For more than a century, the cabinet served as the cornerstone of paper document management. However, modernists, technologists, and environmentalists have been searching for a new document management solution…
For as long as trading has existed, businesses have always needed to manage documents. That might be the filing of incoming documents such as customer purchase orders, invoices, statements, remittance advice from customers, tax documents, legal documents, etc. It could be internally generated paperwork such as goods received notes from a Goods-In department, say. Or it might be documents that need to be sent out externally such as invoices, statements, purchase orders, etc.
One thing has always been guaranteed; as any business grows, the amount of paperwork needing to be managed, stored, filed, archived, and so forth will grow disproportionately. Inevitably, this causes headaches.
Historically – before the invention of the typewriter in 1868 – paperwork was generally handwritten and, out of necessity, document management was kept to a comparative minimum. However, as the typewriter became more widely used from the 1880’s onwards, it became far easier and quicker to send and receive business documents. And the amount of filing being done increased in proportion.
Typically at this time, any document that needed to be physically sent anywhere that wasn’t ‘local’ was sent by post of course, which itself set the cadence of business correspondence.
Commerce continued in this way until the late 1960’s to early 1980’s when mainframe computers started to be introduced into larger businesses. These – with their associated daisy wheel, ‘golf ball’, and dot-matrix printers – vastly increased the volume (and speed) with which documentation could be generated and sent outside of the business. The introduction of early desktop computers and fax machines in the 1980s only increased this trend.
This caused a problem for businesses as well. What did you do with all the paperwork that you received from other businesses? And the copies of the paperwork that you sent out that you needed to keep for your records. Sometimes for up to 10 years (for tax, legal, and business continuity purposes).
Sadly, I am old enough to remember this period and worked for a multinational organisation in the early 1990s which was faced with exactly this issue. They dealt with it in the same pragmatic way that I suspect that everyone else did, to begin with; giving over an ever-increasing amount of space in their warehouse to store and archiving these paper records.
Whole new businesses sprang up just to support this problem. Offsite storage and filing became a thing. It was clear even then however that – given the ever-increasing rate of paper documents – this could not continue ad infinitum. The planet would run out of trees quite apart from anything else.
Due to, arguably, a serendipitous confluence of technology, solutions started to present themselves. Moore’s Law continued unabated and processors got faster, smaller, and more efficient. Memory and hard disk storage became cheaper and capacity sizes increased. Image compression technology improved. By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it started to become commercially viable to consider scanning and storing documents electronically. The term, ‘the paperless office’ was coined.
Initially, this was done locally – the same computer that was used to scan the documents were often also where the scanned images were saved. However, one other technology which had also been progressing in parallel with the hardware was the internet and, in particular, its accessible bandwidth – its ‘speed’. It became feasible to email scanned documents both internally within organisations and externally.
In order to cope with this gradual switch away from paper and the need to be able to intelligently store larger quantities of digital imagery, new techniques needed to be thought of. One of these was to append barcodes to each document once scanned. The barcodes described the document with information about the type of document, date, source, etc. and that meant that they no longer needed to be saved/archived/etc. by a person. A computer could now read the barcode and know where to put each document.
As the performance of the internet continued to improve, the idea of offsite storage came back into fashion. Except this time, you didn’t need to physically store the paper documents offsite. Rather, you could pay someone to store your documents on their physically remote computers, dedicated to document storage – ‘servers’ as they were called. The idea of this remote server was abstracted even further and the concept of ‘the cloud’ came into being. I did, on one occasion about 10 years ago, come across a colleague who was quite convinced that this meant files were stored somewhere up in the sky…
So that was the history. In our next blog, we’ll be looking at where we are now and comparing some of the advantages and disadvantages of On-Premise solutions vs Cloud-based EDM solutions.
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