Tag Archives: bpm

Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems

This article was originally published in the NTEN eBook “Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits” in January of 2014.

tape-403593_640Introduction

The reasons why we want to make data-driven decisions are clear.  The challenge, in our cash-strapped, resource-shy environments is to install, configure and manage the systems that will allow us to easily and efficiently analyze, report on and visualize the data.  This article will offer some insight into how that can be done, while being ever mindful that the money and time to invest is hard to come by.  But we’ll also point out where those investments can pay off in more ways than just the critical one: the ability to justify our mission-effectiveness.

Right off the bat, acknowledge that it might be a long-term project to get there.  But, acknowledge as well, that you are already collecting all sorts of data, and there is a lot more data available that can put your work in context.  The challenge is to implement new systems without wasting earlier investments, and to funnel data to a central repository for reporting, as opposed to re-entering it all into a redundant system.  Done correctly, this project should result in greater efficiency once it’s completed.

Consider these goals:

  • An integrated data management and reporting system that can easily output metrics in the formats that constituents and funders desire;
  • A streamlined process for managing data that increases the validity of the data entered while reducing the amount of data entry; and
  • A broader, shared understanding of the effectiveness of our strategic plans.

Here are the steps you can take to accomplish these goals.

Taking Inventory

The first step in building the system involves ferreting out all of the systems that you store data in today.  These will likely be applications, like case or client management systems, finance databases, human resources systems and constituent relationship management (CRM) systems.  It will also include Access databases, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, email, and, of course, paper.  In most organizations (and this isn’t limited to nonprofits), data isn’t centrally managed.  It’s stored by application and/or department, and by individuals.

The challenge is to identify the data that you need to report on, wherever it might be hidden, and catalogue it. Write down what it is, where it is, what format it is in, and who maintains it.  Catalogue your information security: what content is subject to limited availability within the company (e.g., HR data and HIPAA-related information)? What can be seen organization-wide? What can be seen by the public?

Traditionally, companies have defaulted to securing data by department. While this offers a high-level of security, it can stifle collaboration and result in data sprawl, as copies of secured documents are printed and emailed to those who need to see the information, but don’t have access. Consider a data strategy that keeps most things public (within the organization), and only secures documents when there is clear reason to do so.

You’ll likely find a fair amount of redundant data.  This, in particular, should be catalogued.  For example, say that you work at a social services organization.  When a new client comes on, they’re entered into the case management system, the CRM, a learning management system, and a security system database, because you’ve given them some kind of access card. Key to our data management strategy is to identify redundant data entry and remove it.  We should be able to enter this client information once and have it automatically replicated in the other systems.

Systems Integration

Chances are, of course, that all of your data is not in one system, and the systems that you do have (finance, CRM, etc.) don’t easily integrate with each other.  The first question to ask is, how are we going to get all of our systems to share with each other? One approach, of course, is to replace all of your separate databases with one database.  Fortune 500 companies use products from Oracle and SAP to do this, systems that incorporate finance, HR, CRM and inventory management.  Chances are that these will not work at your nonprofit; the software is expensive and the developers that know how to customize it are, as well.  More affordable options exist from companies like MicroSoft, Salesforce, NetSuite and IBM, at special pricing for 501(c)(3)’s.

Data Platforms

A data platform is one of these systems that stores your data in a single database, but offers multiple ways of working with the data.  Accordingly, a NetSuite platform can handle your finance, HR, CRM/Donor Management and e-commerce without maintaining separate data stores, allowing you to report on combined metrics on things like fundraiser effectiveness (Donor Management and HR) and mail vs online donations (E-commerce and Donor Management).  Microsoft’s solution will incorporate separate products, such as Sharepoint, Dynamics CRM, and the Dynamics ERP applications (HR, Finance).  Solutions like Salesforce and NetSuite are cloud only, whereas Microsoft  and IBM can be installed locally or run from the cloud.

