Document mis-Management

We’ve reached a point in our journey to the cloud where some of our other systems are going under the microscope. Document management is one of them. If only we could find what we’re looking for.

DocumentsA few months ago we were effectively given an ultimatum by our tax software provider: upgrade to our new offering or move on.

This year (2013) will be the last year that a tax product will be developed for our platform. After that, we have to upgrade to a new and improved version of our software to continue preparing and lodging tax returns. Ostensibly, this ‘upgrade’ is supplied as a part of our ongoing maintenance costs. But it requires more than just the installation and implementation of a new system. We need new servers and if we want our environment to be supported, quite possibly news desktops as well.

It’s not a prospect that fills us with enthusiasm. But perhaps the most grating aspect of this news is the way it’s being delivered to the many accounting practices affected around Australia – “if you want to continue lodging tax returns, you’re going to be up for tens of thousands of dollars. No biggie, just let us know when you’re ready to proceed.” Uh yeah, we’ll get back to you.

It highlights more clearly than ever what is perhaps the most compelling argument for moving to the cloud. In the end, I don’t care where our data is stored, so long as it’s secure and readily accessible. It’s about breaking away from this perpetual hardware upgrade cycle. In the model we’re working towards, if you have a web browser, you’re good to go.

DANGER: Exorbitant compulsory upgrade costs ahead!

DANGER: Exorbitant compulsory upgrade costs ahead!

This imminent support cliff has also prompted us to think more about our document management solution. DM and Tax are supplied by the same developer and are, in some ways, intricately connected. They are really the last two major applications tying us to our old servers (if we exclude Exchange, which we already know we can move to the cloud anytime). If we have to find a replacement for Tax, why not just fast-track this thing and rid ourselves of server dependence once and for all? We planned to ride these old workhorses for as long as we can and then put them out to pasture. If “as long as we can” turns out to be a year or two earlier than we thought, all the better!

With document management though, It’s not proving to be as easy as we thought. Admittedly, our experience so far is shaped by a fairly limited range of applications – General Ledger (Xero) and Practice Management (WorkflowMax). In both cases, while there has been some adjustment, we were able to see early on that we could adapt these products to fit our needs. Document management seems to be a different story though.

One of the more significant barriers to documents in the cloud is bandwidth. I don’t want to get all political on you, but to anyone who thinks that the NBN is nothing more than a popularity project, hear my tale! We work in the Greenhill Road precinct of Adelaide – essentially the secondary business district of our city. If not for the apartments outside of my window, I could see the CBD. I could walk there in 20 minutes. And yet we can’t get decent broadband. On a good day, the best download speed we can hope for is around 11 mbps using a microwave type solution, but the guaranteed minimum for our service is only 4 mbps. The copper is so old in our neighbourhood that ADSL is even worse – around 3 mbps – which is why we don’t use it.

We still considering other options for achieving faster transfer speeds in our district

We’re still considering other options for achieving faster transfer speeds in our district

None of that is great when you have, say, a large set of scanned working papers you want to open. But when it comes to document management, upload speeds become a lot more relevant too. Without going to some kind of expensive bonded ADSL solution (which even then, with bad copper, isn’t great), ADSL upload speeds are much lower than the potential download speeds even in the best of cases. With our WiMax connection, the maximum upload speed is 1mbps.

So the reality for us is that as long as we’re shackled to such antiquated infrastructure, off-site storage simply isn’t an option. It might work for backup (if we could send an initial image off-site first – to upload our entire server at those speeds would take months!) but when you need a document fast, those speeds just aren’t going to cut it for immediate storage and retrieval.

Even if they did though, there’s more to the problem than that. What we’re finding is that many of the alternative applications on offer simply don’t seem to be true document management solutions. Sure, WorkflowMax integrates with Dropbox and Box. These are potentially great storage and collaboration options, but at the end of the day, they are nothing more than that – glorified folder structures. It’s the same as having a shared server drive, only it’s in the cloud.

True document management is more than that though. Ideally, you want your document management system to replicate (in some respects) a paper system. So let’s say I want to pull out the 2012 tax file for a client. I should be able to search in a way that allows me to restrict my search to certain criteria. This is done using metadata – additional information used to profile a document. In a true document management system, whenever I save a document, I do more than simply save it to a location – I profile it. I give it a year, a client code, and some other tags – like what general area of operations it relates to (for us, ‘compliance’, ‘consulting’, ‘admin’, etc.) and then within those groups, a more specific descriptor (for the ‘consulting’ group say, ‘CGT advice’, ‘estate planning’, ‘succession’, etc.). I also profile what type of document it is – a letter, a form, a file note and so on. This is all information I can then later use to replicate that process of ‘getting a file out’, from which I can then search for the specific document I’m looking for. Full text searching is useful sometimes, but on other occasions you want to refine your sample to reduce the number of documents you need to look through..

