Quocirca's Straight Talking: Simple prescriptions for data headaches

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Written by Quocirca , Contributor

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New web-based document management solutions offer hope for those still relying solely on email, says Quocirca's Elaine Axby.

One of the continued themes in IT development is the need to move away from silos to cross-functional ways of getting things done - including between organisations as well as inside the organisation.

One of the key resources within organisations is information and it's vital for efficiency, good customer service and cost savings that information is not duplicated but is easily available and able to be shared between parties who need it.

Information on what the organisation is doing - sales quotes, contracts, maintenance requests, orders, casework records - is recorded in a number of ways but often in documents. In the early stages of creating documents, much communication is done by email, and Quocirca research shows that email is the most often used medium for business-to-business sales transactions (see diagram below).

The email approach provides some benefits, not least as some form of disaster recovery: if my laptop goes missing after I leave it on the train, at least a copy of my latest sales forecast still exists if I've emailed it to the director of sales. However, managing document creation by email begins to have limitations when multiple parties need to see and comment on the data, and the data is subject to scrutiny via regulatory requirements.

Traditional document management systems have been around for quite a while - the likes of Documentum, OpenText, Stellent and Vignette offer comprehensive solutions giving collaborative tools to create documents, store and retrieve them. These have been of significant benefit in some parts of organisations which have very formal processes for document creation, a large number of documents being created and tight regulatory requirements - the financial services, health and aerospace sectors being obvious examples.

There have been significant productivity gains reported - processes dropping from months to hours, big increases in handling of queries with no increase in staff numbers. However, specialist solutions have tended to be rather expensive on a 'per seat' basis and have not been adopted very deep into organisations.

As well as cost, two other critical issues for document management are security and ease of use. It's possible to give a formal document management solution to a restricted number of users with appropriate security and train them to use the system. However, for the true benefits of collaborative working to be realised, organisations need to bring on board those people who are often resistant to using new IT systems and who can be away from an office location - think sales people or social workers. Such people are likely to be using industry standard Microsoft or Adobe products for document creation, even if they then copy them on paper round the organisation.

The advent of open, web-based standards is giving an opportunity for document management to be more widely offered, improving efficiency, audit trails and maybe, finally, decreasing the number of trees felled.

US-based Xythos has recently launched its web-based, WebDAV (Web-based Distribution, Authoring and Versioning) content management and collaboration platform in the UK with specialist IT services company InTechnology. The solution is an implementation of the WebDAV standard, and enables users to open and save documents from industry standards applications such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite. It incorporates directory and security standards based around Active Directory or any LDAP-compliant source.

Using web-based technologies makes the creation of a document management solution relatively simple, and gives users easy access to others' documents in a familiar environment. Features such as workflow management, version control, document classification and security are key components of the overall solution.

Solutions in the same vein have been made available before: the basic version of Microsoft SharePoint bundled with Windows Server 2003 enables some document sharing, and Microsoft's new Office suite will have enhanced collaboration features. However, the WebDAV standard has not previously been bedded down, and integration into Microsoft Office was not handled particularly well. Now, with systems such as Xythos' and other approaches such as IBM's with its WorkPlace collaboration technology, we may just be at a point where such solutions are ready for the mainstream.

We are likely to see more such solutions on offer in future. They won't necessarily replace existing document management solutions but will enable the benefits of collaborative working to be extended across the organisation.

Increased competition can only be welcomed, as the opportunities for collaborative working can only increase. Businesses and public sector organisations need to keep an eye on developments in this space - doing things more simply with open standards will be the way forward for many.

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