Document Management Software (DMS) – Basics and Examples

Are you looking for document management software or have you heard that you need a DMS? You don’t even know what a document management system is suitable for? Or you are thinking about which tool suits you?

In this article, you’ll learn what you need a DMS for, what features are important, and gain insight into possible vendors.

What is document management software?

As the name suggests – document management software helps you manage and organize your documents. In the best case, you have a system in your company or project that contains all your documents from quotes to customer communications to project reports. Compared to paper-based or decentralized document management, you have the advantage that you and all employees can quickly access important documents via search function and folder structure – of course only after appropriate approval.

By the way:
The abbreviation DMS is often used for document management software or document management system.

What is a document in a DMS?

The term “document” in paper form can represent a letter, a deed, a contract or simply a written down document. The shape and material are not essential. Analogously, it applies to the electronic document, which appears in the most diverse forms, in the electronic case file types. In both cases, certain features can characterize the document. These are important for document management to be able to give a structure:

Document characteristicExplanation
Physical propertiesElectronic or paper format
Formal propertiesStructure and design of the document
OrderIs there a technical assignment? Which version or order?
ContentReference to which topics?
CharacterDoes the document need to be archived? Is it allowed to edit it? Keyword retention obligation
TimeCreation date, last editing or use, the document expires
ProducerWho wrote or sent the document?
UsersWho received the document? Who may read, edit? Who edited last?
What is a document in terms of a document management system?

By the way:
Here you can read more about the basic definition of a document – independent of a DMS.

What are the types of documents?

Initially, the document management system can only manage electronic documents. However, you must distinguish between two types of documents.

  1. Documents that have been converted from paper form to electronic form, usually by scanning into image format. Unless converted to electronic text, these documents cannot be searched.
  2. Documents that have already been created in electronic form.

Often the term document is colloquially equated with certain file types:

  • .doc for the office document
  • .txt for a plain text file
  • .pdf for pdf documents

But other formats can also be called a document:

  • Graphics and images in any file format
  • Video formats
  • Sound recordings
  • ASCII and XML files
  • Spreadsheet

However, the file format is not essential for managing a document as long as the format is recognized by the managing software. Thus, even a file with collected data can be understood as a document.

By the way:
There are already document management systems for documents and especially books in paper format. However, these systems are primarily used in larger libraries and archives.

How does a DMS work?

The functionality of a DMS can be explained well in 4 steps using the resume of a document.

Document Management Software - DMS - Workflow
Workflow of the document in the document management software (DMS)
  1. The document capture
    The first step is to capture documents in the system. In addition to electronic documents, paper-based documents can also be converted into an electronic form (scan) and saved. In addition to the document name, there is often metadata that describes the characteristics of a document in detail (author, content in keywords, date, etc.).
  2. Availability of structured data and features
    You can find the document again via the set metadata. If you also use a full-text search for electronic documents, you have even more options for a successful search. In addition, the search can be performed regardless of location.
  3. Document workflow and distribution
    Once uploaded, many solutions allow you to send documents to different people using a predefined workflow. For example, the approval for a project budget can be automatically submitted to the decision maker. Especially the multi-level approval of documents in regulated industries is facilitated by the DMS. You often receive an email directly when a new document is available for approval or review. Translated with (free version)
  4. Archiving
    Once documents have been released and are no longer or rarely edited, they can be archived. It is important that you can observe retention periods. In addition, documents must be stored read-only or at least provided with versioning so that changes can be traced.

For documents in paper format or documents without approval, skip document distribution if necessary. Note that some documents, such as contracts, must be kept in original paper form in addition to electronic form.

What must document management software be able to do?

