Document Management in a Digital World

by Oct 1, 2020

by | Oct 1, 2020

Once again, I am grappling with the future and considering moving back to the past…

Things worked then, didn’t they?  Printers, photocopiers, and fax machines were the order of the day.  Nothing could go forward on a project unless there was a signature on the document confirming its authenticity and chain of flow for signatures. Invariably the contract or purchase order would have place for budgets, dates, etc., and were generated from pre-printed, sequentially numbered forms.

Project documents were uniquely numbered to ensure no duplication. Any revisions were carefully recorded and signed off by means of a squad checking table and team. The approval chain was structured and sacrosanct. The document controller was the person ‘in charge’ and the one who you would coerce to move your documents along to get the project moving. Of course, all these documents were stored in unique filing cabinets for easy retrieval if required.

But this structured process would soon descend into chaos if any of these processes were bypassed, leading to the blame-game depicted in Figure 1, and the resultant productivity losses while trying to trace the document.

Figure 1:  The blame-game when document management fails (from Project Controls International – Document Management Procedure)


Electronic communication technologies, e.g. WordPerfect, e-mail, spreadsheets, and databases appeared, promising an improvement in communication speeds, particularly for documents relating to projects. These changes happened slowly at first, but as they gathered momentum, the proliferation of project documents accelerated.  By embracing e-mails, people could sit at their desks and communicate with anyone who cared to have an e-mail address (remember e-mails are not considered formal communication but they can be used in a court of law).  WordPerfect and other report writing tools enabled people to prepare and draft reports without the necessary formats and templates of the required information, almost at will.

Databases, however, promised to put structure into this world. With the advent of databases, it was possible to build rules into the document management process and ensure that there was one source of data.  Databases allowed one to create different tables of data and link them via a common data field, e.g. the document number.

Project team members could sit at their desks and view the status of where their documents were at any point in time in the process. By populating certain key dates, they could follow up progress on their documents daily or weekly.


In a previous article (Mattheys, 2018), I discussed “disruption”, the rate at which change is happening and some of the technologies creating the disruption.  It is becoming ever more evident that the rate at which technology is transforming our world, and the place of work, is accelerating.

The future of document management

Against this backdrop I would like to look at the role of document management and the processes required to support the project management process.  What is clear is that the role of document management will remain for the foreseeable future. The legal consequences of document requirements not being adhered to, or not being adequately applied on a project, speak for themselves.

What will change is the technologies that support these processes. Also, of vital importance is the role and contribution a document manager can play in ensuring a smooth and orderly document management process on a project.  Such an individual will become a critical resource on projects and will be responsible for defining the appropriate process and technologies in support of this process.

As an example, it will be possible to use technology to probably automate much of the process. The individual initiating the process will answer a few questions and via artificial intelligence the system can automatically manage the process until final completion of the registration, transmittal, and final close out including storage of the document.

Panagides (2019) suggests that document management systems are being replaced by best of breed cloud content management platforms resulting in greater information security, governance and collaboration while reducing costs.  These are huge benefits for companies and organisations.  Panagides posits that document management functionality (shown in blue in Figure 2), supported by additional capabilities (shown in green in Figure 2) will be the way of the future.

Figure 2:  Rethinking document management systems (Panagides, 2019)

Panagides (2019) states that “high cost, legacy solutions will be disrupted in favour of more nimble platform solutions for content management.” He maintains that legacy solutions provide organisations with some content management capabilities (e.g. storage, version controls, and intra-organisational access), but there are trade-offs that no longer fuel the digital journeys being undertaken by innovative enterprises. Although document management systems are often viewed as sub-sets of the broader enterprise content management solutions in the market, the pace of innovation is simply not sufficient to warrant retention of these high-cost legacy solutions.

Choosing a document management system

Opening statement

I set about trying to find those things to consider when deciding on an electronic document management system for projects.  I was inspired by an article by ULearning (2019) which describes the process in more detail.

No matter what type of electronic document management systems you select for your business, it needs to meet some basic criteria. Figure 3 presents a summary of the relevant criteria to consider.

Figure 3: Criteria for choosing a document management system (Based on information from ULearning (2019))

Each of these criteria is discussed in some detail in the sections that follow.

Needs analysis

Start by focusing on your business and project requirements before deciding on an electronic document management system. Typical problems in document management that you need to look out for, include:

  • Ease of collaboration on documents.
  • Document approvals and distribution.
  • Change and version control.
  • Ease of document retrieval.
  • Handling of obsolete documents.
  • Document security.

Some of these points are covered by the sections that follow.

