What makes SharePoint a good choice for cloud-based document management?

Cloud-based document management systems (DMS) are very popular these days among both enterprises and small businesses due to their benefits over the on-premises deployment:

  • 24/7 access to documents, regardless of various locations and devices
  • Advanced collaboration capabilities
  • Reduced costs on IT staff, infrastructure and maintenance
  • High-level information security

SharePoint document management

The software market offers multiple cloud-based document management solutions. Some of them are industry-specific and designed for banking, healthcare, construction & engineering, etc. For example, Clio is used in legal practice document management. Others are known as universal and suitable for any industry. For example, a document management system based on SharePoint Online (you can try our demo to see how it works), an Office 365 component, is an example of a universal cloud-based solution. Let’s analyze features of SharePoint Online document management system (SharePoint Online DMS) and define features that are essential for small businesses, enterprises and regulated industries. We’ll also have a look at several alternatives to SharePoint Online DMS.

SharePoint Online DMS: features at a glance
SharePoint document management features

SharePoint Online DMS provides numerous features, specifically:

  • Capture. SharePoint Online DMS uses third-party optical character recognition (OCR) tools to convert paper documents into searchable PDF files.
  • Validation. SharePoint Online DMS uses visual validation system tools to automatically examine data during capture and ensure they are free from errors such as missing symbols or poorly scanned pages.
  • Storage. SharePoint Online DMS allows storing effective documents in libraries. Non-effective documents can be automatically moved to repositories for archiving or deleted after a certain period of time.
  • Indexing. Tracking electronic documents is based on content and metadata in SharePoint Online DMS.
  • Searching. SharePoint Online DMS supports search by document title, metadata and parts of content.
  • Retrieval. Documents are accessible in SharePoint Online DMS, regardless of location and availability of Internet connection, on all devices: smartphones, tablets, PC or laptops.
  • Distribution. Documents are distributed in SharePoint Online DMS in formats that can’t be easily changed, for example, PDF.
  • Workflow. SharePoint Online DMS supports workflows that automatically route documents for approval, feedback, signatures, etc.
  • Collaboration. SharePoint Online DMS supports real-time collaboration that allows simultaneous editing of documents by several users and making the changes visible to all participants.
  • Versioning. SharePoint Online DMS provides version control, which allows retaining previous versions of documents.
  • Security. SharePoint Online DMS offers user permission levels, data encryption, automatic anti-malware protection and warnings about sharing sensitive information.
  • Integration. SharePoint Online DMS shows good compatibility with other Microsoft software. It can also be easily integrated with ERP, CRM, BI, HR systems, etc.

Features relevant for small businesses

What small businesses value the most in their daily business processes is time and cost-effectiveness, and document management is no exception. Let’s see which features of SharePoint Online DMS answer this purpose best and thus can be especially beneficial for a small business:

  • Retrieval & access. Time is a small business’s most valuable asset and SharePoint Online DMS powerful full-text search based on extensive metadata allows easy and fast retrieving of documents, thus accelerating all business operations. Also, small businesses need to fight for each customer and with SharePoint Online DMS availability on all mobile devices, documents are accessible anywhere and anytime. So, for example, a sales rep doesn’t have to wait until the next morning to process an order received after the end of a working day.
  • Security. Information security is critical to small businesses, as security breaches may result in legal action and then in bankruptcy. Along with that, small businesses have limited resources and oftentimes, they can’t afford hiring security administrators and analysts. SharePoint Online DMS can become a perfect solution for them, as it offers high-level information security that boosts small businesses’ and customers’ confidence that their sensitive information is protected well. 
  • Integration. SharePoint Online is an integration-friendly platform. As the increase in sales is the highest priority of small businesses, integration of SharePoint Online DMS with CRM systems such as Salesforce and Dynamics 365 can be very effective. In this case, SharePoint Online helps to overcome such limitations of Salesforce as restricted data storage, lack of cross-departmental collaboration and high license costs and allows searching documents in both systems at the same time.

Features relevant for enterprises

Having an effective DMS is a must for enterprises that want to ensure accurate handling of their multiple documents of various types. SharePoint Online offers several useful features that help to rationalize enterprise document management:

