in your software budget to find the best document management system for your business.
The benefits of using a free document management system
Document management systems provide many benefits for small businesses. For example, they can aid in organization, collaboration, data security, disaster recovery and integration. They are especially helpful during growth periods for your business. While free document management systems do have their limitations, they provide many of the same benefits as paid versions – and some unique to them. [Read related article: Advice for Choosing a Small Business Document Management System]
1. It is a cost-effective way to manage your documents.
The most obvious (and alluring) benefit of using a free document management system over a paid one is the price tag. Small business owners have many expenses to worry about, and it isn't uncommon for something like document management to fall to the wayside. However, properly organizing and storing documents is essential for small businesses, especially those that plan on growing. Free document management systems give small business owners many organizational and collaborative benefits without the licensing fees or monthly payments.
Sergey Golubenko, head of the SharePoint department at ScienceSoft, said free DMS helps a company to streamline document-driven processes and increase productivity without extra expenses. "This makes it the right choice for small businesses that have limited budget and resources and average requirements for functionality."
2. It has minimal restrictions on what materials you manage.
Free document management software can be advantageous to small business owners in more ways than just saving money. For example, it doesn't impose the restrictions that many paid versions do.
"There are often no stipulations as to how you can use the [free DMS] system, where other options may dictate what kind of materials are able to be managed, such as noncommercial or internal documents only," said Vazirani. "These types of systems are great for small businesses or departments within a larger business that may have limited DMS needs."
3. It allows for fast implementation and testing.
Free documentation software can also be fast and easy to implement and test for your small business. Instead of signing on to a paid version, you can access a free version almost immediately and begin organizing your electronic document folders right away. Since free DMS is fast to deploy, Golubenko said you have the luxury of installing and testing several tools before deciding which DMS is the most suitable for your company.
While we don't necessarily recommend testing too many document management systems at the same time, it can be beneficial to try out the software if you are trying to decide between a few great platforms.
The limitations of a free document management system
Like any free version of a software or service, free document management systems have feature limitations that may impact the tasks you can perform. Although a free platform may be acceptable for many small businesses, it is important to be aware of the setbacks that may come with it.
1. It has limited features and capabilities.
As expected, free document management software is often limited in its features and functions. It may have the features necessary for a small business in an unregulated industry, but larger or document-heavy companies will likely need a paid version.
Vazirani listed some common feature limitations of free document management systems. "Overall, certain functionality features can be limited, such as integration options, finite task management allowances, size of the documents being stored, or even the file type. Similar to this, space is often a limitation as well, as free programs will have restrictions on how much one user can leverage."
Golubenko added that businesses that choose free DMS should not expect advanced features like enterprise search, integrations with enterprise systems and complex nonlinear workflows.
2. Customer service, security and technical support are also limited.
Like most free versions of software, free DMS has fewer security measures than paid versions have. Vazirani recommends that small businesses do not use free DMS to store critical documents, like personal, financial or sensitive information. This limits the industries that can solely rely on free document management systems.
Free programs also lack reliable customer or technical support. If any issues arise with your software, you will likely have to resolve them on your own. Golubenko said businesses with technical issues often need to hire a specialist if they don't have an in-house IT team. If you don't have a highly tech-savvy person on your team, hiring an IT specialist to resolve a DMS issue may cost more than it's worth.
3. It doesn't support industry compliance regulations.
Golubenko said free document management systems don't support industry compliance regulations like HIPAA, FDA, GLBA or SOX. This makes free DMS useless for regulated industries.
Before choosing a free document management system, it is important to assess which features you will need, how much data you have to store, what level of support you require and which industry regulations you need to comply with. These factors can determine whether a paid or free version is best for your business.
The best free document management software
There are several great free document management systems on the market, but the best one for your business will depend on your needs. Many individuals use free services like Google Drive and Samepage to store their digital documents. We spoke with industry professionals to get their take on the best options.
Vazirani named these programs as the top three free document management systems:
Although M-Files only offers a 30-day free trial instead of an entirely free plan, it is our recommendation as the best document management software available. It is very user-friendly and easily scalable. If you are looking to test out a free version before buying, M-Files may be the perfect option for your business.
How to choose a free document management system
Choosing a free document management system is a lot like choosing a paid version, except you need to pay extra attention to which features come without payment. Some companies highlight features and capabilities that are only available with paid software. Find a reputable company that can fulfill all of your document management needs and scale with your business as needed.
"I feel that it is imperative to find a system that provides search capabilities that are based on full-text searches and tags," said Vazirani. "This way, you can quickly locate the correct document needed if you are unsure of its filed location. Additionally, it may be in your best interest to find a system that works on both Android and iOS operating systems, as many organizations use both, and that there is some form of support system to assist with technical issues."
Some other common features to look for are file sharing, single sign-on, document imaging, version control and mobile apps. To help you choose the best document management system for your business, we created a checklist of important factors for you to analyze.
- Business and storage size: The number of employees who need access to your document management system will affect the type you need. Many free versions limit how many users can access the software. If you have a large team, free software may not be a viable option. Same goes for storage space – if your company needs to digitally store a lot of documents and folders, you may exceed the storage allowance for many free DMS options.
- Security and regulations: Your industry will determine which type of DMS you need. For example, if you are in an industry that is highly regulated or requires stringent security protocols, you need a document management system that supports secure document creation and folder sharing.
- Features: The DMS capabilities you should look for depend on your business tasks and your team's preferences. Do you need file sharing and on-the-go collaboration features? Does your DMS need to have a seamless user interface that integrates with other business platforms? These factors will determine whether you can partner with a free DMS or if you require a paid version.
- Budget: It is important to set a realistic budget for a document management solution. If you are starting a new business, your budget for paperless document storage may be small, but it is important to set up an adequate filing system as soon as possible. If you can't realistically afford to pay for a DMS initially, look for a free service that can easily scale into a robust paid version as your business grows.
When choosing a document management system for your business, it's OK to start small. If a free DMS can successfully meet all your current file management needs, great. However, consider what your future needs may be as your business grows. Always choose a system that can scale with your business