As far as I’m aware, Dropbox and Box don’t do this (I’d be happy to be proven wrong though). They are document storage solutions, not document management applications. And what’s more they don’t provide the extended capabilities of a document management system. They don’t allow you to set up standard templates that can be populated from your database for mail merges and standard letters. They don’t proactively prompt you to profile documents (email is perhaps the best example – how do you make people store their client emails in Dropbox?)

I may be wrong, but it seems like there’s a big hole here (in Australia at least) – and an opportunity. To me the solution seems relatively simple in theory (the actual implementation may be more complicated, I concede):

  1. Store your documents locally on a shared NAS drive for quick and easy access.
  2. Sync that drive to an off-site storage location for backup purposes (perhaps even use Dropbox or similar for this, though there are potentially jurisdictional issues if the documents are going to be stored outside of Australia).
  3. Use a web-based document management application to profile, index and search your local drive, as well as providing other functionality.

Is it as simple as that, or am I missing something? Essentially what I’m getting at is using a cloud-based application to profile, index and search, but with local storage.

It’s really not going to take all that much to impress us

The only other criterion I’d add is that that it needs to be cost-effective too. I’m not expecting miracles or anything – I know there will be some hardware and setup costs for the storage component. But after that, all I’m looking for really is an online tool to help manage documents. I should add here too that I’m setting the bar on cost-effectiveness pretty low. We’re used to paying $8,000 – $10,000 a year in ‘maintenance’ for a product that hasn’t been maintained of developed in almost five years. If there’s something out there that can do better than that, it’s already ahead!

I guess in the end what this amounts to is a plea for help. I may be a little off in the specifics of how something like this could work. And maybe there’s an alternative logic to it all – a methodology and solution that I haven’t even considered. I’m open to anything, but the question I’m asking is simply (can I still use the word ‘simply’ at this point?): how do we get document management to work in this new 21st century cloud paradigm…in Australia?

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24 thoughts on “Document mis-Management

  1. Easy, you use a CRM system such as ACT! (a desktop product) that integrates to Xero, live and integrates to a true document management system such as Ferret (like Xero made in NZ). You see, whilst the cloud has great attributes most often there is a lack of application depth and in your case there is a bandwidth impediment to document storage. You are quite right there is a huge difference between storage and management 🙂

  2. Thanks for the response Graeme. That still involves the installation of software locally though right? I’m thinking ideally I’d like a cloud-based application with local storage, so that you still get the benefits of the cloud without having to transfer documents from off-site to store and access them. I don’t really want to have to maintain an application locally. Again, this is perfect world stuff I know. Maybe it’s not possible. But I guess the overall point of the post is that it seems to me (so far, at least) that in terms of document management, the whole cloud utopia thing kinda unravels a little, in Australia anyway.

  3. The question I’d be asking is why do you want to be in the cloud? Is it for easy access anywhere? Is it so you don’t have to maintain software? Is it something else?

    Using Box.com synced locally and accessed through software seems to give the best of both worlds. The sync occurs using Box Sync and can be done to network shared location locally. All documents are worked on locally through the network share, and this local store is automatically synced to the cloud as bandwith allows. This means you get a fast experience when in the office working of the local synced copies (not waiting for uploads or downloads), but all documents can easily be accessed out of the office using the web interface and software using Box Edit. This all occurs seamlessly.

    Another benefit of having this local copy is you can potentially use some of that other functionality around mail merges that you are wanting.

    Box.com also allows tagging documents for what you are wanting to do. Between tagging and file naming information you can always easily find what you want.
    In addition using Macs we can quickly search the local copy to find documents as well (I assume windows could do similar)

    The biggest downside of Box.com is that it has no great way of dealing with capturing email information.

    In relation to replicating paper files, this could be done in a number of ways. Documents could be collated that way prior to saving, you could use tags as mentioned above, or simply using folders (Client X>201X>Tax>Docs) that hold the related documents.

    As a bonus Box also has a reasonably good iPhone app for access on the go.

