Pens, cellphone and papers on which is written " Be realistic"

Realistic document management: 5 things you need to realize

Let’s just get it out there: handling documents is boring! It might be fun creating a new presentation, a cool campaign overview or negotiating an important contract. But the archiving and subsequent handling of it is a boring and tedious task. But it is necessary! Why? Because proper archiving and handling enables your colleagues and successors to find what you have been doing.

For the last 10 years or so, I have been handling documents as a profession. First in a large corporate, then as a lawyer and lastly as a consultant handling companies’ most important documents in M&A (mergers and acquisitions) transactions. And even though companies are different, some lessons are universal – just as the fact that everybody secretly loves to sing along when “Like a Prayer” is on the stereo…

It can be narrowed down to the following:

  • Human anatomy: we do things differently and have a hard time following.
  • Over-ambitiousness: we strive for 100 % – which is rarely possible and results in a lack of motivation in the long run.
  • Resources: there are no more archivists or secretaries hired to handle documents.
  • Over-fitting of software packages: remember the last time you got lost in SAP?
  • Centralized project- or procurement departments: the goal becomes saving costs and not improving the business.

Human anatomy

As individuals, we want to go our own ways. Even if I like consistency and procedures, I still like my own consistency and procedures better than my colleagues’. This results in everybody utilizing every bit of autonomy at hand – including where to put documents.


Most people – especially decision-makers – are optimistic and driven by great ideas. “Hey – wouldn’t it be a great idea to be in control of our documents?”. The answer is most likely “yes” for most people. And then the projects start internally by figuring out what to do. Problem is: different people have different focus areas. For the management, a central overview is important. The sales department wants details on each customer but doesn’t care about the HR department’s stuff. HR cares about each employee but couldn’t care less about the R&D department’s technical documentation. And so it goes. If the company treats documents as a centralized project, all these opinions will come to play and the project manager will be required to find a compromise to suit everybody. However, no one-size-fits-all solution exists.


After working with many companies across sectors and sizes, one thing is clear: handling documents is at the bottom of people’s to-do list. It often starts with great intentions but then dies. Going back 25 years, we had archivists and secretary functions. Documents were physical and needed to be handled when the pile got too big on the desk. We then needed to index it and send it on archive. Very manual but – as it turns out – also very effective. The pile was obvious and needed to be handled. Then the digitalization came and documents became .doc, .xls, .pdf etc. They disappeared from the desk and we quickly identified a cost that could be cut: the archivist and secretaries. But the problem is still the same (now moved to your computer desktop). It’s just not as visible and now we don’t have the resources.

Over-fitting of software packages

When somebody says “IT project” everybody gets awful nightmares of huge enterprise software packages and an endless process of implementing a monster in the organisation. Honestly, I really understand why! For years, we have been used to huge software companies selling “a fully customizable and integratable software solution that optimizes business processes and secures uniform approaches”… What does that even mean? I don’t know. But the result has been that one department – could be finance – has a tender process for great ERP solution. Then that ERP solution provider suggests: “hey – we also have a great CRM and contract management module – shouldn’t we integrate that while we’re at it?” The finance department does the calculation and on paper, everything looks great. Features are over-whelming and it’s already a great ERP solution. Management gets talked into it (remember: decision-makers are driven by optimism) and here we go. The rest of the story you know: the great ERP solution was not a great fit for anyone else but the finance department and is – at best – a mediocre CRM or contract management tool forced into the shell of an ERP system. People get tired of the poor system and start building their own structure on their own computers.

Centralized project- or procurement departments 

Let me get this straight: the intention is great! At some point, somebody figured out that by centralizing certain things, costs could be cut. Everybody likes that. However, sometimes in that process, the centralized function came to consist of purchasing- and/or project specialists – with little representation by technical people. That becomes an issue when the most important aim is to cut costs and not improve the business. There is a huge difference in sourcing generic services and deciding on which specialist document management software packages the company need. The result is the over-fitting of software mentioned above. Or worse: implementation of dual solutions where the specialist department uses one approach to document handling and the centralized function implements another next to (or on top of) that system. Remember that resources are less than ever? You get the point.

If it wasn’t already very clear from the above, this will cost your company money and resources.