One manager offers his advice for weeding through the strange jungle that is the document management software marketplace
It’s easy to comparison shop for a toaster or a pair of skis. You go online, compare prices and features, read the reviews made by other customers.
For software, it’s a different story. Single-user applications tend to be sold as straightforward products, but when you get into server-based systems for business with multiple licenses, basic information is not forthcoming. How much would you have to pay for it? What can it do? The online answer is to “contact our sales rep.” To get to the real information you need to comparison shop, you’ll have to wade through a lot of sales pitch.
That’s what IT specialist Steve Oster discovered when he was tasked with finding a suitable document management system that would fit the needs of over a hundred employees.
“There are lots of systems out there, which span the entire spectrum from small solutions like applets that you just install locally on your PC, all the way up to the very large enterprise information systems that are enormously expensive and all encompassing. And there is a lot in between,” he says.
What Oster was looking for didn’t seem out of the ordinary for an office of PCs. The company needed to maintain organization over company documents with common features like version control, security, and user history logs.
“There is a ton of products out there, but surprisingly, I was not able to find anything online in terms of basic advice written by someone who had implemented document management for a company and who had gone through a similar experience, that described what they found and what they did. I couldn’t really find anything at all.”
Besides a lack of information on capabilities, Oster also discovered that most vendors of server-based systems do not state prices on their websites. Because cost is one of the major criteria for a purchase, it was difficult to make meaningful comparisons.
Finding the path to direct answers was far more difficult than he expected, so Oster embarked on more rigorous research into document management systems.
“What I finally had to do was compile a list of 10 candidates that looked like they might fit and do my own comparison-shopping. My list focused initially on the offerings that contained all the features we needed, even though I was unsure on costs in the beginning. I worked myself down the list, installing and evaluating each one.”
Once he started to investigate products more thoroughly, he ran into surprises. The first system on the list provided plenty of impressive capabilities, but when he finally found out the price of implementation, he was incredulous. “I couldn’t believe the price, it was way beyond what a company our size could justify paying for document management.”
His second evaluation involved a software package that was much more affordable and its features seemed to satisfy his checklist. “The only thing that was unusual was that the software was already a few years old. I asked about new versions, and they said they had stopped development on it. The company was still supporting it and they said it was a good application, but its programmers were now focused on other products. Almost immediately afterward, I encountered a bug in the evaluation version, but because there were no programmers working on it anymore, problems like that won’t go away.”
Stumbling upon a different approach
His third attempt was a stroke of luck, he says. “I had M-Files from Motive Systems third on the list and I downloaded it, and played around with it a bit before the sales organization in Texas contacted me. I really liked the support. They answered my questions and were very helpful. I didn’t have to call them — they called me. That is a very good sign. It gives you a lot of confidence going forward that if you run into any snags, they will be taken care of.”
The software was mature, he says, having been around for around for more than five years. He didn’t find any bugs in his M-Files trial, but he was reassured that it was still undergoing development and upgrades. And cost-wise, M-Files fit within the company’s budget. He was most impressed that what appeared to be such an easy to use software application for tracking files could handle a lot of complexity.
“The things that you can do with the customization — the views you can create, the workflow rules you can enforce, and the permission structures that guide document editors and authors — formed a very rich set of capabilities.”
“I was able to present it to management and get their buy-in and I closed the deal. After I installed it company-wide, I found out that there are actually many more powerful features within M-Files than I even imagined in the beginning. I can envision that as the company grows, not only will M-Files scale seamlessly with what’s happening currently, but it will also have additional functionality to implement down the road when we need to handle new requirements.”
Shortly after a successful implementation at the company, Oster left to pursue his own entrepreneurial opportunities, and he’s using M-Files for his own needs as he launches a new business. M-Files was a discovery that he might not have made so quickly had it been ninth on his checklist, rather than third.
“I just wish there was an easy way to get the word out about it,” says Oster. “Then people looking for a document management system wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of research. I stumbled on a great solution almost by accident.”
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