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?