Every business runs on two things: manpower and paperwork.
Most companies have a strong grasp of the hiring process but, for many, implementing a document management system feels like an insurmountable task.
A poorly implemented document management system (DMS) can be even worse, with workers reporting challenges including a lack of standardization, too many sources of information, and difficulty tracking key documents.
Managing business documents isn’t just about going paperless or having a strong audit trial.
To do it right, you’ll need a more holistic solution that covers everything from standardization and workflow to security and compliance.
With that in mind, here are 18 tips (plus a few bonus tips!) to help you create a better document management solution for your business.
- Document management systems are as varied and complex as the companies that use them.
- Strong document management solutions are more than a file index. Engineered correctly, a DMS can manage documents throughout their entire lifecycle.
- Documents don’t manage themselves. Proper records management involves assigning administrators, training staff, and ensuring compliance over the long term.
- With a strong system in place, DMS can unlock an unprecedented level of efficiency for your organization.
Everyone has to start somewhere.
In this section, we’ll cover basic tips that you can implement when you’re first getting started with document management.
But, if you already have a system in place, don’t skip ahead. It’s never too late to implement some of these basic changes and further organize your documents.
1. Establish & coordinate all document repositories
In a perfect world, every document would exist in one place.
All documents and files would end up in a single location and workers would only need to go to one place in order to review any file.
However, centralizing documents into a single repository isn’t realistic.
According to one study, most companies end up using around four repositories to store and manage documents and other information.
This happens, in part, because of how a business needs to operate.
Sales teams need a different set of documents than HR and finance teams.
Eventually, these differences cause document repositories to be split and exist in different locations.
Having a plan in place will help to streamline your document management process by giving your organization a clear place to store information as new files and documents are created.
2. Create logical, easy-to-follow file structures and naming conventions
Without proper naming conventions and file structures, it’s easy for documents to get lost.
This is true for both electronic files and paper documents.
Mislabeling a document or adding it to the wrong folder is a great way to make a document disappear forever.
For critical or legal documents, misplaced files can lead to major productivity delays and lost revenue.
Many problems can be prevented by creating file structures that are easy for workers to navigate. This includes creating the following:
- Folder structures that are logical and easy to understand.
- File names that clearly identify the intended use case.
- Naming conventions that disclose relational information.
Whether you’re working out of a filing cabinet or creating an electronic filing system, take the time to create a structure and naming convention that is quick and easy for teams to interpret.
Done correctly, workers should be able to identify files and documents at a glance.
3. Create a document import/capture workflow
Electronic documents come with a huge number of advantages, from ease of storage to the amount of information contained within.
Despite this, roughly 72% of companies say that they use a mix of paper and digital documents while only 13% are fully digital.
Whether it’s paper receipts from a company lunch or files kept offline for document security, paper documents are still a part of many business workflows.
This becomes an issue when those documents need to be digitized and integrated into an electronic document management system.
This is a key part of digital document management, so treat this intake like a standard business process with a standardized workflow.
Depending on the types of documents and the amount of digitizing that needs to take place, you may be able to partner with a third-party digitization service to assist.
However, you’ll still need to have an internal process for one-off documents and smaller workloads.
4. Designate a primary document administrator
No matter what policies and training you put in place, documents won’t manage themselves.
Some workers will be better at naming their files.
Others won’t see the point or take the time to do it properly. Without support, the varying levels of familiarity with your DMS will create disorganization.
This individual can assist with digitizing documents, naming and sorting files, retrieving information, dealing with records retention and disposal, and training staff members on the appropriate way to work with the system.
Depending on the size of your organization, this type of information work may be a full time job or a role housed with other duties and responsibilities.
Having an individual dedicated to these tasks will boost system integrity and ensure that your document management system remains efficient and accessible over the long term.
5. Enforce standardized collaboration areas for live documents
Files in any document repository can be divided into active and archived files.
Most files are dormant and won’t need to be accessed for an extended period of time.
This includes things like employment records for past employees, signed contracts with multi-year renewals, and similar files.
Other documents, like active proposals and sales contracts or new internal policy information, may be active works in progress.
Often, workers will collaborate on active documents by sending them back and forth via email (92% of workers report doing this!) or using unsecured/external collaboration tools.
To do this, designate an area (like a virtual deal room) where new documents can be created by any worker.
Give workers the ability to invite collaborators to build documents, negotiate terms, sign deals, and more.
