We often focus on how large companies manage their documents. However, proper electronic file management presents huge benefits for small businesses and professionals as well.
These smaller entities are mostly hesitant to adopt newer technologies because of the costs or the assumption that they will not bring any significant advantages. Both points are wrong. As a matter of fact, small enterprises can find unexpected benefits from adopting simple and practical methods for digital archiving.
Hidden costs and time loss, not to mention stress on the personnel involved, weigh down the practice of retrieving paper documents but are usually not given much spotlight. A typical situation is one where recent documents (from the last 12-16 months) are easy to find as they are located in the office and can be immediately accessed. Retrieving old documents (from 2-3 years ago) can take hours of your precious time. Even older ones may require entire days. All of this has a noticeable impact, especially on small-sized businesses.
Let’s see how we can take on this issue.
The method I am going to describe can be applied where the volume of documents amounts to no more than 1000 per year (roughly 20 per day); a bigger number would need more articulated solutions.
The opportunity to start document management as a digital process should be an occasion to analyse and potentially rethink office work. There are many inherited procedures (we have always done it this way) which have no longer a reason to be. By avoiding changes in working practices, technologies or procedures, they become obsolete. This moment of change is the perfect opportunity to start cleaning things up and optimise our work.
Going from analogue to digital is an important moment that has to be managed with all the people involved. Even within a small workgroup, Change Management is something not to be underestimated. It must be taken into account that every change affects people.
So we have to give an answer to the classic question: is this really necessary?
In some sectors, digitalization is known not to be only necessary but compulsory. But should we do this in all sectors? Is there an advantage?
Be it about contracts, transport notes, or simply letters to customers, the biggest problem is always the same: retrieving the original documents takes time. It is hard to predict how much, and it is almost assured that the people involved will find it stressful. How can we solve the problem? By creating an archive of digital copies that are easy to access and search through to minimise the number of papers moving around, and by building a system that allows a business to retrieve without a fault the original paper document, whenever it is needed.
It is essential to introduce to the employees the idea of working as much as possible with electronic copies of the documents, leaving papers to those situations (mostly related to legal issues) in which they are required.
Here I will consequently address paper management only, and dedicate a future article to the dematerialization of documents through mechanisms such as strong and weak electronic signatures.
Let’s now get to the point: how do we organise our work?
1) Process Supervisor
It is important to have someone oversee the process, especially during the initial phases. That is when many small problems will arise, and many small misunderstandings will surface.
Manage the process steadily! Otherwise, things may go astray for trivial reasons.
Furthermore, it is necessary to have a person that has a minimum of knowledge of your processes.
Give yourselves attainable objectives, take the process one step at a time, and you will reach your goal.
2) Unique Identification or Protocol
Usually, all inbound and outbound documents are registered as part of a protocol, gaining a unique ID number.
For all those documents that are currently not registered, create a separate enumeration that is, an additional protocol.
Ideally, you should use labels, but also writing a number on the very document is acceptable. Just make sure that it is always readable.
From this moment on, every document in your office will have its own ID.
3) Spreadsheet or Database
Now we are ready to create our electronic catalogue. We can use a spreadsheet (like Excel) or if you are more experienced, a local database (such as Access) as our tools of choice.
In our PCs, we have Microsoft Office or the open source version OpenOffice, or NeoOffice if you are Mac users. All of them include a spreadsheet and a database.
As spreadsheets are more used, I will describe here how to track your documents on one of them. A person who possesses even some skill with Access or similar software can easily compile everything in a database.
Let’s create a series of columns (see picture) with all the info that could be useful to retrieve the document.
The fields we need are those circled in red.
The Protocol column is the unique name we are giving to the document to identify it (it usually is our internal protocol).
The Folder column can be used to note how you are currently managing the document.
The Binder and Box columns are compiled when it is time to archive the papers. At this stage, you will put your document (or your folder) inside a binder or directly in a box or a shelf. By giving a name to the box and the binder, we can identify where our document has been positioned. Write the coordinates in the spreadsheet.
Finally, the File Name column will be used after the scan to insert the name we gave to our electronic file.
Another column is usually added to track any possible paper delivery so that we know who is in possession of the original document. This is not strictly necessary for small companies.
If you are already registering your documents on a computer system, verify if it is possible to add your system’s references. It will reduce work to the four columns described before.
Now comes the objection: we waste too much time compiling data. This is not entirely wrong, but that time is abundantly recovered the moment you need to find papers. As efficient as your personnel may be, the search for documents is an activity that always takes time and often with little results. With a simple storage system, the time required is only the time required to retrieve the document at the coordinates written in the spreadsheet.
At this point, documents have to be digitalized.
The easiest solution is to use a table scanner or a multi-function printer.
Some little suggestions:
- Scan in black and white (colour is not needed except in some very specific cases); Set the scanner to 200 or 300 dpi for the best quality (300 dpi is advised).
