What’s the true business case for your document archive?

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There are a lot of business cases for deploying Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems. But when you’ve observed the market place for a couple of years, you can see which cases are prevalent and  others which are not. It might not come as a surprise, but some cases do not take full advantage of the […]


There are a lot of business cases for deploying Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems. But when you’ve observed the market place for a couple of years, you can see which cases are prevalent and  others which are not. It might not come as a surprise, but some cases do not take full advantage of the possibilities of electronic document archives. In some cases, this is because the organization did not update their ECM related business cases which means that their ECM systems still serve the purpose they were initially intended for, without being re-defined over the years. In some cases, it’s just the ignorance of new possibilities offered by state-of-the-art ECM systems . Let me take you through some of the most dominant business cases. It’s for you to decide which business cases apply and how you can extend the use of your current document archive.

Case 1: Document Archiving

Since ancient times, the main purpose of archiving has always been, for the preservation of documents. So that we can access the documents for later use: from retrieving old case files to historical research. There are a lot of ECM systems around which basically do the same functions as their physical counterparts: store documents (and other data), make them searchable and retrievable for viewing.

A large telecom operator stored all their billing documents in an electronic archive. The same information was present in their billing system, but the archive made it possible to display the bill as if the document has been sent to the customer. In customer contacts, the telecom employee could retrieve the document, view it and discuss the contents with the customer.

Storing correspondence with the outside world – customers, suppliers etc. – does not only facilitate customer contacts, but  also makes sense for regulatory and legal reasons. Organizations must be able to show documents for a legal case. Storing documents in a dispersed environment can obstruct their business cases and can have severe consequences: a traditional business case for using an electronic archive.

Storing documents electronically can be more cost effective than storing them on paper. But why should my organization keep documents anyway? In this case, only for unforeseen and unlikely future use. Most documents stored are never retrieved because customers don’t want to discuss them. Most documents stored are never used in a legal case. Creating additional value from an archive can be difficult.

Case 2: Selective data gathering

Forms, letters, emails, tweets and posts, are used by organizations to interact with the  external world. With the advent of IT technology, organizations have tried to streamline the flow of incoming data and documents. Interpreting and processing the text on documents can be quite labor intensive and a source of error.

A military organization kept the medical records of their personnel in a database. When external  reports, like medical examinations, were sent to the doctor, he had to re-type the text into the database. This didn’t happen, or was done incompletely or erroneous, making the medical records less reliable and usable. Image information was often lost. After storing these original documents in an ECM system, the medical staff could always refer to the original data. Only the absolute essentials were stored in the database, all the other information remained on the document.

Many organizations have attempted to structure the document input by imposing paper or electronic forms for contacting them: from ordering information to complaints. The data is extracted from the form fields and stored in databases for later processing. But attempts to structure the interaction with external relations have been vain. You cannot stop the flow of free-format text messages. On the contrary, in this day and age the flow of free-format text is ever increasing. Social media is using all kinds of unstructured data. These media are being used to contact your organization too.

Optimizing formal flows of document is a clearly defined case for ECM. But what about complaints, sentiment analysis & case management? Is it really needed to extract all data and store it somewhere else? Can’t the data just be kept on the documents and be interpreted on a need basis? Trying to converge all data into one big enterprise- wide structure can be high fetched. You should only gather document information in databases when you need the data for your processes. Leave the rest where it comes from, on the documents.

Case 3: Knowledge Management

It has always surprised me that organizations have taken great care in their formal correspondence, whilst ignoring other forms of communication. ECM systems are used for keeping files and records from scanning and printing devices. Informal communication, like emails and tweets, are kept outside the ECM system for various reasons. Strange because from a legal and business point-of-view, they’re as important as the formal ones.

It has always been difficult to grasp all flows of communication, but that shouldn’t be a reason to not  do it. Even more amazing is the fact that the flow of internal documents isn’t managed at all. Lots of knowledge is accumulated in internal documents, memorandums, email messages and so on. But little attempts are made to collect that knowledge, to re-use it or to build upon it. Only what we know personally, we can re-use. Building a collective memory can be the business case behind an document archive, including the case management and collaboration facilities modern ECM systems offer.

A government agency keeps all documents – external and internal – in a centralized ECM system. The documents and their versions are classified in an elaborate case based structure. The structure  depends on the case type. All documents and other data, like photos and voice messages, are filed in the appropriate folders. Reporting facilities are made to check if all required documents are present in order to take next steps in processing. Although formal data about the cases are kept in a database, this system offers an equally important view on the cases as the views over the database. All information is viewable for everyone within the agency, though confidential information can be granted exclusive access.

Modern content analysis tools can make content available for multiple uses. Not only can the content be searched for, but it can also be used to aggregate data, creating reports on trends, detecting unnoticed events and sentiments.

Knowledge management has always been cumbersome, because it has been difficult to extract the knowledge from  data. Modern tools, like IBM Watson, are now available to facilitate the extraction and the creation of real world knowledge about an organization and its environment. ECM is not primarily focused around knowledge management, but ECM can help to create the facilities to make all information accessible.


Many ECM topics still focus around handling large amounts of documents. But while handling documents may require attention, the essential issue around documents is the information they contain. Many organizations do not know the value of their unstructured information. Because of ignorance or due to the prejudice that all important information is stored in the primary databases or because IT analysts left document flows out of scope.

When defining a business case for an ECM system, you should be aware of all the possibilities with ECM systems. Pay heed to the value of the data contained in documents and free-format messages. They contain valuable information, ready to be accessed, used and analyzed for the benefit of your organization.

Photo: CC-BY by Thomas Leuthard.

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