  • Capture & validation. Enterprises deal with many document types such as contracts, invoices, cost estimates, reports that are stored in different formats.  Together with OCR software, SharePoint Online DMS can turn diverse documents into uniform-format readable and searchable files, which will help enterprises to accelerate internal sharing of documents and external transactions.
  • Indexing & storage. SharePoint Online DMS indexing can help enterprises to categorize, archive, find and retrieve their multiple documents easily and accurately. SharePoint Online DMS list can have up to 30 million items, a library – up to 30 million files and folders and file size can be up to 15 GB, which can fully satisfy enterprises’ requirements to document storage space. SharePoint Online DMS supports not only common file types as Word or Excel but also rare file extensions such as .odt, .xslb, .ppsx and 3D models. Besides, it’s important for enterprises to retain information about clients, employees and business activities due to compliance regulations, and SharePoint Online DMS provides document retention and deletion scheduling.
  • Searching & access. SharePoint Online DMS provides a powerful search and also supports results ranking, which is important for enterprises that have thousands of documents. In addition, SharePoint Online DMS enables federated search that allows searching documents through many resources such as other DMS or portals. In SharePoint Online DMS, search can also be applied to archived documents that are no longer effective but must be retained for compliance purposes.
  • Workflows, collaboration & versioning.  Automated workflows help enterprises to streamline business operations throughout an organization. Enterprise workflows are usually non-linear and multilevel and enterprise’s departments can have specific workflows of their own. Real-time collaboration helps their multiple employees not to waste time on emailing, re-opening documents and waiting for their turn to edit them. SharePoint Online DMS can retain 50,000 major versions and 511 minor versions of documents for reviewing and comparing with the current one.
  • Security & compliance. Regulatory compliance is crucial for enterprises, especially information security regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and more. SharePoint Online DMS allows users to control who can view, edit and delete documents and establishes a system of multiple permission levels. Due to SharePoint Online multi-factor authentication, backups and redundancy, risks of sensitive data disclosure or corruption are low. SharePoint Online DMS also supports document retention and audit trail (see the next section). All this helps enterprises to ensure high-level information security, enforce accountability and support compliance.
  • Integration. Integration is vital for enterprises, as they have many sophisticated document-driven business processes. SharePoint shows good compatibility with other Microsoft products. It can also be integrated with ERP, CRM, project management, HR, business intelligence, accounting systems, etc.

Features relevant for regulated industries

For businesses that are closely controlled by the government, strict compliance with regulations such as SOX, HIPAA, FDA, etc. becomes crucial. To be compliant, they need to ensure structured storing, easy retrieval, visibility of all business operations and high information security. SharePoint Online DMS can support compliance with the help of the following features:

  • Retention & deletion policies. To support regulatory compliance, SharePoint Online DMS provides scheduling of document retention and automatic elimination of unnecessary files. Also, due to the system of permission levels, unauthorized deletion of documents is avoided.
  • Capture & metadata & retrieval. SharePoint and OCR software allow converting paper documents into readable and searchable PDF files, which facilitates audit. SharePoint Online DMS provides extensive metadata to each document for classifying business information to make it easily retrievable by auditors.
  • Versioning & workflows. SharePoint Online DMS offers version control that allows auditors to track all changes made to a document. Automated workflows ensure visibility of all business processes, as they provide auditors with real-time information about all operations.
  • Security. SharePoint Online DMS provides information security due to data encryption, access control, etc. It also provides a complete audit trail of all document-related activities during a document’s entire lifecycle: who edits, retrieves, copies, prints out, emails or deletes it.

Strengths & weaknesses of SharePoint Online DMS

As was shown above, SharePoint Online DMS can be a good document management tool for small and large companies, as well as for regulated industries. And now let’s have a look at some strengths of SharePoint Online DMS any business can enjoy and weaknesses they should be aware of.

Strengths

  • Due to its high scalability, SharePoint Online DMS can grow with an increasing amount of documents, so it can be equally applicable to small, mid-size and large companies.
  • SharePoint Online is a highly customizable platform and can be adapted to meet industry- and company-specific requirements to document management.
  • 24/7 access to documents from any device and any location with internet access, as well as offline access with further synchronization to the cloud.
  • Full automation of such business processes as contract approval, technical support, interviewing and more due to the capability to create rule-based workflows of any structure and complexity.
  • Out-of-the-box integration with other Office 365 services (Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Exchange, OneDrive, Microsoft Flows and Delve) and document processing tools (Word, Excel or PowerPoint).
  • SharePoint Online plans are very affordable and start with $5.00 user/month and $12.50 for the whole Office 365 suite.

Weaknesses

  • SharePoint Online out-of-the-box functionality doesn’t support role-based personalization scenario, when permissions are assigned to user roles depending on their activities (e.g. users who can view and edit contracts are granted the role of Editor). Indeed, it would be a valuable feature as managing permissions of a small number of roles is much easier than that of each and every user. However, in many cases, this drawback can be mitigated by customization and configuration.
  • SharePoint Online DMS stores a limited number of document versions (50,000 major versions and 511 minor versions) and it doesn’t provide tools to compare different versions with ease. The latter is not a big problem as Word and other tools, for example, StoryShaper have a capability to compare two documents and show the differences between them.
  • ​SharePoint Online DMS enables users to create a document record in a library or send a document to a Document Center. However, this functionality is not spilled over to document sets. So, for example, a contract and other contract-related documents can’t be archived together.  This limitation can be mitigated by corrected data design.
  • Sometimes, UI and UX are not straightforward and require additional customization or user adoption.
  • There is no possibility to create a public portal in out-of-the-box SharePoint Online.