Once the document is complete, close access and move it from the active collaboration workspace to your document archive.
By providing these tools and connecting them to your DMS, you’ll be able to control document access, ensure that everyone is working on the same document version, and stay in compliance with any data and retention policies that you’ve put in place.
Bonus tip: Choose long-term, versatile storage solutions
There are dozens of storage solutions out there.
Some, like Box, OneDrive, or Google Drive are obvious contenters.
However, many tools also offer onboard document storage for files kept within their platform.
For example, PandaDoc offers unlimited storage for all documents created on the PandaDoc platform.
If you need a repository for sales contracts, invoices, and contracts, you could create those documents within PandaDoc and store them appropriately after negotiations and payments are complete.
The same is true for tools like Salesforce and other CRMs, where customer data can be stored for an indefinite period.
Whichever platforms you choose to use, try to pick solutions that you can use for a longer period of time.
And be sure that the solutions you pick allow for fast and easy export, just in case you need to leave the platform at a later date.
Security & access
Most of the time, when organizations think about security, they think about stopping unwanted physical and electronic access from their facilities and assets.
Especially in smaller organizations, document security is often overlooked.
While contracts, proposals, and invoices might seem inconsequential, these are some of the most important assets that an organization owns.
Many contain sensitive information regarding how the business operation, who it works with, and what it creates.
Effective document management solutions take this information into account and provide tools to help users keep documents safe.
Below are a few tips to help you secure your documents over the longer term.
6. Set permissions & access controls
Until relatively recently, most document management took place in a physical environment.
Sensitive documents were held in locked filing cabinets, safes, and similar secured containers to prevent tampering and access by unauthorized individuals.
In the electronic space, document administrators can have more granular control by assigning permissions to users that restrict the ability to access or modify key documents.
Doing so will go a long way toward preventing leaks and the unauthorized sharing of sensitive information.
Without these steps, workers may be free to access content that fall well outside the scope of their roles and easily share that information in unintended ways.
In one study, 61% of respondents reported that they use personal file-sharing apps and/or their personal device to access and share company information — despite the fact that over half of companies discourage or prohibit the use of personal devices.
Once information is shared through personal devices, companies have limited ways to keep it from spreading.
A hacked email or malicious intent from a former employee could cause serious damage to an organization who fails to keep their documents under lock and key.
7. Regularly audit document usage & access
Especially if you’re working with a service to manage your digital documents, audit trails can be a key tool for discovering where permissions might have been wrongfully assigned and where workers may have unintended access to key information.
Auditing document usage can also help organizations discover irregular user behavior.
For example, you would expect workers who are actively negotiating a contract with a client to access and modify that document.
There is an expected level of usage and access around that document that will makes sense.
However, it would be irregular if a user on the logistics team were trying to access payroll records for company executives.
Many document management providers provide this as part of the content management solution so that you can see which users are accessing which documents.
Many will also disclose what that user did with the document (editing, downloading, sharing, etc.), so that you have a clear view of user activity.
8. Encrypt, secure your documents
Most companies use public cloud storage to manage some or all of their personal information.
This may include storage services like Box or Google Drive, but it may also include electronic repositories like Amazon’s AWS or Microsoft Azure.
Ensuring proper file encryption is a document management system best practice, especially if you intend to store your documents on a private network rather than using public cloud storage.
Many companies offering these types of storage services will also offer some kind of encryption to help secure your documents — but you should double check their certifications and approvals to be entirely sure.
You won’t always know where your data resides, and you will be relying on the encryption and security protocols of the organization to secure your document.
However you choose to store and manage your documents — even if they only reside on a company hard drive — take steps to ensure that your information is still protected if your files are stolen.
9. Implement version control for live documents
One key issue that causes confusion in many organizations comes down to a lack of clarity around which document is the most recent version.
In one survey discussing information management, 91% of respondents said that their job would be easier if they could quickly find and access the most current version of a document without having to worry about which system or repository it resides in.
Many platforms do this as part of their document management infrastructure.
Online services like PandaDoc, Google Drive, and OneDrive offer these features — and they aren’t exclusive to edited documents.
Many document storage providers and desktop operating systems also offer some form of version control so that you can recover past versions of a specific document.
Use these tools to your advantage to ensure document integrity.
10. Create backup repositories
System backups help users recover lost data in the event of a system crash or hardware malfunction.
The same is also true for organizations who want to preserve their documents over the long term.
Most paid storage solutions will do this by default to prevent data loss.
