Chapter 27

How Document Management Systems Work


What do most people in a corporation do most of their working days? Work on documents. Perhaps those documents are budgets in the form of spreadsheets. They might be sales reports. They could be long-range projects. More likely than not, after people have finished working on a document, they send it to someone else, who might make comments on it and send it back, or pass it along to someone else. Paper trails grow.

Complex documents that require several people to work on them, and possibly others to sign off on them, create much larger problems. Think of a company newsletter. Several writers may contribute articles to it. Several editors may work on it. Artists and layout artists work on it, and then it often has to go back to editors to put the finishing touches on it. It may also require that other people not involved with its production review it, make comments on it, and send it back for yet another round of revisions, until everyone gives it their final approval.

That process is incredibly time-consuming and fraught with the potential for many errors. There is a way, though, that an intranet can help solve the problem: through the use of document management software. This is intranet-based software that allows groups of people to work on documents together, and that creates a way for work to flow to people, creating an audit trail.

Document management software allows intranet administrators to create systems that track documents through every aspect of their creation. The administrators can set it up so that only one person at a time can check any individual document out of a library-and they can also set it up so that only certain people are allowed to edit or read that document. They can give certain rights to read or work on documents to entire groups, or to single individuals. They can provide a "version history" of every document so that anyone can see who has worked on it, and what changes that person made. And they can give certain people the right to "lock" the document so that no further changes are allowed to be made. Some software even allows for review of older versions of documents to help track these changes.

Many companies are working on intranet-based document management software. This kind of software has been around for some time. The intranet, however, has made this kind of software of greater interest.

Most software works, like much of any intranet, on a client/server model. The documents themselves are managed by special server software. People access the documents and the system often through standard, off-the-shelf browser software such as the Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. When they check out documents, they can work on them on their own computer using their own software. But the heart of the system is the server software that allows for the tracking of every document.

How Document Management Systems Work

Document management systems allow people on an intranet to work cooperatively on the same document. There are many different kinds of systems, but the best of them enforce workflow rules for who can work on a document and when. For example, a document management system would allow people to check documents into and out of libraries to work on; when the documents were checked out no one but the person who checked it out could work on it. The illustration here shows a general view of how a typical system might work.

  1. The basis of a document management system is a central library of documents, where all the pertinent documents live. From here, people can check out or view any documents they're given the rights to. This document library lives on an intranet server. The entire document management system can be built in HTML format, so that no special client software is needed to run it-normal Web browsers can run it.
  2. When someone needs information about a particular document, they can view an HTML page about the document that gives data such as who created the document, how many revisions it has gone through, the last time the document was revised, and the size of the document.
  3. Different documents carry different kinds of permission rights. Some documents may allow only certain people to check them out and work on them, but allow everyone to view them. Other documents may let only certain people to view them.
  4. When someone checks out a document, other people are locked from using it. This ensures that people can't overwrite each other's work.
  5. After the work has been done, the document can be put back into the library. Now someone else can work on the document. The system can also lock the document after a certain point, so that people would be able to view it, but not change it.
  6. Document management software is particularly powerful when used in concert with workflow software, or when it has workflow features. Workflow software allows intranet administrators to design a process by which a document moves through various steps until completion. For example, a newsletter may first have to go to a writer, then a designer, then an editor, and then a vice president. Workflow software moves the documents through the steps, creates an audit trail, and makes sure that only people with the proper rights can work on the documents at each step of the way.