By Carl Frappaolo
You already have a World Wide Web site, and you are no doubt well on your way to deploying an Internet environment. But what have you done about document management? Many organizations have been mesmerized by the Internet's sheer power of open access to documents and are moving to leverage this power into more effective communication within their enterprises and with their customers and partners.
The electronic document has come of age. Electronic documents are used as widely and casually as their paper predecessors. A recent study by Forbes magazine found U.S. corporations sent more electronic mail last year than the U.S. Postal Service delivered paper mail. Once you've opened the information floodgates with the Internet and permutations such as intranets and extranets, the rules of information accessibility are changed forever. The Internet's viewing and retrieval capabilities, combined with the publishing and control/manipulation features of document management systems, are empowering companies to look beyond the current rules of corporate relationships.
Yet an unsuspecting organization can be crushed by the sudden flood of information. Companies should take time early on to construct a strategic approach, or the opportunity offered by this unprecedented ability to manipulate document-based information could be under-realized.
A document management system plays several roles in the Internet. It can make documents viewable (Web-accessible), enable online publishing (Web-enabled), and facilitate customized communications (Web-exploited). Each of these levels requires varying degrees of content and process control, and each propels an organization to new levels of communication and business process execution. Finding the right mix takes careful and diligent business analysis. Not using this functionality to its fullest can be as damaging as overusing it.
Here's a look at the three levels of document management on the Web:
Every document management system that can be deployed over the Internet allows browser-based access to a document repository. Browser-based access is the lowest common denominator among document management products for the Web. Although these products provide controlled access, there's no support for managerial functions such as creating new documents, checking documents into the repository or editing documents from a Web browser.
Browser-based access supports the original premise of the Internet: an online publishing system. Adding a "Web-accessible" document management system to the Internet permits virtually any document, not only those formatted in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), to be viewed from a browser. A basic document management system greatly facilitates the publishing of documents over the Web and can eliminate the need to have a webmaster convert and handle documents prior to publishing.
The browser-based level of functionality is ideal for applications in which documents are centrally managed and controlled yet wide-scale read access is required. A corporate policy and procedure manual, for example, can be created, updated and edited in a desktop publishing system by corporate administration. Placing the document in a Web-accessible repository allows read access globally; field personnel and branch offices can get up-to-date information using a browser. Information is viewed in its true native format in real time.
Before a company takes this approach to wide-scale publishing and communication, the system designer should consider its limitations. Because the document management system provides access to native (non-HTML) documents, the designer must be aware of the requirements placed on the browser client platform.
Several document management products automatically convert documents to HTML. These include Information Dimensions, Inc.'s Basis Intranet, PC Docs, Inc.'s CyberDocs/OpenDocs, Interleaf, Inc.'s Intellecte/BusinessWeb, NetRight Technologies, Inc.'s IManage Internet, EZPower Systems, Inc.'s PowerOffice and OpenText Corp.'s Livelink Intranet. Thus the client machine isn't required to have the native authoring tool, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Word or Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect. But there's a possibility that the documents will lose their formatting when converted.
With products such as Documentum, Inc.'s Rite Site, NovaSoft Systems, Inc.'s NovaWeb, Altris Software, Inc.'s Wisdom and FileNet's @mezzanize, the browser on the client can launch the native application or a viewer and maintain the original formatting and, possibly, editing. However, this approach requires that the native application or viewer be resident on the client platform, thus limiting the concept of universal access and ultra-thin clients.
Going a step beyond, Intranet Solutions, Inc.'s Intra.doc automatically converts a document to Adobe Systems, Inc. Portable Document Format for viewing. In another approach, InterTech Information Management Corp.'s DocuPact provides a document viewer that supports more than 200 file formats as an integral part of its document management server, letting users view the native file without launching the native application.
In each instance, the functionality of Web-accessible systems is limited to read-only access. Thus, the Web isn't used as a dynamic environment. Going beyond this, some products allow a Web-accessible document to become an active document. They include Wisdom, Nova-Web, Basis Intranet, PowerOffice and Livelink Intranet.
Under a Web-enabled document management system, the document repository is a bidirectional working environment. Browser clients can check documents out of the repository, so a user can make changes and check the revised document back into the repository. The browser client is enabled to be a combination author/editor and reader.