SharePoint Online DMS: a typical implementation project
SharePoint document management system implementation

If, after studying the features and weighing all strengths and weaknesses of SharePoint Online DMS, you decided it would work well for handling your company’s documents, it makes sense to picture a typical implementation project. It will usually consist of the following stages:

  1. Analysis & design of automated workflows.
  2. Development of automated workflows. SharePoint Online has 5 types of predefined workflows: collecting approvals, feedback, signatures, disposition approval (managing document expiration and retention), three-state (tracking issues, projects or tasks through three states or phases). Using SharePoint Designer, you can customize these workflows or even create your own workflows from scratch.
  3. Configuration of SharePoint Online (processes, applications, services, UI).
  4. Solution deployment (including document migration).
  5. Testing.
  6. Improvement of UI and UX.
  7. User acceptance testing.
  8. Support in productive environment.

The duration of such a project depends on customer’s needs, company type, managed content, etc. For example, a small retail company mostly deals with files in Word, PDF and Excel and simple linear workflows. So, out-of-the-box functionality of SharePoint can fully satisfy this company’s needs in terms of document management. In this case, implementation of a DMS may take about 4-6 weeks. In contrast, let’s take a large engineering company with drawings, construction plans and 3D models in such formats as DXF, DWG, STL, OBJ, etc. and complex non-linear workflows, as well as multiple integrations (ERP, CRM, BI, HR). In this case, implementation may take as much as 6-12 months.

What are the alternatives?

Having analyzed it from multiple perspectives, we are sure that SharePoint Online DMS is one of the best cloud-based document management solutions. But it’s definitely not the only one. So, let’s have a look at several alternative solutions and highlight their main features, strengths and weaknesses.

Dokmee is a cloud-based DMS with the following features: document storage, workflow management, version control, mobility and capture. It also provides multiple language support, search query templates, e-signature functionality, access control and audit log.

Strengths: Multi-language support, integration with many different applications, such as Workday, SAP, PeopleSoft, Salesforce, Quickbooks and Oracle, wide range of document imaging and management features.

Weaknesses: Dokmee allows multiple users to view a file at the same time but it doesn’t enable real-time collaboration.

Cost: starts at $20/month.

Document Locator is a cloud-based DMS that integrates with Microsoft Windows (via Microsoft Explorer and Microsoft Office) and covers the following functionality:  document storage, workflow management, version control, mobility and capture. It also offers Remote Web Access, email archiving, document log, reporting, digital signature, ability to manage linked files, etc. Document Locator is used in many different industries, including education, finance, government, engineering, health care and more.

Strengths: Besides Windows, Document Locator integrates with Adobe, Microsoft Dynamics, eCopy, SharePoint, AutoCAD, etc. It has My DL, a built-in tool used to perform common DMS features.

Weaknesses: Document Locator doesn’t provide real-time collaboration and file uploading from mobile devices.

Cost: around $300/month.

LegalWorks is an industry-specific solution that is used by legal firms to manage documents in the cloud. It can be integrated with Microsoft Word and Outlook. LegalWorks main features are capture, access control, advanced permissions and alerts, archiving and retention, collaboration, indexing, tagging, full-text search and versioning.

Strengths: Matter-centric document management, Microsoft Office integration, powerful email management.

Weaknesses: LegalWorks is dependent on the outdated versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook.

Cost: starts at $49/month.

Afterthought

Among multiple cloud-based document management software, SharePoint Online DMS is one of the strongest solutions. Due to its scalable and highly customizable nature, it can satisfy the needs of any business, as it’s equally applicable for small businesses and enterprises, as well as for any industry. SharePoint Online DMS provides a wide range of capabilities from effective and logical storing, ensured information security and compliance to guiding documents through their whole lifecycle. It suggests automating all document-related operations, thus making a business’s performance more effective. With SharePoint Online, it’s impossible to lose, confuse, corrupt, delete or change a document unnoticeably. 

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About the Author: Sergey Golubenko

Team Lead and Solution Architect with 13+ years in software development, including 7+ years of working with Microsoft SharePoint. Sergei’s portfolio of SharePoint projects features content and workflow management, search, collaboration, business connectivity services, etc. He believes team engagement is a must for the project success and predicts the advance of SharePoint in the cloud.