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Choosing the right document management system - capabilities and requirements

1 June 2023

Managing documents effectively is crucial for every organization. A robust document management system (DMS) can streamline workflows, improve collaboration, and enhance productivity.

However, with numerous options available in the market, selecting the right document management system for your organization can be a daunting task. This blog aims to guide you through the process of choosing the right document management system, specifically helping you to understand what requirements and capabilities are important to focus on.

In this blog:

Document management system overview

Document management systems are becoming increasingly important in today's digital world. As the amount of digital data continues to grow, businesses need an efficient way to store, access, and manage their documents and document management systems can provide the necessary solution.


A document management system is a software application that is used to store, organize and manage documents. It provides a secure and centralized repository for all documents, allowing users to store, search and retrieve documents quickly and easily. Documents can be organised in a variety of ways, such as by type, date, or keyword. 


Document management systems also provide additional features such as version control, audit trails and collaboration tools. Version control enables users to track changes made to a document over time, while audit trails store a record of who accessed a document and when. Collaboration tools allow users to work on and share documents in real-time.


How does a document management system fit in a digital workplace?

Digitization of documents has meant that the ability to share and collaborate in ‘real time’ is now a reality, both internally and with clients. This change means that a great document management system should be less focused on being a repository and collation system and instead be about making people productive when they are collaborating. Especially now with people using Microsoft Teams to work together and communicate in a hybrid (remote and office) working environment. In this environment consideration should be given to what does a document management system need to achieve. To decide what are ‘must have’ requirements for a document management system, it is better to define the objectives and associated benefits to be gained from having a document management system in a Digital Workplace.

To explain, below is an example of where traditional working methods have evolved. Rethinking these requirements will avoid a ‘like-for-like’ replacement that does not transform your ways of working to match the digital transformation that is happening around you.  

Example 1 – Working on documents

Historically the approach to finding, opening, editing and sharing a document would be;

  • go to the document management system (either directly to the application or via an option in the Microsoft Office application),  
  • find the document in the recent list, favorites, or search for it,
  • open it in the Microsoft Office application,
  • make changes,
  • save it back to the document management system,
  • send a copy via email (consider if the email now also needs to be saved into the document management system).

Most likely what is happening now is that people are creating and collaborating on documents in Microsoft 365 Office and SharePoint Online, potentially using their OneDrive for this purpose, and then moving/copying it to the document management system later.  

Now in Microsoft 365 Office and SharePoint Online this could be done smarter by doing the following to reduce having to save the document and its associated emails into the document management system by:

  • From the MS Teams site share links internally and to externally invited guests direct to the actual document. Managing those shared links and putting expiry dates or removing access to them as needed.  
  • Using the chat function to notify people of changes, so everyone in the team can see the comments all in one place and not have various email threads to contend with.
  • From MS Teams, SharePoint Online or MS Office search, find recent, pinned (favorites) and shared content as part of creation and editing process. 


Now ask yourself 'Do I need a Document Management System?'

Traditionally those most concerned with the management of documents were organizations that needed to ensure any written material relating to an engagement was collated, stored, and could be retrieved as evidence if required. However, with the move away from having to print and the ever-increasing volumes of digital content of various kinds this has pushed for a shift in thinking in how all this content needs to be treated.

As discussed in The Document Management System eBook, with increased digitalization there is now a need to embrace the concept of different Content Services yet ensure a consistent visibility and governance approach across all the services. A single solution is unlikely to deliver it.  

Defining what a document management system needs to do based is often based on a dictionary definition of document as "a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record". This is a very wide scope. Using the concept of Content Services and that a document management system is one of potentially several Content Services, for the purposes of this article the definition of a document has been refined to:  “an approved digital output that is published to provide specific advice, guidance, information or evidence that represents an organization's position or thought on a topic."

We are precluding communication-based content, such as emails, phone calls, text messages and social media (internal or external) posts. This output can be included in a document management system but doesn’t have to be if we accept the concept of Content Services, as this supports the idea that each underlying application can provide document management system-like capabilities if there are ways to govern all content.  

This now simplifies the expectations of what the document management system must achieve and supports the case for suitable integration and an overarching approach to information governance, as outlined in ClearPeople’s Information Management Guide.  

