Businesses have never had to deal with as much data and information as they do today. Whether they’re dealing with invoices and contracts or reports and emails, companies need to ensure they safely store documents and make them easy to find and retrieve later on. This helps your organization become more efficient and makes it easier for staff to do their jobs.
Many organizations invest in a document management system (DMS) for these purposes. While there are many off-the-shelf DMS solutions you can purchase, building your own from scratch may be better over the long term. In this article, we break down how to build a customized document management system of your own for companies that work predominantly with Microsoft applications.
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A document management system is a digital system that stores, organizes, tracks and manages documents. It is essentially an electronic filing cabinet and is sometimes referred to as a computerized filing system. You can digitize paper documents, upload attachments, and sort everything into folders for safekeeping and future use.
But beyond serving as a document repository, many DMS solutions have features that make the storage and retrieval processes simple. These functions include image scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), document sharing and collaboration capabilities, electronic signatures, version control, workflow automation, and user permissions. The right document management system can help your business with process efficiencies, data security, cross-collaboration and regulatory compliance.
“With DMS, companies can properly store documents and rapidly recall them for later use to advance business operations and decision-making,” said Pravin Vazirani, managing director at Blue Owl Capital Corporation.
Microsoft users have more options than most when they need to set up a custom document management system. Many prebuilt DMS packages are available to purchase that work well on a variety of devices.
However, building a custom DMS presents an opportunity to create a platform that’s aligned exactly with your business’s needs and that integrates well with other Microsoft products in your IT infrastructure.
“Microsoft’s greatest benefit is its ubiquity in that it is used by countless businesses in nearly every industry,” said Vazirani. “While this ubiquity is excellent for uniform document sharing, the needs of a business for document management can be more industry- and even business-specific.”
Vazirani emphasized the importance of seamless DMS integration with your current hardware and software.
“For instance, if you are looking to manage financial data, then it is imperative that the DMS you use is able to communicate with your accounting and finance software,” said Vazirani.
When you create your own DMS from scratch, you’re able to ensure it syncs with your other essential programs in just the ways you want.
Below are the nine steps we recommend following when building your own custom Microsoft document management system.
Building a custom document management system first requires companies to ask what their specific use cases for a DMS are and to develop a solution around those needs.
Think about the type of data and documents you’ll be storing and managing. Will different departments and teams need access to different data and documents? If you need to protect sensitive information, what file-sharing permissions will need to be baked into your system? You only want people to be able to access the information they need to do their jobs. If anyone logged in can see everything, so can a hacker who hacks someone’s username and password.
Other questions to ask yourself include how much data will you need to store, how fast will new data be created and how long will you hold onto specific types of data for? Also, consider the structure you’ll want the eventual system to have. What folders will you need? What will be the process for adding documents to the system? [Read related article: File Management Best Practices Every Small Business Should Follow]
The threat from cybersecurity attacks continues to grow each year, so you should conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment as part of your early planning. Internal bad actors may also present an extortion risk, further highlighting why users should only be able to access the data they need to fulfill their responsibilities. Regulators are becoming more and more vigilant on issues surrounding data breaches, as can be evidenced by laws like the CCPA in California and GDPR in the European Union and United Kingdom.
Your DMS must meet all general and industry-specific security protocols and regulations to protect your business from cyber threats, breaches and data theft. Consult with department heads, colleagues at different levels within the business and stakeholders in general to understand the storage and transit of data within your company and how your DMS can streamline and secure these.
Planning the budget for your DMS is the next step. This is complicated by the fact that you should not limit your definition of “budget” to expenses involved in the initial creation of your DMS. You should also factor in its ongoing costs, like future scaling, keeping security measures up to date, training staff on how to use it and general maintenance.
Start by understanding the complexity of the project you’re undertaking. Consider the number of users and the amount of data storage you need. You may find it helpful to bring in outside vendors or consultants at this stage so you can get an estimate based on their experience creating such systems.
Try not to make decisions solely based on price. The cheapest solution may not be the right one. Without proper preparation and budgeting, you might only discover this when you need to scale up user numbers, functionality and data storage. Avoid the hassle by building wiggle room into your budget from the start and focusing on what aspects of your custom solution will provide the most value over the long term.
Cloud-based DMS platforms can be more scalable than onsite solutions, which makes them more cost-effective. In addition, in-house systems may require a substantial upfront hardware investment.
There may be several off-the-shelf DMS platforms on the market now that might be suitable for your use case. Even though you intend to build your own solution, it’s worth exploring what’s out there already to help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of document management systems in general. You may discover features and integrations during your investigation that you decide you want for your own platform and should include in your planning.