Getting from here to there

Of course, replacing all of your key systems overnight is neither a likely option nor an advisable one.  Change like this has to be implemented over a period of time, possibly spanning years (for larger organizations where the system changes will be costly and complex). As part of the earlier system evaluation, you’ll want to factor in the state of each system.  Are some approaching obsoletion?  Are some not meeting your needs? Prioritize based on the natural life of the existing systems and the particular business requirements. Replacing major data systems can be difficult and complex — the point isn’t to gloss over this.  You need to have a strong plan that factors in budget, resources, and change management.  Replacing too many systems too quickly can overwhelm both the staff implementing the change and the users of the systems being changed.  If you don’t have executive level IT Staff on board, working with consultants to accomplish this is highly recommended.

Business Process Mapping

BPM_Example

The success of the conversion is less dependent on the platform you choose than it is on the way you configure it.  Systems optimize and streamline data management; they don’t manage the data for you.  In order to insure that this investment is realized, a prerequisite investment is one in understanding how you currently work with data and optimizing those processes for the new platform.

To do this, take a look at the key reports and types of information in the list that you compiled and draw the process that produces each piece, whether it’s a report, a chart, a list of addresses or a board report.  Drawing processes, aka business process mapping, is best done with a flowcharting tool, such as Microsoft Visio.  A simple process map will look like this:

In particular, look at the processes that are being done on paper, in Word, or in Excel that would benefit from being in a database.  Aggregating information from individual documents is laborious; the goal is to store data in the data platform and make it available for combined reporting.  If today’s process involves cataloguing data in an word processing table or a spreadsheet, then you will want to identify a data platform table that will store that information in the future.

Design Considerations

Once you have catalogued your data stores and the processes in place to interact with the data, and you’ve identified the key relationships between sets of data and improved processes that reduce redundancy, improve data integrity and automate repetitive tasks, you can begin designing the data platform.  This is likely best done with consulting help from vendors who have both expertise in the platform and knowledge of your business objectives and practices.

As much as possible, try and use the built-in functionality of the platform, as opposed to custom programming.  A solid CRM like Salesforce or MS CRM will let you create custom objects that map to your data and then allow you to input, manage, and report on the data that is stored in them without resorting to actual programming in Java or .NET languages.  Once you start developing new interfaces and adding functionality that isn’t native to the platform, things become more difficult to support.  Custom training is required; developers have to be able to fully document what they’ve done, or swear that they’ll never quit, be laid off, or get hit by a bus. And you have to be sure that the data platform vendor won’t release updates that break the home-grown components.

Conclusion

The end game is to have one place where all staff working with your information can sign on and work with the data, without worrying about which version is current or where everything might have been stored.  Ideally, it will be a cloud platform that allows secure access from any internet-accessible location, with mobile apps as well as browser-based.  Further considerations might include restricted access for key constituents and integration with document management systems and business intelligence tools. But key to the effort is a systematic approach that includes a deep investment in taking stock of your needs and understanding what the system will do for you before the first keypress or mouse click occurs, and patience, so that you get it all and get it right.  It’s not an impossible dream.

 

Three Ways To Make Sure that Your Next Big Software Project Is A Success

This post also appeared on the Cloud for Good Blog in April of 2014.

Buying a new fundraising CRM or replacing your finance and HR systems are big investments with critical outcomes. These are the types of projects can have a huge impact on your ability to accomplish your mission. Poorly planned, chosen and deployed, they will do the opposite. If you’re grasping for a cautionary tale, just look at the recent Healthcare.gov rollout, or the worse related stories in Maryland and Oregon. But successful implementations happen every day as well, they just don’t grab as many headlines.

How can you make sure that big software projects succeed?  Here are three recommendations:

1. Know what you need

All too often, the decision to replace a system is based more on frustrations with your current system than identified improvements that a new system might bring.  And, far too often, those frustrations aren’t really based on the capabilities of your existing system, but, instead, on the way that it was configured.  Modern software is highly configurable.  In nonprofit environments, where administrative staffing is low and people are juggling multiple priorities, the proper investment in that configuration is sometimes skipped. It’s important that you take the time to thoroughly catalogue your current processes and goals; clearly identify your reporting needs; and establish your core requirements before you embark for this sort of project.

Technology automates processes. If you automate bad processes, you get bad technology.  So making an investment in business process mapping, and taking the time to streamline and enhance the way you work with information today will insure that you know what your new system should be doing for you as you configure it.

