Remember the old days of offices being cluttered with file cabinets full of paperwork, ingoing and outgoing boxes filled with documents, paperwork stacked on every shelf, and filling every desk drawer? Aren’t you glad they are a thing of the past? Isn’t it nice to work in a day of paper-free office spaces, where everything is scanned and stored digitally for easy access and extra security?

In all seriousness, the paperless “office of the future” is still far from being realized for many organizations. Studies show that the average office uses 10,000 sheets of paper per year, and a little over half of the documents printed in offices wind up being stored in a building somewhere, never to be seen again! To make matters worse, organizations in the US alone spend more than $120 billion a year on printed forms, most of which are out of date within three months. Consider the fact that a single four-drawer file cabinet can hold up to 12,000 documents—that’s a whole lot of paper.

Maybe you’re just starting to think about electronic document management, or you’ve already learned that creating a paperless office is a lot harder than it seems, and reams of paper somehow continue to stack up despite your best efforts. Electronic document management is much more than simply scanning and saving.

To help you effectively develop a strategy to migrate to an electronic document management system, we recommend the following seven steps:

Determine your document retention policy

The first step to reducing paper and creating a document management strategy is to get a handle on where all the paperwork is coming from. Look at what types of documents are being retained throughout your organization as a result of policy mandates. Which documents are your team members required to retain, and how long are they required to be retained? Is there a State or Federal government policy that requires you to maintain a specific retention schedule?
Do some parts of your document retention policy need to be rewritten to accommodate a digital future? If you don’t already have one, consider establishing a purge schedule based on when documents are no longer required, so you can ensure they are appropriately discarded. If utilizing an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS), the retention policies and rules can be implemented within the system.

Identify how documents are used throughout your key business processes

You also need to figure out how documents are being used throughout your organization in key business processes. How and when are documents being created, transferred, and stored? Think carefully about which of these documents can be eliminated. We recommend creating automated workflows using software, like an EDMS, based upon how many documents are being managed through your business processes. Once you understand why documents are being created throughout your organization, you can determine which ones need to be stored and which ones can simply be eliminated entirely.

Determine where to store your digital files and images

You need a safe and secure place to store all the digital files and images. It also needs to be readily accessible to key team members so that you can find individual files efficiently. We recommend storing digital documents in a central location using an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS), which can be located either “on-premises” or in the cloud.

A suitable EDMS provides various tools for creating and converting paper documents into digital assets, managing access and standardized compliance rules, and storing all digital documents and assets in a standardized file structure and format. By centralizing use and access, document management is the hub on which broader information management strategies, records management, and business process automation can be connected and deployed.

Establish a taxonomy & file-naming convention system

Before developing your file-naming convention, think about creating a pre-determined hierarchical structure for your files, a taxonomy (shown in figure 1). By creating a taxonomy, your organization can classify content into a logical filing system that will increase efficiency when searching for documents. Think about five to ten top-level functions of your organization and start there.

The file-naming convention that you use for your digital files will play a big role in making them searchable and accessible by current and future team members. Make sure you name files in a consistent manner that is understood by all relevant individuals in your organization. We recommend including key words in your file names based upon the content so you can tell what a document contains by file name alone without having to open it. An example of this would be “ProjectName – DocumentName – (YearMonthDay)” 

Determine the specifications for your existing document importing

There is a wide array of file formats you can use for scanned documents, including PDF, TIF, GIF, JPG, and PNG. Choose the format that best suits your organization. Whichever format you select, we recommend being consistent across all your files.

When scanning into the EDMS, you will want to have some form of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to quickly read your digital documents, especially if they are stored in a graphical format. Some EDMS software provides a method for being able to search through the text of the document. With OCR, characters on a scanned document will automatically generate searchable text. When used in conjunction with OCR, the EDMS may pull metadata from specific areas of the document. Customized metadata will give you more options for indexing your files, making them searchable across a wide array of key words and information. Anything you can do to make your stored digital documents more easily accessible to your team down the road is going to save time and make processes more efficient.

Ensure security and disaster recovery are in place

There are many essential steps to document management, but the most important is security. A timestamp and user stamp should be generated at each instance of a document management action. When someone uploads, deletes, or modifies a file, the user’s information and the timestamp are recorded into an audit trail. Also, will all users have access to all documents? User access may be restricted. The storage of sensitive information may be divided further into separate volumes within a server’s hard drive. If there are required public documents, there may be a public-facing portal provided with your EDMS to allow public information to be displayed without compromising the system.

Redundancy, backups, and disaster recovery fit hand in hand with security. Utilizing EDMS features, like cloud storage, allows for off-site access to resume work similarly if the user were in the office. Cloud storage is vital in the event of a disaster. Files may also be kept in an archive even after the retention policy deadline. This would allow your HR department to search for existing records as needed.

Select an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS)

As with any other procurement, the purchase of an electronic document management system is important. However, there are many different systems out there that can do exactly the job that you require them to do. The important part is including the right set of requirements in your RFP for the vendors respond to, so you can compare “apples to apples” between two or more very identical systems. Select an electronic document management system that works best for you based on revised business processes and functional requirements that have been documented through the work done so far. If you have your business processes cleaned up, a taxonomy ready to go, and infrastructure security just right, any EDMS will modernize your paper workflows.

Now, it’s time to bring together all of the documents you want to scan. Prepare them for the scanning process by removing staples, paperclips, and post-it notes, and make sure your documents are not creased or folded. Set them all aside in one convenient location so you will not have to hunt around for them once you begin the scanning process.

Welcome to the Office of the Future

By now, this might sound like a whole lot of extra work, especially if you have decades’ worth of documents that need to be identified, gathered, and scanned. However, doing a bit of extra preparation upfront will establish some standardized processes for scanning and managing documents. In the end, this extra preparation will save you time, money, and headaches for years to come.

Thanks to digital tools, like an EDMS, the paperless “office of the future” is more of a possibility than ever before. Take the time to do this right, and your digital documents will be safe, secure, and accessible to anyone in your organization with the right permissions. This will make it easier to interact with clients, implement workflows, and eliminate the need for filing cabinets. You will then be free to dispose of paper documents, according to your retention policy, to create a cleaner, more streamlined, and less wasteful office environment. By partnering with a consultant, your organization can easily navigate creating a document management strategy and find an electronic document management system that will not only deliver your organization’s system requirements but streamline your internal processes and workflows.

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