    The above works well, but doesn’t avoid maintaining local software. Given the software is the type that is generally installed on most computers anyway (office, PDF viewer etc), and gives a far better experience at this stage than cloud counterparts I don’t see it as much of a downside.

    I am sure there are many better ways out there, but the above may be a step in the right direction.

  4. Yes it involves software locally, but it actually does the job! What’s more important an outcome or the sanctity of the dream? The whole cloud mantra whipped up in recent years has been at a big cost to sensibility, practicality and application depth.I am not so naive as to think that ultimately web apps will get there, however the gullible have been caught up in ‘the cloud’ as the answer to every IT productivity situation when clearly it is not so.

  5. For me Graeme being in the cloud is only if it lets us do things better than previously. Many times it is the case, sometimes it isn’t.

    I’m strongly of the opinion local apps on the whole give a far better experience at this stage than the web equivalents. Having said that Xero performs really well (and is a far better overall experience that say Quickbooks or MYOB), however if they did an app version I know what I would end up using…

    • Yes I agree mostly. I’m not a ‘cloud for cloud’s sake’ kinda guy. I’m only into it where delivers results, savings, efficiencies, etc. The whole cloud thing has become something of a cult in some corners, for sure.

      I should clarify and say I’m not against installing ANY software locally either. For us we’re going to run with desktop Office for the foreseeable future, for example. So local clients for things like Box/Dropbox etc. are not a problem necessarily. I just don’t want to have to maintain servers.

      I didn’t know about the tagging in Box.com Anthony so will look into this further. Email is still a big problem, but all you need is an Outlook add-in of some kind that, potentially, prompts users to save to Box when they send. In theory…

      Potential issues that immediately spring to mind though are:
      – how do you force users to tag documents? i.e. could you end up with a pile of documents that are untagged?
      – can you customise your tags and have sub levels, etc. (e.g. compliance, then income tax returns)
      – who has jurisdiction over the data, since I assume it’s hosted internationally? This is a potential issue when it comes to confidential client records.

      I’m open to it though. Will check it out.

      And finally, so you’re really saying that if Xero did an app version you’d use it? Those days of the upgrade cycle, trying to work which versions clients are using and making sure they are loaded on every desktop, loading service packs to access data files – I’d be so happy if they were behind us forever! We’ll have to continue to live in them for now though, since we continue to support whatever our clients use. Xero isn’t as feature rich as QuickBooks and MYOB yet, granted, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be eventually and the trade-off is totally worth it, especially in terms of client collaboration. If the alternative to achieving the benefits of collaboration using a desktop app looks anything like AccountRight Live…well, give me a fully web-based application any day!

      • Tagging is optional, and I am not sure can be enforced, but with document text search it is not difficult to find what you want anyway.

        The email may still be an issue, as far as I am aware Box can not actually save email files. You would need to look at something that converts your email to say PDF and saves that.

        Tags are completely customisable, but you can’t sub tag things. It generally shouldn’t be required though. In your example I would assume you could tag compliance and income tax returns on a tax return. Then you could search by either tag or both to narrow down to what you need

        The jurisdiction is always an interesting issue and would need to be looked into further. Its my understanding Box encrypts the data once received so I am not sure it would be viewable anyway. Box Free IT also had an interesting piece as well http://boxfreeit.com.au/2013/03/14/why-patriot-act-irrelevant/

        I didn’t explain to well with the Xero app thing. The data can be separated from the app, however traditionally this hasn’t been done. I think we have become accustomed to how MYOB and Quickbooks that new software meant a new data file (which was painful for all involved), however it doesn’t have to work that way. With the Xero iPhone app now, an upgrade doesn’t mean the data doesn’t work with older files and the data still lives directly in the cloud. I just prefer the smoothness, animations and responsiveness of native apps that seems difficult to match with web apps. I would definitely still want the data living in the cloud as the benefits are enormous. It will be interesting to see how the native Xero app is received.

  6. The environment that has allowed Xero to succeed in this region is in no small part due to the fat-cat incumbent failing to keep their products current, charging for very minor upgrades at every turn while pouring money into marketing. Backed by annual happy-clappy conferences in warm and/or exotic locations to entertain the devotees – its a formula that corporates in the 90s honed to perfection. Meanwhile the product suffered from severe undernourishment and the creativity and innovation was directed at marketing not the long-suffering product.Something had to happen and it did – Xero. As developers we see ‘under-the-hood’ on accounting products in the finest and shabbiest detail – it hasn’t been a pretty sight trying to integrate 30 year old technology, dressed up to impress the ‘partner solution providers’ with images of the young and vibrant gazing into distant horizons equipped with surfboards and bottomless cappuccinos on their endless working holidays – dream on.
    That’s enough from me – I’m sure somebody could write books about it in the future.

