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The age of information brings with it the age of documentation.  Documents are an integral part of both personal and professional life these days. Any institution, be it a home office or a multi-national conglomerate, that deals with paperwork requires a systematic document management workflow.  Mismanagement of documents can lead to clutter, which , in the words of Christina Scalise is “the physical manifestation of unmade decisions fuelled by procrastination.”

We shall, in this article, see the what, why and how of document management workflows and their importance to the functioning of any organization.

Document management

Table of Contents

Document Management Workflows Defined

Document workflow management is the organized movement of documents between one place or person to the next for a specific purpose. An efficient document workflow management manages documents from the time they enter the business activity, follows its movements through various paths, provides checkpoints, monitors operational actions, and finally reports/archives the document for posterity.

Need For A Document Management Workflow

Any organization uses documents for its various activities.  These documents may include non-financial documents such as project proposals, protocol/software documentation, HR guidelines, marketing material, training manuals, office and departmental memos, etc. and financial documents including invoices, purchase requisitions or purchase orders, delivery notices, payroll, finance reports, claim forms, insurance documents etc.

The productivity, profitability and work competence of a company and its employees hinges on methodical management of these documents. This allows for easy access, processing and archiving. The specific benefits of document management are:

  1. Security:  The access to documents can be restricted and methodical ordering can comply with the hierarchical structure of the organization, allowing varying levels of access to important documents.
  2. Storage:  Management of documents implies archiving and storage of all documents in a manner that is easily accessible at a later time.  This is particularly important for financial documentation, for tax purposes and for resolution of any issues that may arise at a later date.
  3. Easy access:  The use of tags and filing systems enables better and logical access to documents by all stakeholders.  The time not wasted in searching for documents can be used to enhance their performance.
  4. Enhanced collaboration: Easy and hierarchical access can allow for better collaboration among all the participants of an activity that is being documented at various levels.
  5. Compliance:  Methodical organization of documents can help in complying with standards and regulations both at the level of the institution and governmental.

Some areas within organizations, in which, document workflow management is critical include:

  • Sourcing and supply – to keep track of requirements, procurements and usage of supplies/services by purchasing departments.
  • Finance – for efficient budgeting through intelligent forecasting based on realistic data
  • Productivity – to assess and manage employee productivity
  • Compliance and policy – to maintain accurate records of compliance to standards and regulations both within the organization and in the social setup to which it belongs.
  • Marketing and sales – to allow for better marketing strategies and course correction for better bottom lines.

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Elements of a Document Workflow

A document workflow comprises three basic elements.

  1. Predetermined tasks: The tasks define the events at each stage of the workflow until the endpoint. The flow of the tasks could be linear, branched, or mixed.
  2. Stakeholders:  All the people in the organization that are involved in the creation or use of the document must be known so that access can be provided accordingly.
  3. Rules and conditions:  These represent checks and standards that require approvals before the next task.

Document workflow management must include all operational procedures and activities that may occur at any stage.  A typical document workflow usually involves the following stages:

  • Creation
  • Routing
  • Review
  • Approval
  • Action
  • Archival
  • Removal

The document workflow management would therefore entail

  • Creation of documents
  • Modification and versioning of documents
  • Sharing of documents and collaborating on them
  • Protocols to search for documents
  • Creation of outcomes, such as reports
  • Archiving documents

Types Of Document Workflow Management Systems

Manual Document Management

This involves filing physical paper documents in files, folders and drawers, with many a secretary dreaming of " the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion." While paper-based documentation continues to be used in many organizations, even a perfect paper filing system can fail when the operations are scaled up beyond its critical size.

Problems of Manual Document Management

Accessing a paper-based filing system in a large organization would be task intensive and involve many tasks including identifying need, sending out requisition to the filing department and awaiting the latter’s response and waiting for the requested document as the filing department follows its own protocol to issue it.

Such processes may lead to

  • Time loss:  involving multiple human intervening steps like issuing request, approving etc., before physically seeking and procuring the document leads to enormous time lags that may compromise the productivity of the company. A survey showed that every employee in a paper-heavy office spends an average of 1.6 hours a day creating reports from paper documents, in addition to spending 6 hours/week searching for documents.
  • Increased cost due to need for additional staff for file management
  • Increased cost due to infrastructure needed for paper storage: A four drawer filing cabinet that holds 15K-20K pages of paper has been calculated to cost $25,000 to fill and $2,000 per year to maintain
  • Loss of documents during passage between the filing venue and the requesting department: According to the Delphi Group, 15% of all paper handled in businesses is lost in transit or storage and 30% of all employees' time is spent searching for lost documents.  There are cost penalties associated with document loss as well; it reportedly costs $120 to search for a misfiled document and $250 to recreate a lost document.
  • Communication errors, which could lead to more loss of time and money.
  • Paper clutter.

