Leverage Metadata for Document Management

Paul Ferrill

Updated · Aug 29, 2014

By Mika Javanainen, M-Files Corporation

The emergence of PCs in the 1980s profoundly changed the way that businesses operate. However, human nature always finds a way to cling to the past. So as network file folder systems were introduced to store and organize business documents, they mimicked the manila folders and file cabinets of the pre-digital age.

Today, many organizations still rely on this antiquated folder-based approach for storing and managing electronic documents. This poses several challenges and issues, since there are many times when a document can logically be stored in more than one folder.

Let's take a look at an example: An employee works on a proposal for Project XYZ at the Widget Warehouse in Atlanta. In the file-folder-based system, the employee has to decide where to store the proposal. Should the XYZ proposal be stored in the “Widget Warehouse” folder? In the “Proposals” folder?  Or maybe in the “Southeast Biz Opps” folder?

Once the proposal is stored in the folder designated by the file author, will other employees know which folder to access when they need to find this proposal? The unfortunate reality is that different users often save different versions of the same document in different folders, making it nearly impossible to determine where the most current version of the document resides.

The example shows how document management can spiral out of control in this type of chaotic file folder-based environment.

Metadata and Document Management

In addition to slowing down processes and negatively impacting productivity, the inability to quickly find precise information degrades decision-making and can put businesses at risk. However, there is a smarter, more intuitive and more effective way to manage information. It starts by stepping back and looking at the content in a new way.

What is the meaning of our information? What is its purpose?

Millions of people have already made the transition to meaning- or purpose-based classification of information by leveraging metadata. Think about how music is stored, organized and displayed on mobile devices. We don’t create and name folders for organizing music. We download songs, and they show up in our music apps in “dynamic views” based on their metadata attributes (artist, album, genre, etc.). Music is automatically categorized and displayed to us based on what it is rather than where it resides. The same song can appear in a dynamic view for an album, all songs by one artist, on a playlist — all without duplication of the music file.

When metadata serves as the focal point for managing information, content is presented in dynamic views that are generated based on the context or need. In this way, one version of a document can be displayed in different views with no duplication of files. Metadata-driven document management systems help organizations solve the intractable shortcoming of traditional folder-based approaches that are limited to allowing a file to exist in only one location, or having duplicates of the file reside in multiple folders.

Metadata Best Practices

Organizing documents according to their metadata attributes provides a vastly superior alternative to the traditional folder-based approach. Below are tips for building the proper foundation that will enable an organization to take advantage of the myriad document management benefits that proper metadata management offers.

Ensure consistent metadata usage across the enterprise. Organizations should begin by bringing together all individuals who create or use metadata. The objective for the group is to identify different document types and how they would be searched. For instance, users may want to organize proposals by customer, owner, date or status — so all three of these metadata attributes would need to be added to proposals.

Manage the entire information lifecycle. Identify the most common classes of documents with lifecycle management periods (e.g. contracts, invoices). Create templates for common document classes that include pre-populated metadata attributes that automatically initiate workflows for the review, update, archival and/or destruction of the file.

Leverage the relationships between associated documents, processes and teams. Metadata not only describes an information asset, but is information about how different information assets are related to each other. For example, metadata describes how the structured data in a CRM database (such as a customer account record) has a relationship with a proposal document (an unstructured PDF file), which is related to an automatic workflow that requires the account manager to electronically sign the proposal.

In an objective comparison of file folders versus metadata as the preferred means for organizing and managing business information, the logical conclusion is that file folders have outlived their value. Managing information assets based on their metadata attributes is now greatly simplifying many efforts relating to saving, organizing, securing, searching, processing and archiving documents.

Mika Javanainen is senior director of Product Management at M-Files Corporation, where he manages the M-Files portfolio, roadmaps and pricing. Prior to his executive roles, Javanainen worked as a systems specialist, integrating document management systems with ERP and CRM applications.


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  • Paul Ferrill
    Paul Ferrill

    Paul Ferrill has been writing for over 15 years about computers and network technology. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering as well as a MS in Electrical Engineering. He is a regular contributor to the computer trade press. He has a specialization in complex data analysis and storage. He has written hundreds of articles and two books for various outlets over the years. His articles have appeared in Enterprise Apps Today and InfoWorld, Network World, PC Magazine, Forbes, and many other publications.

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