  7. Just dropping a quick note in here regarding document storage & Management, have you considered using Google Apps (the business version that is)?

    Like Box.net and DropBox it offers a local sync option plus all the administration features you’d expect from an exchange controlled environment, plus it all works with Microsoft office including Outlook, so all of your Emails can be stored on Google’s cloud as well as all of your documents and like the other cloud storage providers there are sharing & collaboration mechanisms in place in addition to meta-data tagging for improved search and on that note the document search feature in Google apps is powered by Google’s search algorithm.

    On top of all of that, Google drive can be extended by integrating a multitude of applications and it can also be further extended with Google’s own scripting language.

  8. Anthony – I understand what you mean by ‘app’ now, and yeah that would be good, I agree. I wonder though how feature rich it could be before it would end up running into some of the same problems as AccountRightLive? Hard to tell given that AccountRightLive probably came with a pile of legacy issues to begin with anyway. Thanks for the extra comments too, and for article link.

    Graeme – I think that’s a good summary of what’s happened in Australia, and great to hear from someone whose done some development work with the products. So our suspicions about the MYOB product offering are justified then? 🙂

    Firas – we haven’t looked at Google apps. I’m not sure we want to move our actual desktop apps to the cloud (yet, anyway). From what I’ve read the feature set is not as good, but it may be worth the compromise. Would we still have the issue of bandwidth with Google apps though, or can you store locally and simply sync to the cloud for backup/collaboration?

    • You can still use your office software as is, store your documents locally and sync them with google’s drive.

  9. I will have to look further at Google Drive Firas, thanks for the tip. It seems to me that there would be a lot of issues to work through, like versioning, access control, encryption, etc. but if those questions can be answered satisfactorily, it might just work. And Google Drive also integrates with WorkflowMax. Are there any good resources that could take a first time user through the process of setting up Google Drive as a DM system?

  10. if you want a server based product that can integrate with MS products,e-mail then http://www.worldox.com is worth looking at. non sql and rock solid
    I am moving to share-point offering with office 365 as i wanted the DM system to be cloud based.Australian integrator HUB One can help with the WFM intergration

  11. Thanks for the tip David. I’ve heard mixed reviews about using SharePoint for document management. On the face of it, it seems more than capable but reports from those actually using it suggest it’s far from perfect and not completely up to the task of managing a large document database, in practice.

  12. Just passing through via a Google search, but there are other accountant specific solutions out there, such as Smartvault.com whcih allows client folders in the cloud, M-Files which has comprehensive meta-data search functionality and integrates with Sharepoint ot make it usable in the real world, and then the Modern Practice offerings of Suitefiles.com and Practiceignition.

    This is definitely an area of growth in both available options and functionality.

    I am awaiting my Office365 upgrade (interminable…) before deciding which way to jump.

  13. After going down the sharepoint path have decided that m-files either in house or cloud is a better option. Strong metadata options at the point of saving and no folder structure

  14. I have been paperless for ten years originally with server based software http://www.worldox.com
    Moved to xero and wfm three years ago.went with office 365 and sharepoint. Found that difficult to put Metadata on documents. Found mfiles a great product if you want to stay with Ms products. I have decided to move to google apps and use Google drive with an add on aodocs . Very cost effective. Totally cloud based and accessible from any device

  15. Hi Sean. Yes, the entire blog fell by the wayside a while back as we knuckled down to bedding things in better in the practice.

    We haven’t put anything in yet but in the time that this post was written there have been a number of solutions that seem to get closer to what I was looking for back then. I should say too that since that time we have bitten the bullet and put fibre in to the premises, at significant cost. That has made a huge difference generally and has opened up a few more doors specifically with respect to Document Management.

    A product we’re leaning towards at the moment is this:

    http://docxone.com/

    It’s pretty new but ticks a lot of boxes. Fully cloud, underpinned by SharePoint, with the ability to sync back to a local store. It’s built especially for accountants and because it’s essentially an online file and folder structure, the UI is very easy to follow. That also means that there’s virtually no setup costs because it’s all pretty intuitive and Office 365 connected. Also I believe it can migrate documents from our existing system, which is a bonus. Email integration comes by way of Harmon.ie. It’s maybe a little more basic in some respects than some fully-fledged Document Management systems, but the upside of that is that it’s more flexible and the price is really competitive. Like I said, on paper it ticks a lot of boxes. I can report back in more detail if we go with it though and perhaps give more hands-on insight then.