2. Be prepared to change the way you do things

Ideally, you’ll invest in software that does exactly what you want it to do for you. In reality, there will be limitations in the way that the software was programmed, or the way that it has to be configured in order to integrate with your other applications, that will be out of sync with your preferences. Software doesn’t have a mind of it’s own; instead, it inherits the assumptions and biases of the developers that created it. They might assume, for instance, that you collect donations from individuals and have no need to recognize households in your system. Or they might assume that your average employee turnover is less than 20%, whereas, at a workforce development agency that hires its clients, 50% is more on the mark.  If the best system you can find suffers from some of these limitations,. you will have to either work around them, or buy the second best system, if it requires fewer workarounds, because you do want to minimize them.

Regardless, you’ll want to understand the underlying assumptions in the application and have a strategy for working around them. Some companies will go so far as to commission or design their own systems (commonly called “build” vs “buy”), but you need to weigh the cost of having a supported system vs. a homegrown one, because, unless what you do is truly unique, those will not be worthwhile trade-offs.

3. Hire a consultant for their expertise and compatibility, not their billing rate

We all want to get these projects done for as little money as possible. So there’s a tendency to hire consultants based on the lowest bid. I’d caution against this. major system configuration projects are generally open-ended — determining the exact configuration and number of hours that it will take to get there before the project starts is akin to inviting the whole city to a dinner party and determining the number of plates that you’ll require before anyone RSVPs. So you want to work with consultants who are very efficient at their work, and very conversant with your needs. What you don’t want to do is hand your project to a consultant who doesn’t really understand your requirements, but has their own idea as to how it should be done.  You could well be left with a system that met the budget, but not your needs, or one that exceeded the budget while being reworked to satisfy your requirements. A good consultant will work closely with you.  they’ll spend more time meeting with staff to learn about your needs then they will setting up the project, but they’ll set it up quickly and correctly based on their thorough understanding of your goals and needs. The hourly rate might be double the low bid, but the total cost could be equivalent, resulting in a usable system that will compensate for the initial dollar outlay all that much faster.

Here are slides that I developed for a talk/discussion on creating Requests for Proposals that vendors will appreciate at the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference.  These include some key strategies for making sure that you hire the right person or firm.

In conclusion, how you go about a software project has far more to do with how you conduct your business than it does with the actual technology.  Make sure that you’re investing wisely by taking the time to understand your needs, know where you can compromise, and hire the best partners.

Does Your Data have a Bad Reputation?

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in June of 2009.

notepad.jpgPhoto by StarbuckGuy

As you probably know, the U.S. Congress has been having a big debate about what went on behind closed door briefings on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism. At issue is whether House Leader Nancy Pelosi was told about the use of harsh interrogation tactics, which many of us define as torture, in 2002 and 2003 briefings, when the tactics were actually in use. Rep. Pelosi maintains that they weren’t discussed; The CIA, responsible for the briefings, maintains that they were, but neither of them has yet provided documentation that might settle the matter. Meanwhile, Rep. Pelosi’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Bob Graham, who, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was also to be briefed on such actions, reports that the CIA’s assertions are in error. Dates that they claim he was in briefings on the subject are wrong. His his meticulous notes, which he has traditionally been kidded about keeping, establish that only one of four CIA-alleged meetings actually occurred, and, in it, the harsh interrogation tactics weren’t discussed.

At this point, you might well be asking why I’m bringing this up on the Idealware blog. And the answer is, because it’s about data, or, more to the point, the integrity of data and data keeping systems, and that’s a topic close to our hearts here at Idealware. This example was inspired by some great reporting by the frivously-named, but thought-provoking blog BoingBoing, and a post of theirs on May 21st titled “Bob Graham’s much-scoffed-at little notebooks are more reliable than the CIA’s records“. They quote Gary Wolf’s post (which I highly recommend reading) about the intriguing fact that the CIA backed off of their record keeping claims rather quickly upon learning that they didn’t jibe with Graham’s personal notes. Consider this for a minute: Bob Graham’s personal note-taking has more authority than the record keeping of the Central Intelligence Agency. The killer line from Wolf’s post is:

“Personal data, kept by a dedicated and interested party, even using yesterday’s technology, will trump large scale collection systems managed by bureaucrats.”