- Set the scanner to 200 or 300 dpi for the best quality (300 dpi is advised); Make sure that the scan is readable and includes every page.
- Make sure that the scan is readable and includes every page; Save the document in a .pdf format (to keep it readable over time).
- Save the document in a .pdf format (to keep it readable over time); If possible, make an OCR (optical character recognition) version of the document. That will allow you to find text in the document and copy/paste it if you need parts of the document elsewhere.
- If possible, make an OCR (optical character recognition) version of the document. That will allow you to find text in the document and copy/paste it if you need parts of the document elsewhere.
- If the documents are too big (for example, over 20MB), try to separate them in a logical way so that you have more files of a smaller size.
- Give the file a recognisable name such as the protocol number, and write it in the Excel file. Even better, have it preceded by the date of the document, written as year_month_day. (for example, 2013_05_16_Inv_2013-015.pdf).
This phase will initially require some time, but once you find the right parameters for the scan, you won’t need to go back to them again.
5) Structured Folders
Now, what are we doing with the file?
Normally, I suggest a system of document management, but, as I said at the beginning of this article, I am describing a system that requires as little expense as possible.
A widely adopted solution is a structure of folders, possibly shared.
It matters little if they are ordered by year or category. What is important is that the structure is logical and easily accessible.
Remember that the Excel file, as a document system, will allow you to cross-search and search by parameters better than what can be obtained with just a structure of folders.
Finally, you can search for the file names in the highest folder and find your files quickly.
Avoid keeping too many files inside the same folder. Try to divide them so that you will never have more than 100 files in the same folder.
6) Put the Documents in Numbered Containers
This is usually the easiest part, as the person that manages the documents will already be used to organising the archive.
I will still outline some ground rules:
- Documents have to be put in the right containers. If you put too many inside the same box, the retrieval process will be slower and more complicated, and there will be a higher chance of mixing up the documents.
- Use containers: put folders inside binders, and binders on shelves or inside boxes. It allows us to reach the document we need while moving as little paper as possible, thus speeding up the process and avoiding disorganising the rest of the archive.
- Every container has to have an identifying label on the exterior so that we have an identification code for it to write in the spreadsheet. For long-term archiving, I suggest you use specific containers to protect the documents from humidity and dust.
You may have noticed that I did not mention how to organise documents from a content standpoint, and that is because it is not the purpose of this article. You may continue to organise them the way that fits best your field.
Just remember that in a digital process, the organisation of documents is given by compiled data, not the papers’ position. In simple words, what is important is to be able to retrieve those papers, not to keep them together in some specific logical order!
7) Updating the Spreadsheet
Managing your Excel file is vital, as it is bound to be an easy method to search your documents and has to, therefore, be managed following some rules.
You have to try to standardise the way you insert information as much as possible.
As a matter of fact, we often write the same piece of information differently.
Let’s illustrate with an address:
3 Avenue George Washington
3 Av. George Washington
3 Av. G. Washington
Av. George Washington, 3
These four addresses are the same, but a computer search will present them as four distinct objects. We have to find a common way of writing our data to make future searches easier.
Be aware that the data file must constantly be updated whenever the document is moved elsewhere, otherwise, the entire process will become useless! Your spreadsheet is the map to retrieve your document, and must always be kept correctly up to date!
An ideal solution would be to attach the link to the file so that it can be opened directly from the spreadsheet.
In the end, the steps listed until now are quite well known. What is usually missing is how to keep the data safe. We often forget to make a copy of the data.
In the structure we are devising, it is essential to keep the integrity of your spreadsheet.
I recommend you to do daily backups in safe storage units. So avoid USB sticks or external hard drives which can be easily misplaced!
Use a local net storage if you have it, or you can alternatively use an online storage service, such as Dropbox or Amazon, which offer space for free or for a very low price.
Files have to be regularly saved (more than once per day if needed).
The importance of backups is often underestimated until it is too late and we need to recover the data!
Once the process is ready, we have to put it on paper.
We have to create what is widely called the Management Handbook, a document describing what came out of the previous phases.
How to create a protocol, how to compile spreadsheets, how to make scans and the rules for naming a file should constitute the information in the Procedure Handbook. To sum things up, everything you want to communicate to describe and regulate the process should be provided in one place.
Do it immediately (not six months later), when your employees are still feeling involved and can give you their contribution!
Please remember that nothing is set in stone, so everything can be updated according to how your way of working changes over time.
This is the last step which, all too often, many do not bother with it.
We have to train the other users of document management system on how the new process works, and how to use the newest tools. Doing otherwise comes at the risk of a slow return to paper documents that will frustrate all your efforts.
Our small document management manual ends here.
As you have seen, what I have been describing is a system which needs almost no investment, except for the human resources involved.
Clearly, I suggest a more articulated approach for bigger volumes of documents. In our case, the important thing is to start transferring your documents to digital and understand that, contrary to what we thought in the past, such practice is not just an option any longer, rather a necessary choice.