The paperless office probably won't become a reality in South Africa anytime soon. The "fill this out in triplicate" mentality has clung, like a desperate barnacle, to the business world. However, the software to keep this documentation stored securely and to improve the efficiency of its handling has evolved into a mature solution with both cost and business benefits for the small to medium organisation (SME).
Victor Queiroz, executive manager at Pitney Bowes, says that in many businesses, policies relating to document and record management are absent and most electronic records are predominantly managed on shared network drives or in emails where information is not organised or structured.
"Document management and records and information management involve more than just the digitising of information flows. Many business owners either don't have the time to give it their full attention, or they view it as an administrative headache and simply don't know where to start."
The information owned by any business is vital to its success; some may even see it as the lifeblood of the organisation. Client records, suppliers, policies, people, processes and frameworks are all stored as documents, and having a system in place which can manage these efficiently can only be to the benefit of the business.
South African legislation is increasingly demanding that businesses keep accurate and secure records spanning several years, and compliance is mandatory. Document management systems (DMS) are a way of meeting this challenge head-on and ensuring that information is not lost, damaged or poorly filed.
"Two of the main focuses for document management systems are compliance and productivity," says Mark Saacks, managing director at Onsoft. "When a company needs to implement any form of compliance, a document management system becomes essential. It ensures documentation is instantly available for referral in audit processes and for verifying integrity."
Craig Johnston, scanning director at The Document Warehouse agrees: "Discipline in this area, no matter how small the organisation, results in a well-maintained filing system as the company grows."
A software solution
Document management software and systems are designed to streamline the business. Records and information are managed automatically, in many cases removing the need for documents to be manually processed altogether and traditional paper-based tasks that were time-consuming and prone to errors can be taken into the system completely.
These are compelling arguments for any business. Improved efficiencies, reliable internal procedures, compliance, easily accessible information, knowledge sharing — all can be checked with a robust document management system.
"The benefits of a DMS solution are real," says Monique du Preez, director of knowledge management at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr. "It can make information readily accessible, it's possible to share information across geographically distributed offices, and you get structured storage as you deal with ever increasing volumes of documents, content and emails. And those are just some of the advantages."
Queiroz says: "A well-developed solution can eliminate the need for the cumbersome manual processing of documents such as invoices, packing slips, forms and statements.
"Automating these functions ensures a healthy records and information management programme and a near-paperless environment — which means operational efficiency, savings in time and costs, and a smarter way of running a business."
SMEs have to run a far tighter ship than weighty enterprises, so these improvements can have a marked effect on their bottom line, but the software is still expensive.
Focus on the SME
Matteo Pagani, enterprise systems administrator at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, says: "The three main challenges of implementing a DMS solution are the cost of the software, user uptake or buy-in, and creating a taxonomy or filing structure for the system, because that can be very complex.
"Implementation of a proper system is also dependent on whether the SME has identified IT as a key focus area and allocated sufficient budget.
Saacks says: "It would cost more for an SME to develop an in-house solution than an off-the-shelf product. More document management solution developers are providing cloud solutions which may make it more accessible and affordable for smaller businesses to get the benefits of document management."
Many companies in this arena are starting to offer the same solutions they present to the enterprise market, but tailored to match the infrastructures and budgets of smaller businesses. Smaller business can also take the technology built for corporates and strip it down to essentials that make it work for them and their very specific needs.
"Any solution will cost money, but [document management solutions] do improve the business and the use of existing data, which can result in generating further business," says Queiroz. "Enterprise solutions can be scaled down from an application and financial perspective to fit the SME. However, it is important to remember that a DMS solution is not about managing electronic and scanned documents only, but all business communication. Smaller companies can use simple methodologies with existing technologies to develop solutions of their own, but must implement the right file plan guidelines."
Taking the ideology behind the enterprise solution and mapping it to the SME may not be as easy as cut and paste, but the considerations are the same. The business needs to diagnose its current situation to assess its information requirements and how to manage them.
Ask questions such as: what records do we have, where are they, who owns them, what systems are used. The answers will guide the development of records and information management policies and procedures that will improve business efficiencies, compliance and save valuable time.
"The investment required to implement a successful solution, whether cloud or on-premise, can be seen as being too high for the SME," says Saacks. "However, I believe that maturity in the market will prove the catalyst for driving document management demand as organisations strive for competitive advantage and seek the benefits of improved efficiencies and productivity."
As technology becomes increasingly adaptive and intuitive, and document management solutions more flexible and cost-effective, content management will become integral to SME operations.
"Once a company gets used to a good DMS it's very difficult to go back to any other type of document storage. We are also living in a society where environmental sustainability is at the forefront of our minds. Going paperless is a term that is heard more often, and to do that without a proper DMS can be disastrous," concludes Pagani.
The evolution of document management
The first document management system (DMS) was developed in the 1970s when businesses saw the need to store and manage documents. It was also in this era that the dream of the paperless office was born.
It is believed that the first "true" DMS came about in the 1980s, and that has shifted from a simple translation of paper into an electronic format to the rich cloud-based solutions and feature-heavy DMS implementations available today. The content management systems of today are evolving as they face a changing business landscape.
"You have to consider the impact of the global village. In the past, small enterprises concentrated on local markets, merely because they just did not have the financial capacity to support global trading," says Craig Johnston, scanning director at the Document Warehouse.
"However, technology has created a much smaller world and trading globally for a small enterprise is just so much easier now, which means that the small enterprise needs to be technologically connected.
"How does this organisation then distribute the information to all four corners of the world? Digital conversion of original documentation produced and electronic generation of documentation, makes this very easy for any company to distribute information."
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