Now the document can be more tightly tied to a business process, and it becomes the foundation for bidirectional asynchronous communication. Web-enabled technology greatly facilitates collaborative document creation and management in a secure and controlled environment. For example, a user could create an extranet-based repository of contracts from which various corporate personnel, outside lawyers and business partners could retrieve drafts of a document and make proposed changes. As the documents are checked back in to the repository, new revisions would be created and an audit trail maintained to record the life cycle of the contract, monitoring the negotiation process.
In a similar manner, branch office personnel could maintain specific sections of a corporate policy and procedures manual so that authoring and editing become global functions as well. Customers also could complete and review order and shipping documents online. In this approach, the Web-enabled environment is used to create an open platform on which business can be conducted, not simply used as a publishing mechanism.
The highest level of Internet-related functionality is provided by products that specifically exploit the dynamic nature of Web content and transform documents into entities capable of customized one-to-one communication. Using programmatic logic or heuristics, Web pages are constructed on the fly to provide personalized messages and formatting to intranet or extranet clients who identify themselves as they log in to the system.
Under this approach to Web document management, the content on the site is actively managed. Customers can receive customized home pages that feature their corporate logo and enhancements relating to the specific products and services they have purchased. For example, stock investors receive reports focused on their investments only. In each instance, the customized reports are created without human intervention.
This is one-to-one communication, the goal of most customer- or service-oriented organizations. And it's now cost-effective. The personalized documents aren't physically created and stored, but virtually created and provided through the integration of the compound nature of the Internet and the intelligent link management of the Web-exploited document management product. Products that provide this functionality include RightSite, PowerOffice and InSystems Technologies, Inc.'s Fandango.
No matter which of the approaches you take, you need to consider workflow. Workflow plays a valuable role in controlling process logic in all environments. This ability to control process logic is combined with the document management system's control over content and integrity to enable mission-critical, document-centric business applications.
For this reason, many document management products offer integrated workflow capabilities. Those that don't typically have partnerships with workflow technology vendors. Within the Internet, workflow can augment the level of control provided by the document management system.
Within a Web-accessible environment, workflow could be used to automate the posting of a document to a Web site. For example, the final step of a workflow script that routed a policy change for approval would be the publication of the change to the Web-accessible repository.
In more sophisticated Web-enabled and Web-exploited environments, workflow scripts could be tightly integrated to specific documents, making the routing, editing, approval and submissions of documents part of the Web environment. Interaction with the Web client would trigger subprocesses, such as alerting a local sales person to a perceived need of a customer.
Such trends and needs would be determined based on process rules, including the use of key fields in an electronic form completed by a Web client. Or it might be based on heuristics through ongoing interaction with a Web-based customer. Within a Web-accessible environment, workflow could be used to automate the posting of a document to a Web site. For example, the final step of a workflow script that routed a policy change for approval through an enterprise would be the publication of the approved change to the Web-accessible repository. Thus, the document management functionality begins to mimic that of a Web-enabled environment. Through the application of workflow, Web content is proactively kept current.
In more sophisticated Web-enabled and Web-exploitive environments, workflow scripts could be tightly integrated to specific documents, making the routing, editing, approval and submissions of documents part of the Web environment. Interaction with the Web client would trigger sub-processes, such as alerting a local sales person to a perceived need of a customer. Such trends and needs would be determined based on process rules, including the use of key fields in an electronic form completed by a Web client. Or it might be based on heuristics through ongoing interaction with a Web-based customer.
When a company looks into the availability of a workflow component within a document management product, it also must determine the level of functionality it provides over the Web. This functionality ranges from the passive involvement of Web clients in workflow scripts to a more active role that includes creating and initiating workflow processes from any Web client. The passive approach is supported in products such as Intellecte/Business Web. The more active role is taken by RightSite, PowerOffice, Livelink Intranet and NovaWeb. CyberDocs, DocuPact, @mezzanine and IManage provide workflow through third-party integration.
Today, the focus is Web-accessible and Web-exploited document management. But on the near horizon, file encryption techniques and electronic signatures will be widely accepted, and workflow-controlled processes will transform the way we work.
Until such time, there's unprecedented opportunity to explore how document management systems on the Internet can redefine a company's operations. I advise my clients to focus on the business process, determine the best manner to communicate and define the required role of corporate personnel vs. the role of the customer. Start now to visualize the optimal environment to meet your needs, then determine whether technology will take you there.
Frappaolo is executive vice president at The Delphi Group, a consultancy in Boston, and an authority on the technical and practical aspects of document management. He can be reached at email@example.com