If a server crashes, the data can be stored and retrieved from other servers hosting the same information.
Effective document management solutions need to account for potential data loss.
Storing information in cloud storage is an option, but you might also use RAID-configured hard drives and network attached storage to achieve similar results.
For organizations operating at scale, cloud-based solutions are often the most effective due to accessibility and responsiveness.
Bonus tip: Leverage cloud-compliant partners to ensure compliance and minimize risk
We’ve mentioned it periodically throughout this segment, but partnering with cloud-based platforms to manage your documents can be a huge help when trying to keep files safe and accessible.
Partners can include cloud storage providers for generalized documents, but don’t overlook information management platforms where creating unique repositories might make sense.
For example, PandaDoc is great for consolidating your document creation workflow and building a document repository for sales quotes, contracts, invoices, and other business documents.
We also use on data storage protocols and certified partner services to protect the data you store with us.
Working with PandaDoc or similar partners can help to ensure that your data is safe while also adding features to your tech stack that can improve your business workflow.
As with any informational archive, your files and documents can’t take care of themselves.
As with websites, contracts, and business processes, organization will need to take steps to properly manage and maintain document infrastructure and ensure compliance from workers who need data access.
Below, you’ll find a few tips that can help you better administer and maintain your document management system so that the information stored within continues to remain accessible and useful to workers.
11. Implement document retention and disposal schedules
While it’s easiest to keep every single document, file, and receipt generated by your organization, many legal experts suggest that keeping files indefinitely can open you up to legal exposure in the event of an audit or lawsuit.
What you ultimately choose to retain and dispose of will depend on your business practices, your area of operation, and what you might find most useful over the long term.
In many places, you’ll need to keep essential documentation (like tax documents) for a set number of years before you destroy them.
For information that isn’t reported — employee records, mileage logs, or customer details — you’ll need to decide how best to handle them.
Setting this schedule and sticking to it will provide document administrators with a clear understanding of what information should be kept or discarded.
12. Standardize document conventions
Across all industries, communication is considered to be one of the most critical power skills in project management.
When instructions and information have been clearly communicated to workers, teams can perform more effectively in their roles and duties.
The same is true for document management! In order for a document repository to be an effective resource, workers need to be able to access the files and find what they are looking for.
Unfortunately, this becomes extremely difficult without standardization around formatting and naming conventions.
Files that are mislabeled or carry strange titles are far more difficult to interpret at a glance than those with clear associations up front.
This can easily be done by storing documents in the appropriate folder and by creating a rulebook or a style guide for filenames.
For example, which of these document names is clearest to you?
- John Doe – Hiring Contract 20XX.pdf.
It’s possible that the second naming convention (John-Doe.pdf) would work if you added it to a folder about hiring contracts.
The problem is that, if the file is ever accidentally moved from that folder, finding it again would be difficult.
Create and standardize a naming convention that works for your organization and stick to it.
This approach will make tracking files much easier over the long term.
13. Train employees on document management best practices
Though templates and dedicated document managers can go a long way toward ensuring that document management systems are usable by organizations at large, it’s impractical to have your knowledge workers receive notifications every time teams have an access request.
As it stands, roughly half of workers say that it’s sometimes or almost always challenging to find the information they’re looking for.
This can be a major productivity setback.
Fortunately, most of this can be prevented by promoting a culture of document organization and accountability.
Take the time to set up training programs that ensure workers know how to find documents, navigate document archives, and add items to that archive.
This approach will help to hold workers accountable for document processes while reducing the workload on document managers to a more realistic level.
While it’s true that nobody gets it right every time, consistent training on document management best practices will improve accuracy and help your archives remain useful over a longer period of time.
14. Ensure compliance with legal & regulatory requirements
Any proper document management system needs to be aware of and comply with legal and regulatory statutes regarding business documentation.
It’s critical that any system be able to safely store sensitive information like contracts and customer information, but it should also be able to maintain key documents like tax filing that companies are legally obligated to keep.
However, it’s also important to understand that many documents only need to be protected for a limited period of time.
Document managers and workers using the system should have a clear understanding of what must be kept and how it should be stored.
This is a major problem for many companies.
In one survey, 77% of respondents said that they don’t believe their company would pass all compliance audits.
Ultimately, it will be up to the organization to determine which compliance standards should be met regarding the information that a company holds.
Document management will play a key role in what to keep, how to store it, and what should be done with it after the compliance period has passed.
