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In this article we take a look into something that should be simple: storing files and documents – and then finding them when needed. Most organizations struggle with this seemingly basic aspect of information management. There are dozens of network drives and hundreds, sometimes thousands of SharePoint sites and other legacy systems. Each system is a silo, so you need to remember where to start looking for documents. And inside each system the folder structure has over the years turned into a folder labyrinth. Document searching gets harder, different versions are stored all over the place, hyperlinks to documents get broken, and no one seems to know who has permissions to see what documents. Systems designed to store documents become document hiding places, creating chaos. 

Cloud only solves so much

A seemingly better approach is to set up modern cloud-based collaboration and file sharing. It’s nowadays so easy! We can use systems like O365, Google G-Suite, Box, and many more. A popular newcomer in this area is Microsoft Teams which covers many aspects of collaboration and can also store files. While previously we would ask the IT department to set up a SharePoint site for a new project, now we set up a new team in Teams. And since the systems are cloud-based, the IT department no longer needs to worry about servers, software updates or tape backups.

This clearly is progress – but with one huge flipside. Most of these modern cloud systems do not solve the content chaos, they only relocate it. In fact, things might get worse: it’s now easier than ever to create new silos. For every new project we create a new one, and then the next one after that. When we need to find a key document, we try to remember or guess where it was stored a couple of months ago.

As the result of these inefficiencies 30 percent of knowledge workers spend 30 percent of their working time looking for information, rather than doing something that supports the business.

More than a waste of time

Document chaos is not just an efficiency issue – it also risks quality and compliance. Here’s why:

  • Transparency – how long does it take to find all the documents for a given topic, product, audit, customer or project? Do you know if you have found everything, the full picture? Compliance requires the ability to find all the documents, records and evidence.
  • Compliance – those documents and tracking spreadsheets may contain tasks or corrective actions that easily get buried into the document mass. Is there something we committed to complete by end of next month?
  • Following the correct process - some documents require a manager’s signature to complete a process, others should be reviewed annually, or some should be destroyed after 3 years. This is very difficult to achieve when documents are hidden in folder labyrinths.
  • Full Audit Trail – basic compliance principle is that changes are being logged, and this logging history, or audit trail, is available when needed. Good computer systems provide that in the form of version control or event logging. But how do you keep full audit trail in documents when they are scattered in many systems, and different versions sent as email attachments around?
  • Business continuity – often projects go on for a long time, and sometimes there are changes in key personnel. How do you pick up from that key person who used to manage all those tracking spreadsheets but suddenly isn’t available?
  • Security – adding more and more file locations also means organizations eventually lose access control. What if there is a sensitive document sitting in a SharePoint site – how to find out who else can see the document in question? Have people copied this document into other, even less controlled locations? If some documents need to be approved by a manager, how do you guarantee that only the designated manager can do that?

What could be improved?

Situation can be improved with better work practices and some new IT tools to support them. Consider these:

  • Ideally there is exactly one instance of every document, instead of different versions copied into several locations. Sometimes that is hard to reach, but should always be the goal. Favor systems and processes that allow in-place working and collaboration on documents.
  • When emailing a document to a colleague, only send a link, not the document itself. If your current system doesn’t easily support that, get a better system. When someone renames the folder the document is in, or moves the document to another folder, does the hyperlink to the document get broken? If yes, consider a better system.
  • In highly regulated business the Full Audit Trail is a big deal. But in every business just having a full and easily accessible version history behind every document is priceless. Favor systems that let you see all the versions of the document and who has done what and when to the document. This should be a basic requirement.
  • When documents are a part of a repeated process, say, work instructions, contracts or invoices, favor systems that have proper workflows. If you see a document that says ‘final approved version’ in its title, yet you could just go ahead and edit the document, something is very wrong. Better tools please! And if you think systems with proper workflows are mysterious and expensive, think again – things have changed since the 1990’s.
  • If possible, get rid of handwritten approval signatures. For many use cases there are both electronic and digital signing options. Typically, the electronic signatures are regulatory compliant or ‘good enough within the company’ while digital signatures is preferred between legal entities. Both approaches could allow signing 24/7 on any device and make signers aware of what they should do.
  • Folder tree structures are essentially 1960’s computer technology. With today’s volumes they simply no longer work. Adding metadata tags on top of a folder tree structure is a patch, not a solution. Solution: favor modern systems that allow organizing content in different ways. Consider systems like Netflix or Spotify: they have no folders, yet it’s easy to find your favorite music and TV shows.
  • Even if you build better tools and repositories for all your files and documents, moving millions of existing documents without disrupting daily business is difficult. Some modern computer systems allow connecting to the existing drives and repositories so you can search, organize and use the documents without mass migration.

The Wrap

Indeed, sometimes quality and compliance are not about very special GRC (Governance, Risk and Compliance) computer systems, but simply being able to find all those important documents. It adds efficiency, saves time and improves quality for your company.

How long does it take you to find all the documents that relate to a given project, supplier, product launch, marketing campaign or supplier audit? What if it took you 10 seconds?

Download the E-book "How to Find a Needle in a Haystack" and read more about the benefits you can reap by putting information to work for you with the help of metadata, connectors, and Artificial Intelligence.

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