Automated Document Management Workflow

Cutting out paper from the document workflow not only saves the environment and eliminates paper clutter in the office, but also increases productivity by over 50%. Digital document management systems are software that can be used to track, manage and store all kinds of documents in an organized and easy-to-retrieve form. These systems often work in sync with scanners that can enable conversion of all paper-based documents to digital forms.  Integration to sophisticated search engines also provides quick access to any document.  Various forms of backups including on the cloud and remote servers can help in securely backing up data.

Some advantages of the digital document management workflow are:

  • Time savings:  The back-and-forth of communication for procuring a document or seeking its approval can be considerably reduced.  This leads to significant time savings, and in the industrial parlance, time = money.
  • Minimizing human errors:  Built in features of digital document workflow management software such as Document Routing Capabilities can track documents through all stages of the work ecosystem, thereby offering checks at multiple stages and avoiding errors.
  • Storage and security:  The storage of documents in secure locations can help preserve it for posterity, in addition to providing it with multiple layers of protection against unsolicited access. Cloud access also provides the stakeholders easy access to documents free of geographic boundaries.
  • Integration with the other digital processes of the company: Other processes of the company including invoice management, human resource management etc., may be integrated with automated document workflow management for seamless functioning of various departments in the organization.

Features to Look for in Automated Document Management Systems

  • Storage location:  The documents can be hosted locally or in the cloud. Self-hosted servers allow for full control of the system with no third-party involvement.  This is suited for small and medium companies.  Local storage requires a dedicated technical department for in-house hosting and hardware management. Cloud-based storage can eliminate the need for a dedicated  tech team, but more importantly, allows stakeholders to access documents from anywhere in the world.
  • Security: The possibility to restrict access to the digitally stored documents on a need-to-know basis to various stakeholders for viewing or modifying enables protection of sensitive information.
  • Search features:  The incorporation of search engines and indexing features in automated document workflow management enhances ease of accessing documents.
  • Intuitive design:  Many of the automated document management systems have a user-friendly GUI that enables intuitive operation, thereby eliminating the need for specialists to access and procure documents.
  • Schedule maintenance: Workflow alerts may be incorporated into the automated document management workflow to keep users on track of schedule.
  • Parallel document workflow activities: Parallel processing of documents can be enabled, along with version control, for collaborative activities and time savings.
  • Backups and recovery options: Business documents and data are saved from being irretrievably lost.

Choosing an Automated Document Management Workflow System

There are many document workflow management systems available, the choice for a particular organization depends on the requirements of the company.  Some of the popular document workflow management software ClickUp, pCloud, HubSpot,  Alfresco, LogicalDOC, Nuxeo, KnowledgeTree, Seed DMS, Casebox, MasterControl Documents, M-Files,  Worldox, and Ademero.

Things to keep in mind when choosing a document management workflow software include:

  • Hardware requirements – Does the company have the appropriate technology infrastructure to run the software efficiently?
  • Need for auxiliary hardware such as signature pads, scanners, etc.
  • Features included in the software such as,
  • Easy creation of documents
  • Electronic notifications, reviews, approvals
  • Logs of workflow activity for auditing purposes
  • Conversion of ad-hoc routines into repeatable procedures
  • Cost of the software and its maintenance.
  • Availability of instalment help from the manufacturer.
  • Availability and cost of technical support.
  • Data storage and backup options.
  • Need for training of personnel to use the system.
  • Level of integration with existing software products.

Improving Document Management Workflows

Automated document workflows can be configured according to the company’s needs.  For example, it can be configured to automatically generate a notification when a document moves through the next task in the workflow.  High end document workflow management software also allows for setting of user-defined parameters to perform tasks that are specific to the user’s needs.  Some specific user-initiated actions that can improve the document management workflow system include:

  • Setting up of security protocols
  • Pre-setting sharing and collaborative actions
  • Allowing integration with other digital systems used in the company
  • Setting up automated routines for Versioning, Storage, Indexing, and Metadata for retrieval.


When optimized for the organization, the document workflow software can aid big picture views and offer transparency to the appropriate stakeholders for better planning.  A streamlined document workflow can lighten work loads, increase productivity, and provide competitive advantage both in terms of bottom lines and employee satisfaction.  A well-primed document management workflow system could perhaps finally realise Ms. Lemon’s breakthrough filing system that would pale the other filing systems into oblivion.