You can find some really excellent advice here at Idealware on what to buy and how to implement the software that will manage the critical information that your organization lives and dies by. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars deploying it. But it, too, might be outclassed by the scribbling of a person who’s scribble-keeping habits are far less impeachable (to keep the political allegory going) than the data integrity securing processes that you build around your system.

When you deploy that software, one thing to consider is “who owns this data? Who has the most respect for it?”. Distribute the data entry duties in ways that insure that the people who first put that data into the system care about it, and are invested in seeing that it goes in correctly. Then, integrate your systems in ways that eliminate duplicate entry of that data. Set up triggers that push data from the authoritative systems of record (the ones that the people who care enter the data into) to the auxiliary systems, insuring that no donor or client’s name is misspelled one place, but correct in another; and that a $50 donation via the web site isn’t recorded as a $500 entry in your donor database.

Doing this will insure that your data-keeping systems have the upstanding reputations that your organization depends on.

Meet The Idealware Bloggers Part 3: Peter Campbell

This interview was conducted by Heather Gardner-Madras and originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

The third interview of the series is with Peter Campbell and I had a good time putting a face with the twitter conversations we’ve been having in the past year, as well as finding out more about how he came to write for the Idealware blog.

Peter Campbell

On Connecting Nonprofits & Technology
Peter’s decision to combine technology with nonprofit work was very deliberate. Well into a career as an IT director for a law firm in San Francisco he had something of an epiphany and wanted to do something more meaningful in the social services sector. It took him 9 months to find just the right job and he landed at Goodwill. In both positions he was able to take advantage of good timing and having the right executive situations to create his own vision and really bring effective change to the organizations. At Goodwill Industries, Peter developed retail management software and introduced e-commerce. Now with Earth Justice, he is also sharing his experience with the broader community.

On Blogging
Although Peter always wanted to incorporate writing as a part of his work and wrote a good bit, the advent of blogs didn’t provide a lot of motivation for him because he wanted to be sure to have something worthwhile to say. A firm believer in blogging about what you know, he was intrigued by the opportunity to blog at Idealware since the topics and style were aligned with his knowledge and experience. So while the previous 3 years of blogging had only yielded about 50 entries, this was an opportunity to get on a roll, and if you have been following this blog you know that it has really paid off and provided a lot of great resources already.

The Magic Wand Question
One of the questions I asked in each interview was this: If you had a magic wand that could transform one aspect of nonprofit technology in an instant, what would it be and why?

Peter’s answer is simple and echoes a common thread in responses to this question: Change the way nonprofit management understands technology – help them realize the value it offers, the resources needed to get the most out of it, and how to use it.

The Next 5 Years
In response to a question about what he finds to be the most exciting trend in nonprofit technology in the next five years Peter felt there are many of things to be excited about right now.

He feels that transformations in technology are cropping up quickly and nonprofits have a real opportunity to be at the forefront of these changes. The data revolution and rise of cloud computing will liberate nonprofits and turn the things we struggle with now into an affordable solution. Virtualization, as well, will provide new freedom and efficiency. According to Peter, these trends will work together to change the way we manage and invest in technology. In his words – right now its still geeky and complex, but it will get easier.

Personal snapshots
First thing you launch on your computer when you boot/in the morning?
Twitter client, then FireFox with Gmail and Google Reader and 2 blogs open in tabs.

Is there a tech term or acronym that makes you giggle and why?
Not really, but there are some that infuriate me. I am a fan of BPM (Business Process Management) because it describes what you should do – manage your processes and realize that tech is the structure to do it with, not the brain.

Favorite non-technology related thing or best non-techy skill?
Besides technology, I hope my best skill is my writing.

Which do you want first – Replicator, holodeck, transporter or warp drive?
Transporter is the great one, but I don’t want to be the beta tester.

See previous posts to learn more about Steve Backman and Laura Quinn.

