DM: Where are we going and how do we get there?

Leigh Isaacs, Director of Records and Information Governance, White & Case and Jennifer O Brien, Knowledge Systems Manager, White & Case
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Document Management emerged in the 1980s and has undergone a slow-burn evolution since the early days of paper management and limited file format capture to grow into the robust enterprise-wide DMs of today. In the past several years, development has picked up pace with enhanced UIs, streamlined workflows, and cloud based/SaaS solutions gaining traction. So why do trends show that firms aren’t quick to jump to the “next best thing”? In large part, because they’re comfortable right where they are.  We have fully integrated, stable systems that enable us to properly secure our electronic capital, search is optimized and we can collaborate with our peers and effectively service our clients. We may have even won the hard fought battle for record user adoption. Why fix it if it isn’t broken?  

If you are running an older version of your DM, despite vendor pleas to upgrade, or if you remain impressed by a recent demo, but unwilling to jump ship, you are in the company of many. A DM upgrade is a major undertaking requiring already stretched thin IT resources, time, money and a wide range of cooperation from the top down. Where do you even begin? Here are a few essential questions to ask:

  DMs need to evolve to meet the ongoing and evolving demands of a global, mobile workforce 

Will this serve a business need?

The decision to upgrade should be driven by user need and benefit, not technology and IT. One of the biggest challenges is our inherent aversion to change. It can be disruptive, uncomfortable and an unwelcomed threat to the status quo. If you expect people to embrace change, you’d better make it well worth their while. When developing your strategy, assess the end user behaviors and preferences and design with them in mind. Speak with your users, but more importantly, listen to them. This phase is where the lion’s share of time should be spent. Learn how they work; individually, across functions and collectively. Understand departmental workflows. Do they use the current system and if not, why? Are there gaps in functionality and processes that will be bridged by this new version or product? A system or tool can have all the right features to meet the needs of the organization; however, if no one uses it, it can quickly become more of a liability than an asset. A system needs to be intuitive and user friendly. Many attempts to implement a tool have perished from the “too many clicks” syndrome. The end-user’s need is your compass.

What are your firm’s priorities?

It’s also important to assess organizational priorities and goals. Primary drivers are:  1) risk mitigation, 2) cost savings; 3) increased efficiencies. Many organizations desire less reliance on paper. Others may be motivated by client demands to secure information.  Some place a higher value on collaboration and knowledge sharing. Ultimately, prioritization of these drivers will be unique to each firm. Prioritize those important to you and develop requirements. 

What about the policy?

Whether you are implementing a DMS for the first time, upgrading an existing system or migrating to a new one, the first step has nothing to do with the technology itself. As a best practice, policy and process should drive technology. What sorts of information will be stored in the system? Who will use it? How does it need to be classified and secured?  Will the system need to support email filing? Is using cloud storage an option? These are merely a sampling of questions that should be raised.

Why look beyond the DM?

In addition to selecting and designing an easy-to-use system, look for opportunities to apply policy and automate important functions such as access and security management and pre-populating vital metadata. The right system will integrate with other key systems such as time/billing, HR and conflicts. 

Are we putting the cart before the horse?

It is never too early to develop a high-level strategy for where you’re going and how to get there. We may even argue that strategy development should precede end-user interviews, allowing you to proceed with confidence, knowing that a preliminary plan is in place, the necessary IT resources will be available, sponsorship is secured, and potential budget constraints have been considered. Of course, it won’t be possible to answer or anticipate all questions answered during the exploratory phase, but the sooner you begin defining your roadmap, the better positioned you will be when it comes time to execute it.

How do you improve odds of success?

Communication and awareness is a critical step to user-adoption. The messaging needs to be strategic, effective and permeate throughout the firm. Leverage end users to evangelize your efforts. Where might you get the biggest reward? Where can you get easy traction? Gain influencers and ambassadors by recruiting advocates and believers in the system.

What should we think about in the future?

DMs need to evolve to meet the ongoing and evolving demands of a global, mobile workforce. The changing legal and regulatory landscape will require adjustments in accessing, securing, collaborating, and sharing information. Successful systems will offer a “structured flexibility” that by design can support compliance with policies but remain agile enough to be embraced by end users.

Enhanced functionality such as integrated client portals and the ability to simultaneously edit will become more important as people work in a more social fashion. Pressure will grow for DMs to function beyond their traditional sense and serve as secure file transfer tools. They must be flexible enough to support easy email filing and retrieval, accommodate multiple file types and provide enhanced levels of both granular and broad monitoring.

We now live in a culture where the power exists with the end-users and as such we must enable them to self-govern within the parameters of policy. Firms will continue to look for the balance between collaboration and security, and the “open vs. closed” debate will no doubt continue to be a point of discussion in the years to come.

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