Similarly, you’ll also likely discover some of the limitations in existing software that you can overcome with your custom-built system. Take time to read user reviews of third-party products to understand what their pain points are with these systems. You can then avoid those missteps with your own creation.
Market research will help inform the development of your DMS. On the usability front, you could even take advantage of free trials so you can get an idea of how you want your own DMS to look and operate through the testing of existing products. [Get advice for choosing a small business document management system.]
Now that you’ve assessed your needs, considered security, planned your budget, and explored other solutions for greater insight, it’s time to start building your DMS. First, decide whether you want to use in-house resources for this or hire an external software development team. Factor in your budget, timeline and the technical expertise available within your company when you make this decision.
Regardless of who is doing the engineering, the first step is coding— writing the program that will turn the design and functionality you’ve come up with into a functioning system. Coding bloat is common in major projects like this, so you may wish to hire a consultant who can check in periodically to ensure your programmers are following best coding practices during construction. Good coding now will aid system speed, scalability and reliability later.
Don’t forget to use the tools that Microsoft already provides during this construction phase. Microsoft SharePoint, for example, can help you manage your documents, and it’s worth considering building the application into your system.
“[SharePoint] is a flexible and customizable platform used for building multiple types of solutions, such as intranets, learning management systems, ticketing software and more,” said Sergei Golubenko, SharePoint department coordinator and solution architect at ScienceSoft. “However, this platform is best suited for building document management systems, as it offers rich capabilities for this particular use case.”
Golubenko added that SharePoint provides easy creation, structured and secure storage, fast search and retrieval of documents, real-time collaboration, versioning, audit trail, compliance support, and other relevant abilities.
The most functional DMS platforms integrate seamlessly with the other essential business apps your company uses. You’ll want to prioritize integrations from the start, as this will help you streamline your company’s day-to-day operations.
Many businesses use Microsoft Office products extensively. If your company does, make sure your DMS integrates with apps like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Integration with Microsoft 365, the cloud version of the Office software, is also advantageous. This will allow access to your DMS across different devices and locations, which is critical if you have staff that work remotely or on hybrid schedules.
Microsoft’s Power Automate tool can help automate repetitive tasks in your custom DMS, from document approvals to data synchronization. Power Automate also features the vendor’s AI Builder, which can help improve workflows further.
When the coding stage is complete, you need to test what you’ve built to see if the system functions perform as required. You’ll get the opportunity to root out any issues or bugs that got past your development team (and the overseeing consultant if you hired one).
A good idea at this stage is to explore your creation from a user-experience perspective. Your employees will be using the system every day, so to maximize your investment, ask them what works well in this first iteration of the product and what needs further refinement.
For instance, if staffers find the controls difficult to operate, this will impair the efficacy of your DMS and make rollout across the company harder. Even though you’ll train employees on how to use the system, you want to make the interface intuitive enough so that staff won’t need to constantly refer to a user manual for simple tasks. Use this time to solicit feedback and tweak the user interface accordingly.
At this point, everything should be ready to go for your formal rollout. Like the prior stages of the DMS development process so far, this requires careful planning. During this time, you’ll be installing the system, migrating data from any existing storage platforms to your new one and training employees on how to use it.
Migrating data can be challenging. That difficulty increases the more data you have and when it’s spread across multiple systems. Take particular care to make sure you don’t lose data during the transfer and that the data you do get across is both accessible in the new system and correctly categorized.
Draft policies and usage instructions that detail exactly how employees should begin using the new DMS and what is and isn’t permitted. Plan for hiccups and expect employees to have questions and issues as they get used to your company’s new way of storing and sharing documents. Expect a learning curve — your new system won’t be fully implemented and second nature to everyone immediately.
Congratulations — you’re at the end of a long journey! Or, more accurately, you’re at the end of the initial stage of your DMS journey. The system you launched in the prior step probably won’t be the exact product you use forever. Earlier, we mentioned that it’s crucial to build a system that can scale to accommodate more users, greater functionality and increased data storage when required. Keep an eye on how close your system is to capacity and, if necessary, start planning changes you’ll need to make to your DMS to accommodate your business’s growth.
Run regular system audits and security checks as part of your review process. It’s also vital to get feedback and insights from daily users who may be able to suggest more efficient adjustments to controls and workflows. With this information, you can keep iterating on your creation to ensure it continues to suit your company’s needs.
Sean Peek and Skye Schooley contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.