15. Create user roles to divide administrative responsibilities.
One of the most effective ways to ensure the security of your document archive is to limit editorial access using built-in user roles.
For example, PandaDoc users can be split into four basic roles, including Members, Managers, Admins, and Collaborators.
Admins have the greatest level of access, including the ability to edit and delete templates, disable integrations, change workspace branding, and access the PandaDoc API.
Managers and members have progressively fewer abilities, with members having very limited access to make high-level changes.
Unless workers are properly trained and have a specific mandate that requires advanced permissions, restricting access minimizes potential threats and helps to ensure document integrity over the long term.
If you already have a document management system in place, improvements are still possible.
Even the best systems can be stalled by natural complexity or a limited ability to integrate with the rest of your organizational tech stack.
In this section, we’ll cover a handful of ways that you can make existing systems even better.
16. Use tags & metadata to find documents quickly
If your DMS supports it, strongly consider using tags and any metadata fields to help users find documents quickly.
About 85% of employees say that they’ve had to recreate documents that they can’t find on the corporate network.
They know the documents are there, but not where they are located. In the end, it’s just easier to recreate them from scratch rather than searching through the archives.
Some systems will encourage users to tag documents with any keywords that come to mind, but you may want to avoid this practice in lieu of using specific tags for specific documentation to make user searches more reliable.
If your DMS can take advantage of optical character recognition or similar tools, these features can go a long way toward indexing your files and returning the appropriate results when users query the system.
Ultimately, the ability for your DMS to quickly and accurately produce results will be a determining factor in how workers engage with the platform.
It’s worth getting right and, for many organizations, is always an area for improvement.
17. Automate document generation & capture process
If you’re still in the early stages of document management, creating automation capabilities may not be your priority.
However, veterans to document management know how important it can be.
In one study, two-thirds of senior IT professionals said that document workflow automation was very important or a critical requirement to their organization’s continuity and agility.
The best document management systems find ways to automate document generation — often through the use of document templates — and have specific tools in place to assist with document capture and intake.
Workers adding information via template are more likely to capture all relevant information on the first import. Document tools that can parse text quickly and easily will also make PDF details more searchable and easier to parse.
18. Use services that optimize for mobile
Like it or not, the ubiquity of mobile devices like smartphones and digital tables has been a game changer for document management.
In one study, roughly 80% of employees say they need access to corporate documents and information on their mobile device, but 43% of those users don’t have that access.
While the organizational need for this content will vary based on job role and company function, it easy to see where such a gap might fall short.
When sales teams in the field lack information, profits can suffer.
This can be largely overcome by working with services that provide an optimized, mobile interface that allows users to access corporate documents from anywhere.
Sometimes, that’s a mobile app. Other times, it’s a mobile-friendly portal through a browser.
Either way, providing this functionality and allowing access to users who need it can go a long way toward improving team flexibility in the field.
19. Utilize a document management software or digital filing system
In a previous tip, we mentioned that roughly 72% of companies say that they use a mix of paper and digital documents while only 13% are fully digital.
The ability to use indexing tools (rather than filing cabinets) will go a long way to improve searchability while cloud-based, redundant storage will minimize the document loss.
Whether you use an all-in-one document storage solution like Box or you choose to split your records across multiple repositories and specialized services, it’s difficult to ignore the benefits that a digitized document archive brings to any company workflow.
Bonus tip: Use platforms that unify document management, creation, and distribution.
Documents are powerful tools for your organization, but their effectiveness is drastically reduced if workers constantly need to stop what they are doing to engage with your document archive.
If possible, find a way to integrate your DMS with other systems, like email, project management platforms, or customer archives.
At PandaDoc, we’ve gone out of our way to ensure that our document management platform integrates with most customer relationship management software tools like Salesforce and HubSpot.
The result? Customers can store their customer information in their preferred CRM and import that information to PandaDoc with a few clicks to fill in document variables and personalize document templates.
These integrations save time, make documents more useful, and provide an easier way for workers to engage with essential business information.
PandaDoc is a great next step to manage your sales documents
We’re the first to admit that PandaDoc isn’t a great fit for every business document.
There are better tools for designers, accountants, and marketers.
Our platform offers an in-app document editor to help teams create documents entirely from scratch.
If you’re looking to do more with your sales documents and manage them in a way that empowers your team to close deals even faster, give PandaDoc a try (free for 14-days!) or sign up for a demo and have our team walk you through all the details!