Then align document management requirements and capabilities with your organization's needs and goals

  1. Assess your organization's requirements:

    Before diving into the search for a document management system, it is essential to identify your organization's specific requirements. Consider factors such as the volume and types of documents you handle, compliance and security needs, collaboration requirements, integration capabilities, and user-friendly interfaces. This assessment will help you create a clear picture of what you need from a document management system.
  2. Determine your budget:

    Establishing a budget for your document management system project is crucial. Consider not only the initial implementation costs but also ongoing expenses like licensing, support, and maintenance. Additionally, factor in the potential return on investment (ROI) from improved efficiency and productivity.
  3. Evaluate security requirements:

    Document security is of utmost importance in today's data-driven world. Ensure that the document management system you choose provides robust security features, such as access controls, encryption, and audit trails. Consider compliance requirements specific to your industry, such as HIPAA or GDPR, and ensure the document management system is capable of meeting those standards.
  4. Scalability and integration requirements:

    As your organization grows, so will your document management needs. Look for a document management system that is scalable and can handle increasing volumes of documents and users without compromising performance. Additionally, assess the system's integration capabilities with other software and systems you use, such as customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
  5. User-friendly interface and adoption capabilities:

    A user-friendly interface is crucial for successful adoption and usage of the document management system. Look for a system that is intuitive, easy to navigate, and requires minimal training. Consider the needs of different user groups within your organization and ensure the document management system can accommodate their specific requirements.
  6. Mobile access and collaboration capabilities:

    In today's mobile workforce, the ability to access and collaborate on documents from anywhere is essential. Look for a document management system that offers mobile accessibility and enables seamless collaboration among team members. Features like version control, commenting, and real-time editing enhance teamwork and productivity.
  7. Vendor reputation and support:

    Research the reputation and track record of document management system vendors you are considering. Read reviews, ask for references, and evaluate their customer support services. A reliable vendor with a proven track record ensures a smoother implementation and ongoing support for your document management system.
  8. Conduct product demos and trials:

    Once you have shortlisted potential document management system solutions, request product demos and trials. This hands-on experience will allow you to assess the system's functionality, usability, and compatibility with your organization's requirements. Involve key stakeholders and gather feedback from users during this evaluation phase.

What capabilities does a document management system need to be successful?

So, what should you be looking for from a document management system?  

Most organizations would initially start off with a long list of requirements in Excel based on what the current system offers and ask potential suppliers to respond to this list with a ‘fully’, ‘partially’ or ‘not met’ response with comments. Often prioritized and split between functional and non-functional needs.  

Taking a step back and reflecting on what is current versus where we as an organization need to be today, tomorrow, one year, three years from now, is potentially a better approach to understanding what the right document management system is for you. Talk instead about the capabilities required and get suppliers to respond to how they envision they would best to deliver those experiences for you.

At ClearPeople we focus on four key capabilities to meet our customer needs:

  1. User experience and adoption
  2. Productivity
  3. Governance
  4. Security

This helps us develop towards what is needed, not what has been done in the past. Taking a similar approach to requirements, it is better to talk in terms of capabilities and how a document management system can deliver those needs, and potentially be part of a larger eco-system rather than stand out on its own.  

Core capabilities could be:  

  1. Findability. Provides the ability to have content promoted based on need, find, and discover the right information when needed using a combination of navigating, filtering, and searching.  
  2. Collaboration. Provides the ability to work with internal and external people to collectively edit, comment, action and notify each other of the changes made and see the changes in ‘real time’.  
  3. Lifecycle management. Provides the ability to provision and manage templated permissioned workspaces that automatically tag content saved in the same way so that people can capture, track, review, publish and preserve content without having to perform additional administrative tasks.  
  4. Assurance. Provides the ability to ensure that the content and its use is appropriately secured, governed, compliant, classified, and is easily auditable to respond to or enforce any conditions required to satisfy legal/regulatory requirements to maintain trust.
  5. Integration. Provides the ability to deliver a seamless user experience that is responsive and accessible, which supports the consolidation of other sources of information through open and available configurable Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

Building a capability map similar to the following could help provide a better understanding and view of what is both needed and what is ‘aspirational’ or only required for an edge case:

Capability map document management system

What’s important ... and prioritizing requirements

A traditional MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could, Wish or Won’t) is useful but perhaps fails to provide weightings, which means more important requirements are evaluated the same as less important ones. Even when just reviewing the ‘Musts’.  

