What's the relationship between a document management system (DMS) and an enterprise collaboration suite like Socialtext?
The other week, I was meeting with a project team at a large retail bank who is bringing Socialtext into their organization. It was a cross-functional team, representing different parts of the IT organization. One of the participants was the manager responsible for the company's document management system. He wanted to know how this project would change his world. Would Socialtext replace the DMS? Would the two work together?
It's a fundamental question. Companies have already made six-, seven-, and even eight-figure investments in their document management systems. Those systems house thousands or even millions of documents. And while many companies are attracted to the ease and flexibility of Enterprise 2.0 collaboration tools, they are understandably jittery about potentially cannibalizing document management systems which have so much investment and content behind them.
The first thing that companies should understand is that document management and collaboration are distinct activities. Document management is all about workflow, control, and risk mitigation. Its objective is summarized perfectly by the two words in its name: "documents" and "management". It got its start in the legal departments of pharmaceutical companies, who were concerned to make sure that their companies were producing documentation in full compliance with regulatory requirements. A DMS thrives where there are a) documents already being created as part of a business process; and b) those documents need to be closely checked in, checked out, supervised, edited, approved, and stored following a consistent and audit-proof process.
Collaboration, by contrast, is all about people working together to share ideas, notes, questions, comments, etc. Collaboration does not typically follow a standard process; it is much more free-form and free-flowing. Documents are not typically the format of choice. Asking a question or creating a meeting agenda or to-do list doesn't require a document; it just requires typing some words and putting them where other people can see and edit them. That's why so many people simply fire off an email when they collaborate; it spares them the unnecessary step of creating a document.
When you look at it this way, document management and collaboration don't have very much to do with each other. So why is there a question about how the two relate?
The two activities get confused because document management, like collaboration, involves creation of content by multiple people. For many companies, the DMS is the first tool they implemented that enabled more than one person to touch a single, centrally stored piece of content. And the document management vendors began to capitalize on the opportunity by introducing document-centric team rooms (like Documentum's eRooms, for example.) As a result, many companies began to use the DMS as a collaboration tool. The DMS wasn't very good at it. It required every piece of collaborative content to be saved as a document. Search was cludgy or non-existent, and everything had to be filed in a nested folder structure. But it was better than nothing, or email.
Last week I saw first-hand a good example of this phenomenon recently at a major executive search firm. They wanted a way to collaboratively publish questions, comments, slides, bios, etc., and engineered an entire intranet around eRooms. It was cludgy, and adopted primarily by power users who took the time to create a Byzantine taxonomy of folders and sub-folders.
All of which brings me back to my meeting with the retail bank. When asked about the relationship between DMS and collaboration tools, what I said was that some of the content in a typical DMS really belongs there. These are the documents associated with highly regulated processes. But most of the content in a typical DMS--to-do lists, meeting notes, press clippings, conversations, working papers, personal observations--doesn't really belong there. It's in the DMS because there was no good place to put it. That's where a collaboration suite can do a much better job. A good collaboration suite can liberate that content from the tyranny of documents and nested folders, and will encourage people to use it for actual working materials.
In many cases, you will want to integrate the two. Law firms, for example, are absolutely dependent on their document management systems to manage their filings and other legal documents. But we're increasingly seeing them set up collaboration suites to capture all the discussion around the documents, how to use them, what they mean, and so on. The two systems are integrated with links from the collaboration suite into the corresponding DMS records.
What I'm saying amounts to this: Use your document management system to manage documents, and use your collaboration suite to collaborate.