 

Complying with Data Security Regulation

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2008.
An article appeared in the NonProfit Times this week regarding a recent ruling in Nevada requiring that all personal information be securely transmitted, e.g. encrypted. The article, States Push To Encrypt Personal Data is by Michelle Donahue, and quotes, among others, me and our friend Holly Ross, Executive Director of NTEN — it’s a worthwhile read. The law in question is a part of Nevada’s Miscellaneous Trade Regulations and Prohibited Acts. I’ve quoted the relative pieces of this legislation below, but I’ll sum it up here:

Personal information can not be transferred to you by your customers (donors) without encryption. Personal information is defined as any transmittal of someone’s name along with their credit card number, driver’s license, or other data that could be used to access their financial records.

Nevada is the first state to pass legislation like this, but it’s a good bet that they are the first of fifty. Massachusetts is right behind them. And if the government won’t get you, the credit card industry might. The regulations that they impose on larger retailers for credit card security are even tougher. These initially applied to retailers bringing in far more money via credit card than most of us do, but they have lowered the financial threshold each year, bringing smaller and smaller organizations under that regulatory umbrella.

So, the question is, how many of you receive donations via email? If you do accept donations over the web, are you certain that they’re encrypted from the time of input until they land inside your (secured) network? What do you do with them when you receive them? Do you email credit card numbers within the office? Retain them in a database, spreadsheet or document?

Most nonprofits are understaffed and unautomated. We accept donations in any manner that the donors choose to send them, and get them into our records-keeping systems in a myriad of fashions. The bad news here is that this will have to change. The good news is, if you do it right, you should be able to adopt new practices that streamline the maintenance of your donor data and reduce the workload. Even better, if the solution is to move from Excel or Word to Salesforce or Etapestry, then you’ll not only have a better records-keeping system, you’ll also have good analytical tools for working with your donors.

Automating systems, refining business processes, improving data management and maintenance — these are all of the things that we know are important to do someday. It looks like the urgency is rising. So don’t treat this threat as an impediment to your operations — treat it like an opportunity to justify some necessary improvements in your organization.

The relevent snippet from the Nevada law:

” 1. A business in this State shall not transfer any personal information of a customer through an electronic transmission other than a facsimile to a person outside of the secure system of the business unless the business uses encryption to ensure the security of electronic transmission.

2. As used in this section:

(a) “Encryption” has the meaning ascribed to it in NRS 205.4742.

(b) “Personal information” has the meaning ascribed to it in NRS 603A.040.

“Personal Information” is defined as:

“Personal information” means a natural person’s first name or first initial and last name in combination with any one or more of the following data elements, when the name and data elements are not encrypted:

1. Social security number.

2. Driver’s license number or identification card number.

3. Account number, credit card number or debit card number, in combination with any required security code, access code or password that would permit access to the person’s financial account.

The term does not include the last four digits of a social security number or publicly available information that is lawfully made available to the general public.

Better Organization Through Document Management Systems

This article was originally published at Idealware in January of 2007.

Is your organization drowning in a virtual sea of documents? Document management systems can provide invaluable document searching, versioning, comparison, and collaboration features. Peter Campbell explains.

tax-468440_640For many of us, logging on to a network or the Internet can be like charting the ocean with a rowboat. There may be a sea of information at our fingertips, but if we lack the proper vessel to navigate it, finding what we need — even within our own organization’s information system — can be a significant challenge.

Organizations today are floating in a virtual sea of documents. Once upon a time, this ocean was limited to computer files and printed documents, but these days we must also keep track of the information we email, broadcast, publish online, collaborate on, compare, and present — as well as the related content that others send us. Regulatory measures like the Sarbanes-Oxley actand the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) have created a further burden on organizations to produce more documents and track them more methodically.Taken as a whole, this flood of created and related content acts as our nonprofit’s knowledge base. Yet when we simply create and collect documents, we miss the opportunity to take advantage of this knowledge. Not only do these documents contain information we can reuse, we can also study them to understand past organizational decisions and parse them to produce metrics on organizational goals and efficiencies.

