Before we get in too deep with the technology side of searching for documents, it is important to review how businesses perform routine document searches. Most businesses today store documents across three or four separate locations: centralized paper-based file cabinets, paper-based file cabinets in employee’s offices, folders on shared server drives, and local desktop hard drives. As a result, multiple searches are often required when the exact location of a document is unknown. This is especially true when the person who created or filed the document is unavailable. Most companies try to centralize all filing to a single file room and a server, eliminating storing of business documents on local hard drives and file cabinets in people’s offices. This is usually the first step toward making the transition to an Electronic Document Management System (EDMS).
Finding the Case File This is a real life example that may sound all to familiar. Your legal assistant (Joe) receives an urgent inquiry from an insurance company requesting a document from a specific case record. Here is the process:
- Joe goes to the case file cabinet.
- Assuming the last person to use that folder replaced it in the correct location, Joe pulls that folder.
- Joe takes the folder to the copy room and faxes the necessary document to the insurance company.
- Joe returns to the file cabinet.
- Joe re-files the folder in the correct location (hopefully).
- Joe returns to office and resumes work.
If this sounds like a dream sequence from a Hollywood film, then you have figured out in real life, the retrieval process never goes this smoothly. There are countless speed bumps that inevitably appear throughout this process. And it starts before we even get to Step 1. Joe gets another call or someone walks into Joe’s office and the trip to the file cabinet gets delayed, if not forgotten.
What are some other speed bumps? Here are a few of the classics:
- Joe can’t find the cabinet key.
- Joe spends time searching for the folder and can’t find it. Someone else has it out or has misfiled it.
- Joe runs into Sandy and they have a cup of coffee and discuss important business matters and maybe the movie they saw over the weekend.
- Joe lays the folder down in the copy room and gets distracted. A disgruntled employee takes the folder and discovers private information. Mayhem and legal action ensue.
- Joe makes it back to the file cabinet unscathed, but accidentally misfiles the folder, making it impossible for the next person to find.
- Joe forgets the original objective of the trip to the file cabinet and returns to her desk.
With an EDMS, Joe asks the insurance examiner for some piece of pertinent information, claim number, case number, etc. – does a search for the document and faxes it straight from her desk all while still on the phone with the representative.
Search Methodologies There are a variety of ways to search for electronic documents. Most EDMS use one or more of the following:
- structural search
- keyword and/or metadata search
- full text search
Structural Search Structural search is the method most closely related to the file cabinet, file folder approach because it relies on a consistent, hierarchical and controlled structure for storing documents. The best systems are able to emulate the physical filing world to make the transition to EDMS more seamless for people who are accustomed to working with file cabinets, folders, index tabs, documents and even paper-clipped or stapled documents. So now Joe can log in to the case cabinet, find and open a folder, identify the required document and even email, fax or print the document while the insurance company representative is still on the phone.
Keyword and Document Title Search An EDMS allows users to index documents with a title and keywords. Those words can be entered later in a search field and a list of documents associated with these words will be presented. The more words associated with a document the more specific the searches that can be performed. The fewer words, the more likely you would receive a longer list of documents returned by the search. So if Joe needs to find all insurance documents for All Farmer’s insurance in all case folders, this is simple to do with a keyword search. Unique words in a document title or keyword can be used to produce very narrow searches. For example, searching for a specific invoice number from a specific vendor in the title of a document could result in immediately locating a single document.
Full Text Search Full Text Search (FTS) is yet another way to search for a document. FTS involves looking for a document based on a word or phrase that may be contained within. For example, if Joe wants to find all documents in the electronic HR cabinet which contain the phrase ‘law suit’ FTS would be very useful.
FTS first and foremost requires that documents contain text. An EDMS that provides full text search indexes the text contained in all the documents within a database. As documents are filed and indexed, they become searchable using the EDMS FTS feature. This is a straightforward process for documents like emails, MS Word®, MS Excel® and other text-based documents. However, scanned documents do not contain text (a scanned document is an image) so they must be converted to a format that contains text and is searchable (i.e. searchable pdf). This type of search allows Joe to search all records for a particular case reference or other specific words used within the document. This is akin to having Google search your entire case history content.
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