Vendor screening

There are many vendors out there selling document management systems and they all claim to have the best system. However, it does not help to have the theoretical best system if nobody else is using it. Large projects require collaboration by several different companies and many individuals. Focus on recognised vendors and refrain from document management systems that require customisation to make it applicable for your circumstances.

Screen vendors and limit your list of preferred vendors for an electronic document management system to not more than three. These vendors can then be requested to quote for the supply of software and the necessary training.

User interface

For optimal utilisation of any electronic management system, it is essential that the user interface is simple, logical, and intuitive to use. This is especially true for those who will not extensively use it. Before purchasing a system, it is essential to get input about its user friendliness and ease of navigation from several potential users.

It is recommended to visit other companies who have your preferred system in use to learn from their experience.

Integration capability

Check to make sure the electronic document management system you are considering can integrate fully with your other business management software systems. Vendors may claim that integration with other systems is not a problem, but often this requires additional software to be developed to make this integration possible.

Integrated project, document management and business management systems mean that users do not have to jump from application to application throughout the day.

Customer support

Electronic document management systems are complex and there will inevitably be teething problems.  More so when a document management system needs to interface with existing business management systems.

Before you decide to purchase a system from a particular company, make sure their customer support is on par with what your business requires. Pertinent questions to ask include:

  • Do they have in-country representation?
  • Do they have in-country technical support?
  • Do they offer 24/7 support for their system?
  • What is their lead time to respond to queries?
  • Is it easy to get in touch with their customer support network?

User collaboration

A collaborative document management system should allow all the members of your staff to access the documents that they need, also when working out of the office. They should be able to access files easily without having to log out and log back in.

A document management system should allow for the creation, review, and modification of documents, and show changes made to various documents. This will ensure that everyone is working with the most up-to-date information.

Data Capture

The right online document management system will capture data from a variety of input devices. Once your documents have been scanned, the system should intelligently extract and validate the data in the files. The software will then tag and categorise materials for fast retrieval through an easy-to-use search engine, conserving your staff’s time and increasing productivity.

While many document management systems claim to offer intelligent data capture, not all deliver. Work closely with your vendor to make sure that the product you select can interpret your data correctly.

System security

Many businesses are hesitant to move from a legacy paper-based system to an electronic document management because of concerns about security. Here are six security considerations to think about when shopping for a document management solution:

  • Controlled distribution of documents.
  • Secure (password-protected) file access.
  • No misplaced paper documents.
  • Ease of regulatory compliance.
  • Ease of disaster recovery when files are stored off-site or in the cloud.
  • Digital archiving of rare paper documents.

Project Management features

Document management systems are mostly used by project managers, project sponsors, technicians, engineers, and document controllers. It is therefore essential that the preferred system has sufficient and suitable features to make the task of project management easier.

I know this is a repetition of some of the other points above, but look for a management system that enables the sharing of information, collaboration, tracking of documents issued for approval, and the tracking of changes made to documents.

Administrative control

Your document management systems must provide you with adequate administrative control. It should be easy for you to set limits on which employees can access which documents. That way, you will ensure that no sensitive information gets in the hands of people who should not see it.

You should also be able to limit who can read files and who can edit them, as well as who has the power to delete files altogether.

Closing remarks

We have considered two views on document management. Document management will remain a critical system for organisations and it will continue to evolve. Electronic/digital is the way to go and old legacy systems will be replaced sooner rather than later.   It will also be a key critical function, especially on projects.

If you have not made the transition from old legacy systems, then the above will certainly help to define the scope of your new electronic document management system and/or assist in the evaluation of proposed systems.  If you have made the transition, the above can certainly serve as a checklist to identify future needs.


Mattheys, K. (2018) Disrupting project controls – fast forward 20 years. Available from Accessed on 28 September 2020.

Panagides, A. (2019) The future of work: Rethinking document management systems (DMS). Available from Accessed on 28 September 2020.

ULearning. (2019) Choosing an electronic document management system: A complete guide. Available from Accessed on 28 September 2020.

Kevin Mattheys

Consulting Partner, Director

Kevin has been in Project Controls and inter-related fields for more than 30 years. He has an Electrical Engineering qualification from Wits Technikon as well as a BCom degree and Project Management Diploma. More...


You might also enjoy:

Black Swan Risk Management for Projects

Black Swan Risk Management for Projects

By Jurie Steyn.Introduction Decimus Junius Juvenalis, known in English as Juvenal, was a poet active in the period AD 110 to 130. He wrote sixteen satires on the vices, abuses, and follies of Imperial Rome and is regarded by many as one of the greatest satirists of...

read more