Documents bear witness to our work progress. Regardless of whether they are paper-based or digital, they provide an insight into the document status and the actions that have taken place. For example, they show whether a document is still being processed or has already been released, whether it may be commented on, or whether it can no longer be changed. In the process, documents go through a document lifecycle, which can include different steps depending on the document type, format, and application purpose. In addition, companies process documents according to their organizational structure and the underlying business processes, thus defining their own unique cycle. In order to find a suitable and efficient solution for digital document work, the document lifecycle should be run step by step and checked to see whether the software of choice provides all the necessary functions. We present the six basic phases of the digital document lifecycle to offer a little help with this analysis.
What is a document lifecycle?
The document lifecycle describes the various processing phases of a document - from generation and processing to legally compliant archiving and deletion. There is an analog document lifecycle, a digital document lifecycle, and a mixed form. However, the individual phases hardly differ from each other. The difference between an analog and digital document lifecycle becomes much clearer on the basis of the processing modes and opportunities for collaboration. In the analog document lifecycle, many processing steps take place manually or are passed from one person to another. Documents are printed, scanned, or filed on the workstation of another responsible person. The status must be queried, documents are stored in folders, and shredding takes place at the appropriate machine. If changes are made to the document, many of the steps have to be repeated, which can greatly delay the process. With a digital document lifecycle, these manual intermediate steps can be automated, or the company defines fixed rules for the process and the people and actions involved. Transparency increases.
The six phases of the document lifecycle
Six phases structure the life cycle of a document or the data that is processed for an action. In each phase, there is a document item and a corresponding document status, which is defined variably in the document lifecycle. They depend on the company's requirements for document work and the individual document workflow, as well as on the type of document and the purpose of processing. Each processing step also brings special requirements for data management and the underlying rights and role management. As a result, the digital document lifecycle includes the following steps:
1. Creation or generation of the document
In this phase, the document is created or it arrives at the company (by mail, fax, as a scan, or by e-mail). It can either be created manually by a user - on paper, on a monitor, or on a mobile device - or it is assembled automatically from different sources and data. This is possible thanks to increasingly better software for automated text recognition and data capture as well as electronic processing of data and documents. If the document is created on a PC, additional software such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel is used, depending on the document type. Finally, the document can be stored in a central location and prepared for further processing.
2. Editing or making the content usable and indexing for search
While only one user is often involved in the first phase, several users may work together in the second phase. Now it is a matter of making the data and content of the document usable for others as well as coordinating, passing on, documenting, and meaningfully indexing information. This means that changes can be made to the document in parallel or consecutively by several people, possibly from different departments. In this step, revision security, versioning, synchronization, and change management /release play an important role in bringing security and transparency to the collaboration process. To achieve this, efficient searching (for full text, metadata, parameters), a regulated filing system, and structured data processing and access control are mandatory. In a digital document lifecycle, it is also possible to link data and subordinate documents, as well as printouts and information in other systems, and to store them in working directories. This way, the usefulness of a document to the company increases steadily.
3. Disseminating the document
Once the internal preparation and editing are complete, the document is circulated again. Whether it is made available internally or has to be shared with external partners is of secondary importance. The decisive factor is that the version has been released and all previous steps have been completed. In this way, responsible parties share the document further, depending on its type and intended use. Purely informative documents such as operating instructions or notes, for example, are stored in electronic files by those involved, while contracts or accounts payable invoices run through more complex business processes and connect the many departments and employees involved. In the best case, this is handled by software that triggers all intermediate steps on the basis of a defined process, checks and saves document versions, and obtains releases in accordance with the release matrix. Manual intermediate steps introduce a lot of uncertainty and inefficiency into the document lifecycle at this point. In addition, content should be accessible at any time and from anywhere - almost impossible in a paper-based process. Document management systems or workflow management systems, on the other hand, allow document access from any device, web-based or through a dedicated document cache. In addition, resubmissions to responsible employees are scheduled and executed automatically, eliminating the need for tedious inquiries.
4. Active use of the document
The fourth phase defines how users access and use a document and its contents. Access can be permanent or simply defined, content can be retrieved repeatedly or simply, and read or write and release rights can be stored. Changes to the document can also occur during this phase. However, the document lifecycle is designed in such a way that a document is downgraded to phase three when it is edited again, and the fourth phase is only started with the final version. This ensures that all changes are documented without gaps and are stored in a traceable manner (change, change time, processor). In a paper-based document lifecycle, this phase is particularly tricky, as traceability and unambiguity are made more difficult. It is not always clear which version is the current or released one, whether all responsible parties have completed editing, or whether all comments are final. Digital systems support the company, especially in the case of legal documents, and protect against manipulation and subsequent changes.
5. Audit-proof long-term archiving
Once all responsible persons have completed the processing steps involved and the document has circulated accordingly its active usefulness decreases. For this reason, the processing phase of a document in the document lifecycle often concludes with audit-proof long-term archiving or simple archiving. This ensures that the document is retained in accordance with the applicable guidelines for the document type and remains protected from further manipulation. Paper-bound archives protect against subsequent modification of the document, but make it difficult to search for specific files and to delete or renew them in a timely manner. Maintaining an overview becomes more difficult. A content management system smooths out these hurdles and offers the same security as paper documents. But it goes further. It stores each document in a digital archive according to the relevant legal requirements and deletion deadlines. Every access to the document is seamlessly documented and, thanks to an integrated full-text or keyword search, the document can be found in seconds and shared from the archive. If those responsible still need a document after it has been stored, they can access it quickly and accurately from the digital archive. Tons of paper are now a thing of the past.
6. Legally compliant deletion or destruction
Audit-compliant storage is often combined with legally compliant deletion. However, especially in companies that work with paper-based archives, delays can occur at this point. Documents are still retained even though they could already be disposed of or are lost even though they could still be needed. In the final phase of the document lifecycle, therefore, the legally compliant disposal or deletion of the document defines when a document is no longer of use to the company. Digital archives take on this task automatically and permanently delete a document along with its accompanying data. Even though digital data stores seem almost endless today, Big Data, as well as special marketing profiles, create vast amounts of data that need to be stored and managed. In any case, it makes sense to sift through the abundance of data and delete it permanently.
Seven positions of a document in the document life cycle
In order to process these items optimally, there are document management systems (DMS) as well as enterprise content management systems (ECM) that accompany the document lifecycle digitally and provide the data accordingly. However, it should be emphasized that many functions for digital document work are now also integrated into workflow management systems and systems for collaboration. This means that an isolated solution for document management is no longer necessary in most cases.
How does the digital document lifecycle work?
The digital document lifecycle is based on the phases of the analog document lifecycle but optimizes them with digitally automated processes and the new opportunities that arise as a result. The biggest difference is that the document is either digital with data that is already structured, or it is transferred from a paper-based form to a digital one. If the data is structured and the document is efficiently indexed, it can be further processed in a digital lifecycle directly on the screen, along the entire document lifecycle. In order to be able to map these steps with software, the various company departments, systems, and applications must be linked with each other, and disruptions between systems must be reduced as far as possible - for example, with a digital automation platform. Then we are talking about a truly digital document lifecycle.