Document management and collaboration

James Dellow has neatly summarised a discussion about the relative merits of wikis and document management in law firms. Reading both reminded me that I owe an former co-conspirator my view on document management systems as a tool for collaboration. I hope what follows will suffice.

Like most law firms, we have a document management system (DMS). It was adopted some time ago as a replacement for personal network folders. Compared to what it replaced, the principal benefits of the DMS for us are:

  • capture of key pieces of metadata at the point of document creation or storage
  • an effective audit trail and versioning capability
  • ease of search

We are now in the throes of a project to change the way the DMS works so that documents are presented to users in a set of ‘workspaces’ and folders, rather than as a mass of undifferentiated records. (The suppliers call this mode ‘matter-centric’, which is fine for the lawyers, but not especially meaningful for business services people or for work which is not a formal client matter, so we are referring only to electronic workspaces.)

The outcome of this work will be to enhance the potential for collaborative document creation and editing. In the old network folder model, a document clearly ‘belonged’ to the person whose filespace it was stored in. Without an effective search mechanism it was often difficult to find documents without guidance from their author, and practically impossible to discover interesting (and useful) information serendipitiously. This changed radically when we first implemented the DMS. As documents were stored in a common space, people were more inclined to work jointly on them. The openness of that space also meant that people could see much more clearly what was going on around them. However, there were still cultural and technical obstacles to deep collaboration.

In order to protect the integrity of documents, the DMS locks them while they are being edited. This, naturally, means that they need to be unlocked before being available for editing by anyone else (read-only viewing is still possible). Because of the variety of ways in which people access documents — at the desktop, through a web client, or checked out to a laptop for offline working — it is often the case that documents are unavailable for editing for significant amounts of time. This technical issue leads people to revert to thinking of documents as ‘belonging’ to their first author.

As the DMS holds all of our documents, it is essential to be able to apply some form of document-level security. The document creator can restrict access (to view and/or edit) to individuals or groups, but typically our people have come to use this setting in a much less granular way — it boils down to a simple choice between complete openness (document open to all to view and edit) and absolute secrecy (where the document is effectively invisible to everyone else). The middle setting — read-only for everyone but the author — is also used widely by people who have discovered that the way the DMS locks documents when they are opened can lead to them being locked out of their own documents. As a result, although the default system setting is for openness, many people have chosen more restrictive settings that limit the information capacity and collaboration potential of the DMS.

For these reasons, at least, I am not convinced that a formal DMS facilitates collaboration particularly well. For law firms, the features offered by a DMS to protect business-critical documents are likely to be more important than full-blown collaboration. However, there are other documents where a more informal sharing of responsibility is appropriate.In an environment where the robustness and wizardry of a full-blown DMS is less important than facilitating collaboration, such as for academic writing, I think a wiki probably suffices. My experience of collaboration in an academic context is limited to co-authoring with just one other person at a time. However, even this small-scale sharing of responsibility is different in nature to the collaboration I see in a law firm. I imagine that scientific papers with six or seven authors will be different again. In academic collaboration, the audit trail tracking who has read and printed a document is less significant than a record capturing each and every edit, whether minor or not. I would have welcomed being able to use a wiki page to facilitate my co-authoring activities, in preference to Microsoft Word. I am not sure what value a DMS would bring to academic collaborations that a wiki could not offer. Culturally, and technically, the wiki appears to be better suited to the flexibility of academic relationships.

Effectively, I think the reason why this might be is that the object of a DMS is different from a wiki. As its name suggests, the DMS is all about documents (which are containers for content). I think a wiki is less about manipulating documents, and more about the content itself (and, in part, the human and information relationships expressed by that content).

2 thoughts on “Document management and collaboration”

  1. I think one point to consider is how the end product of the work (whether a wiki or a document) will be used and consumed.

    Clearly for a law firm where documents are going to executed and bind the parties or filed with a court, the wiki will not suffice.

    Where the information will be used and consumed on the computer screen a wiki works great. I think wikis work better with smaller chunks of information on each wiki page. “Granularity”

    That being said, the speed of a wiki-like document drafting tool can be amazing. I used Google Docs (which is essentially a wiki) to draft a 3,000 word article with a co-author in less than a week. We never could have done that with email drafts of a word document back and forth.

    Of course with most law firm work product, we are not in a collaborative environment, we are in a competitive environment. I generally do not want opposing counsel to be able to freely edit my document.

  2. The most important thing is that after implementation, the document management system needs to be used by it’s clients. Otherwise it’s hasn’t effect on the ROI of an organization.
    Interesting article btw!

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