We would recommend providing weightings by capabilities and scale of 1 to 5, or 1 to 10 if necessary. Similar to how both Gartner and Forrester do their analysis. This will enable you to understand what is important and look at not just the functionality but perhaps the suppliers ‘fit’ for your organization, partnerships, project delivery approach, support model, roadmap, etc.  

Table of weightings by capabilities and scales

As stated, for us the focus should be on user experience. This should be given the highest priority. Understanding the user journeys that need to be delivered but not necessarily how they are technically achieved today. Getting the findability and collaboration experiences right will help ensure the rest is possible to achieve.  

What to watch out for when deciding on a document management system

Are there any risks, things to avoid when it comes to deciding on a document management system or choosing Microsoft Teams and SharePoint Online as your document management system of choice?

Yes, of course. Some things to take into consideration:  

  • Adoption risks. Especially when transitioning from one trusted, known and understood document management system to something new, “I use to do it this way, why can’t I continue to do it that way?”. This is where user journeys (and personas) are important. Iteratively validating what you are creating ahead of and against these experiences will help with communication, training, change and acceptance.  
  • What is important. Ensuring that requirements are weighted against each other and evaluated in terms of justified business value versus complexity to achieve up front will make conversations later with people who have niche needs easier to address. A strong Product Owner and/or Steering Committee is required.
  • Accepting the use of MS Teams. If your organization is using MS Teams, you already have a document management system need. You can’t ignore it or hope that people will move documents from MS Teams to a document management system based on written policies and stern emails telling them to do so. The more flexible and transient your workforce, the harder this will become. Embrace MS Teams as a document management system and get the tools you need to manage in place.  
  • Email management. It hasn’t gone away. People still use emails, and business critical information is likely to be held in them. There are specialist applications that create integrations that can manage in line with your MS Teams/ SharePoint Online experience, but it is also worth considering how behaviors could change, or be changed, by using more of the MS Teams collaboration features and relying less on email.  
  • Another Cloud service. Do you want another Cloud service in addition to your Microsoft 365 tenancy? Does it make sense to have to apply the same rigor and manage yet more risk and compliance needs? If you are using MS Teams now, then why not look for products that sit within your Microsoft 365 tenancy rather than outside it?  
  • Document management system specialist features. MS Teams does not provide all the document management system features you will get from a pure document management system product. MS Teams and SharePoint Online are continually improving and with the use of the full Microsoft 365 stack of offerings it is possible to provide a fantastic option. If you have only invested in Microsoft 365 as a technology project rather than a business project, then you will need to rethink and invest a little more in making it all work. A product such as Atlas that can accelerate this process and ensure you get the most out of your investment is worth considering rather than going it alone.  
  • More than just a document management system. MS Teams and SharePoint Online with the right approach can be more than your document management system, increasing the value of your Microsoft 365 investment. Atlas brings together the various features so that from the one product you can deliver collaboration, intranet, knowledge, and document management using the same user interface reducing the time it takes people to get familiar with several services and increasing the chances that good documents become quality knowledge.  

Lastly, think about the pain points and opportunities that your people want to address. Again, the easier the system is for them to use daily the more likely it will be used the way you need it to be.  

Conclusion on selecting the right document management system

Selecting the right document management system is a critical decision that can significantly impact your organization's efficiency and productivity. By following these steps, you can make an informed choice that aligns with your organization's needs and goals. Remember to involve key stakeholders, thoroughly evaluate the features and functionalities, and consider long-term scalability and support. A well-chosen document management system will empower your organization to manage documents effectively and drive success in the digital era.

The authoritative Enterprise Document Management eBook

The authoritative enterprise Document Management Ebook Everything you need to know about getting the most of your Microsoft 365 DMS ebook coverA comprehensive eBook on document management. Download this eBook to learn:

  • A brief history of document management and where it fits today
  • The digital evolution
  • Document management and Microsoft
  • Benefits of a modern digital workplace DMS
  • What next and how to make the move
  • and much more


Author bio

Grant Newton

Grant Newton

Grant is an outcome-focused delivery professional. He has a track record of embedding enduring capabilities through new technologies and processes across a range of organisations. There is nothing Grant enjoys more than seeing happy customers and business value happen together through the changes introduced.

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