A document management software has various basic functions that can be extended with additional auxiliary features:

Basic functions of a document management software

  • Document capture and input function (paper format and electronic)
  • Document storage in the archive
  • Workflows for documents for approval or viewing
  • Rights management for user groups (ability to cooperate)
  • Change history with versioning

Help functions for your document management software

  • Automatic capture of electronic documents including metadata
  • Full text recognition of scans from analog documents
  • Search function for free text and metadata
  • Simultaneous editing of documents
  • Form Generators
  • Contract management with reminder of deadlines
  • Analysis of the use of the DMS for process optimization
  • Additional mobile version (iOS/Android)

How to evaluate document management software

  • UX and UI:
    The DMS should help you in your daily work and not block you. Thus, user-friendliness in particular is an important aspect in the selection. A slightly older UI (user interface) will not significantly influence the benefit but the positive/negative attitude of your employees towards the new system.
  • Cloud vs. on-premise server:
    Whether you want to use a SaaS solution or your own server depends largely on your use case. With the cloud solution, you always have up-to-date software and are location-independent. In return, you are tied to the provider with a monthly term and must rely on the hosting. On the other hand, your own server must also be operated and updates must be installed by you.
  • Functionality::
    The basic features should be considered in a document management software. Which additional features you need, you should choose yourself according to time saving and cost saving.
  • Pricing:
    See next section

What does a DMS cost?

The cost of a document management system (DMS), as for all software solutions, is very broad. You can even use free solutions or open source software if the delivered scope is sufficient for you (more on this below).

You can invest between 20€ and 80€ per month and user for a cloud solution, depending on the provider and scope. Of course, more is possible, but you should see which functions are important for you.

  • For amango you pay between 39€ and 59€ per month and user depending on the number.
  • With ecoDMS you pay just under 85€ for the basic version per connection to the server.
  • Fluix starts at $20/month and user, but then costs $50 in the advanced version.

(Prices without guarantee, as of August 2020)

What document management software is available in comparison?

List of important document management systems

Cloud software or on-premise? Some providers have both options in their portfolio. Here’s a list of popular document management systems:

Free document management software or open source

Especially for private individuals, a DMS is not so relevant that a higher sum or any money at all should be invested. But even for small businesses and self-employed people, a free solution can make sense if you can accept the sacrifices in functions.

These document management software are available for free – some open source, some freemium for one or a few users, and some are free only in the OnPremise version.

The Microsoft variant of the DMS

You can use a Microsoft-independent solution for your DMS. This is where the cloud variants already mentioned come in handy. However, there are some advantages that speak for the extended Microsoft variant of the DMS. Microsoft is known to offer total solutions for companies with Microsoft 365 or Office 365. In combination with SharePoint, this results in a system on which and with which you and your employees can work.

With additional features, some vendors offer SharePoint-based solutions for your DMS:

A good comparison between Office365-based solutions and the classic DMS solution can be found in this article by Martin Hülscher.

Document management system on Mac

The software selection for the Mac is not always the easiest, but has become much better than it was some time ago. For document management systems on the Mac, there are a few notable examples for on-premise installation:

Alternatively, you can use almost all cloud solutions as DMS for Mac. Most DMS listed here also support Safari or Chrome for Mac.

Document management system for SMEs

For small businesses and most SMEs, the question of whether to introduce a DMS also arises at some point. Complete solutions or extensive on-premise document management software do not always make sense. Important aspects are often the price and also a quick availability during the introduction.

Certain providers have focused on the SME target group. Among them, in addition to manufacturers of free software or freemium solutions, are the following:

  • Accantum Hosted
  • Alfresco
  • Amagno
  • Box Business
  • DocuWare
  • Dropbox for Business
  • eCOUNT

Special case – document management in project management software

A DMS makes sense not only in a corporate context. Even if you are managing a larger project, you will eventually reach the point where you would rather have an overview of all documents than have them scattered across different teams and parties. You now have a choice,

  • either use additional software for document managementor
  • use the already established project management software with integrated DMS.

The problem is that few project management tools offer comprehensive integrated document management. Here’s an overview of potential PM tools that can score with a basis in document management:

Unnamed tools often only have the possibility to upload files, but neither versioning nor structure in the file storage. All reviews of project management software on also deal with the area of document management. So if you want to review a particular tool, feel free to read the related review.

Document Management Software Conclusion

As you can see, there are many providers for DMS systems. The focus is on you, the user, and the choice is yours. The development in the cloud area in particular makes it possible for small companies and SMEs to establish a comprehensive DMS. Of course, data protection and cybersecurity must still be taken into account, which is especially important for your documents.

When it comes to the DMS, would you adopt a cloud version or prefer the on-premise server installation?

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