    • Thanks for the reply John. Our practice has migrated to XPM and a consequence of this , that you know all too well, is that it leaves you with a bit of a gap with Document Management. The solutions recommended by Xero (Box, Google Drive, Dropbox) are not really document management solutions – more document repositories. We have gone down the path of SharePoint on 365 and use a product called eShell on top of that. FGS assisted with the migration to XPM and they have a stake in eShell so it seemed like a no brainer to use a DM they had helped develop. At this point it needs further development as it will not do all the things we got out of our previous doc manager e.g. we run paperbuster (great product) here and it will not integrate with eShell.

      Currently eShell uses a directory structure for saving documents but we have found this clunky. The developer is engineering a metadata solution for us at the moment and this appears (on paper) to be a bit more promising. I will give some feedback once that has been implemented.

      On a wider note I believe that many of the issues actually lie with SharePoint, not the eShell skin running over the top of it, so that was one of the reasons I was keen to find out where other people had got to with this i.e. had they settled on some form of SharePoint solution or found something entirely different.

      Regards

      Sean

  16. Thanks David. I was really impressed by M-Files too, but found the setup costs way too expensive for what we needed. It felt a little like trying to fit an enterprise level square peg into an SME round hole.

    DocXone has no meta-data tagging at this stage, but we’ve never really able to use that properly in our existing system due to its limitations anyway. For our basic needs a more traditional file and folder structure is fine (as long as it has full text searching to supplement that).

  17. Ferret Software is now an official Document Management System Add-On to WorkflowMax/ Xero Practice Manager. Ferret offers powerful document management functionality. Used by thousands of NZ and Australian business users.

    Highlights of WorkflowMax with Ferret Document Management System:
    • Continue to use WorkflowMax to track and manage jobs and clients, but add powerful document management functionality.
    • Ferret is a document management system that allows you to view all documents and all correspondence relating to a client or job in one place.
    • You’re able to get the full picture of a client or job, and retrieve any document or email in seconds.
    • Sync all client and job details between WorkflowMax and Ferret document management system. As you update client details in WorkflowMax, they’ll automatically be updated through to Ferret.
    • Ferret’s Document Management System is the missing link where all emails and documents are stored in one place.

    Readmore about it here – http://www.ferretsoftware.co.nz/blog/workflowmax-with-ferret-document-management-system-q-a/

    If you would like to contact me directly by details are

    Nick Stuart (MBA)
    Sales and marketing Manager at Ferret Software Ltd.
    nick.stuart@ferretsoftware.co.nz
    +64 7-579-3943

  18. Hi John, I happened across this blog via Google search. I just wanted to check whether you found a suitable file management solution in the end?

    If not, SuiteFiles sounds like it might suit your needs (full disclosure, I work for them). Addressing your concerns, here are the top benefits:

    – SuiteFiles is a cloud-based document management platform designed for small-medium businesses and accountants. Businesses from around the world use SuiteFiles to store, manage, edit and backup their files from one central location online (knowledge hub).
    – Fully integrated with Microsoft Office 365: You get all the benefits of an enterprise cloud solution, but without the potential complexities and expense of customising SharePoint as your file management system.
    – SuiteFiles is more than a SharePoint skin – it’s packed with specially built features designed to meet the needs of our core clients.
    – Integrates with Xero, Xero Practice Manager, and WorkflowMax
    – Create smart folder, document and email templates that you can prepopulate with client data from the likes of Xero
    – Dedicated Outlook add-in. Easily store and manage emails and files from your inbox.
    – Edit Office files online or through Office desktop programmes
    – Easy sharing and collaboration
    – Easy document versioning, track changes and real-time co-authoring
    – Built-in backups beyond SharePoint’s capabilities. Restore files in minutes, plus it’s great for governance and easy compliance.

    SuiteFiles is constantly being updated as well, and all customers get the latest version automatically.

    The only thing SuiteFiles doesn’t do is meta data, which I saw you’re interested in. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to know why we don’t focus on it.

    I hope that helps you or anyone else who comes across this very interesting thread!

    You can get more info about SuiteFiles at http://thefullsuite.com/ or follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/TheFullSuite.

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