Just as effective document management has become an increasing priority for large companies, it has also become more important — and viable — at smaller nonprofits. And while free tools like Google Desktop or Windows Desktop Search can help increase your document-management efficiency, more sophisticated and secure document-management tools — called Document Management Systems (DMSs) — are likely within your reach. Document management systems offer integrated features to support Google-esque searching, document versioning, comparison, and collaboration. What’s more, when you save a document to a DMS, you record summary information about your document to a database. That database can then be used to analyze your work in order to improve your organization’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Basic Document Management

One way to increase the overall efficiency of your document management is simply to use your existing file-system tools in an agreed upon, standardized fashion. For instance, naming a document “Jones Fax 05-13-08.doc” instead of “Jones.doc” is a rudimentary form of document management. By including the document type (or other descriptive data) your document will be easier to locate when you’re looking for the fax that you sent to Jones on May 13, as opposed to other erstwhile “Jones” correspondence. Arranging documents on a computer or file server in standard subfolders, with meaningful names and topics, can also be useful when managing documents.

For small organizations with a manageable level of document output, these basic document-storing techniques may suffice, especially if all document editors understand the conventions and stick by them. But this kind of process can be difficult to impose and enforce effectively, especially if your organization juggles thousands of documents. If you find that conventions alone aren’t working, you may wish to turn to a Document Management System.

One huge advantage of this system is that it names and stores your documents using a standardized, organization-wide convention, something that can be difficult to maintain otherwise, especially given a typical nonprofit’s turnover rate and dependence on volunteers. What’s more, a DMS will track not just the date the file was last modified (as Windows does), but also the date the document was originally created — which is often more useful in finding a particular document.

In fact, a DMS’s “File > Open” dialogue box can locate files based on any of the information saved about a document. A DMS can narrow a search by date range, locate documents created by particular authors, or browse through recently modified documents, sparing you the necessity of clicking through multiple folders to find what you’re looking for. It will also allow you to search the content of documents using a variety of methods, including the Boolean system (e.g. “includes Word A OR Word B but NOT Word C”) and proximity criteria (e.g., “Word A and word B within n words of each other”). Just as Google has become the quickest way to pull Web-page “needles” out of a gigantic Internet haystack, a solid DMS allows you to quickly find what you’re looking for on your own network.

A good DMS also allows the document creator to define which co-workers can read, edit, or delete his or her work via the document profile. On most networks, this type of document protection is handled by network access rules, and making exceptions to them requires a call to the help desk for assistance.

  • Document check-in and check-out.

    If you try to open a file that someone else is already editing, a network operating system, like Windows Server 2003, will alert you that the file is in use and offer you the option to make a copy. A DMS will tell you more: who is editing the document, what time she checked it out, and the information she provided about the purpose of her revision and when she plans to be done with the document.

  • Document comparison.

    A DMS not only supports Word’s track-changes and document-merging features, but allows you to compare your edited document to an unedited version, highlighting the differences between the two within the DMS. This is a great feature when your collaborator has neglected to track his or her changes, particularly because it allows you to view the updates without actually adding the revision data to your original files, making them less susceptible to document corruption.

  • Web publishing.

    Most DMSs provide content-management features for intranets and even public Web sites. Often, you can define that specific types of documents should be automatically published to your intranet as soon as they’re saved to the DMS. (Note, however, that if your core need is to publish documents on a Web site, rather than track versions or support check-ins and check-outs, a dedicated Content Management System [CMS] will likely be a better fit than a DMS.)

  • Workflow automation.

    A DMS can incorporate approvals and routing rules to define who should see the document and in what order. This allows the system to support not only the creation and retrieval of documents, but also the editing and handoff process. For example, when multiple authors need to work on a single document, the DMS can route the file from one to the next in a pre-defined order.

  • Email Integration.

    Most DMSs integrate with Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, and other email platforms, allowing you to not only view your document folders from within your email client, but to also to save emails to your DMS. If, for example, you send out a document for review, you can associate any feedback and comments you receive via email with that document, which you can retrieve whenever you search for your original file.

  • Document Recovery.

    DMSs typically provide strong support for document backup, archiving, and disaster recovery, working in conjunction with your other backup systems to safeguard your work.

Three Types of Document Management Systems

If you decide that your organization would benefit from a DMS, there are a variety of choices and prices available. In general, we can break up DMSs into three types:

  • Photocopier- and Scanner-Bundled Systems

    Affordable DMS systems are often resold along with photocopiers and
    scanners. While primarily intended as an image and PDF management
    system, these DMSs integrate with the hardware but can also manage files created on the network. Bundled systems may not include the very high-end features features offered by enterprise-level DMSs, but will offer the basics and usually come with very competitive, tiered pricing. A popular software package is offered by Laserfiche.

  • Enterprise-Level Systems

    These robust, sophisticated systems usually require a strong database
    back end such as Microsoft SQL or Oracle and tend to be expensive.
    Enterprise-level systems include the advanced features listed above, and some are even tailored to particular industries, such as legal or
    accounting firms. Examples of powerful enterprise systems include Open
    Text eDocs, Interwoven WorkSite, and EMC’s Documentum.

  • Microsoft Office SharePoint (MOSS 2007)

    Microsoft SharePoint is an interesting and fairly unique offering in the DMS area. While it’s best know as a corporate intranet platform, the 2007 version of the package provides building blocks for content-, document-, and knowledge-management, with tight integration with Microsoft Office documents, sophisticated workflow and routing features, and extensive document and people-searching capabilities. It is a powerful tool and — typically — an expensive one, but because it is available to qualifying nonprofits for a low administrative free through TechSoup (which offers both SharePoint Standard Edition andEnterprise Edition), it is also a far more affordable option for nonprofits than similar DMS products on the market. One caveat: Sharepoint, unlike the other systems mentioned above, stores documents in a database rather than in your file system, which can make the documents more susceptible to corruption. (Note: SharePoint Server is a discreet product that should not be confused with Windows Shared Services, which comes bundled with Windows Server 2003.

The Future of Document Management

The most significant changes in document management over the last decade have been the migration of most major DMS systems from desktop to browser-based applications, as well as their ever-increasing efficiency and search functionality. The growing popularity of Software as a Service (SaaS), tagging, and RSS tools are likely to impact the DMS space as well.

Software as a Service

SaaS platforms like Google Apps and Salesforce.com store documents online, on hosted servers, as opposed to on traditional internal file servers. Google Apps doesn’t currently offer the detailed document profile options standard DMSs do, but it will be interesting to see how that platform evolves.

Another SaaS product, Salesforce, has been active in the document management space. Salesforce’s constituent relationship management (CRM) platform currently allows organizations to simply upload documents for a constituent. Salesforce has recently purchased a commercial DMS called Koral, however, and is in the process of incorporating it into its platform, an enhancement that will help tie documents to the other aspects of constituent relationships.

Tagging

A startup called Wonderfile has introduced an online DMS that incorporates the heavy use of tagging to identify and describe documents. Using this software, you would move your documents to the Wonderfile servers and manage them online with Del.icio.us-style methods of tagging and browsing. A drawback to Wonderfile is that, although a creative solution, storing and sharing your documents online is more valuable when you can edit and collaborate on them as well. As full-fledged, Web-based document creation and editing platforms, Google Apps and its peers are a better alternative, despite their lack of tagging functionality.

Microsoft has also been quietly adding tagging capability to their file-browsing utility Windows Explorer, allowing to you add keywords to your documents that show up as columns that you can sort and filter by. This works in both Windows XP and Vista.

RSS

While none of the existing DMSs are currently doing much with RSS — an online syndication technique that could allow users to “subscribe” to changes to documents or new content via a Web browser — Salesforce plans to integrate RSS functionality with its new Koral system. This type of syndication could be a useful feature, allowing groups of people to track document revisions, communicate about modifications, or monitor additions to folders.

Finding What You’re Looking For

Is it time for your organization to trade in that rowboat for a battle cruiser? With an ever-expanding pool of documents and resources, nonprofits need ways to find the information we need that are richer and more sophisticated than the standard filenames and folders. If your organization struggles to keep track of important documents and information, a DMS can help you move beyond the traditional “file-and-save” method to an organizational system that allows you to sort by topics and projects using a variety of techniques and criteria.

But we should all hope that even better navigational systems are coming down the road. Having seen the creative advances in information management provided by Web 2.0 features like tagging and syndication, it’s easy to envision how these features, which work well with photos, bookmarks, and blog entries, could be extended to documents as well.

 

Peter Campbell is the director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the earth, and blogs about NPTech tools and strategies at Techcafeteria.com. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin Counties, and has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years.

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article. Tim Johnson, Laura Quinn of Idealware, and Peter Crosby ofalltogethernow also contributed to this article.