How to Choose the Right Document Management System for Your Organization

By Joe Weller | August 7, 2018 (updated August 5, 2021)

As businesses seek to empower employee collaboration, having the right document management system (DMS) is critical. Interested in implementing this time-saving capability in your business? In this article, top content marketing experts point out the most important functions a company needs in a DMS. Use that information to compare open-source and cloud-based DMS systems to see how top enterprise brands stack up.

What Is the Definition of Document Management?

Document management is the process of organizing, filing, and storing any documents used in any organization. The right approach to document management can empower employees, vendors, clients, and stakeholders to understand where documents are stored, their state of completion, who is working on that document, and more. An organization’s documents need to be managed in some way that benefits the individual, the team, the project, and the company.

What Is a Document Management System?

In the simplest terms, a document management system (DMS) is any system that an organization uses to track, share, and store documents. Document management systems are often integrated into a company’s workflow process or project management process in order to move documents through rounds of review and keep them together with related assets, while simultaneously reading them for publication or dissemination.

A document management system can be integrated with a company’s content management system, which is typically a tool or platform for building and publishing copy and media to a website. But document management systems can also exist outside content management systems — for example, if documents are to be delivered to a client or partner who will then publish or disseminate them using their own system.

Prior to the 1970s, document management wasn’t as automated or accessible. For example, most newspapers used this system to manage documents: A reporter typed a story on paper that was glued together to form one long document. The editor used a pencil to make edits on that document, and to write headlines and subheads. The editor then took the document to the composing room, where a printer read that document and painstakingly cast hot metal into individual characters to build words, sentences, paragraphs, and eventually an entire newspaper page.

Thankfully, document management systems are now far more efficient and scalable. More than 90 percent of DMS solutions today are cloud-based, meaning they are more secure, global, and accessible. These cloud-based solutions are typically paid, though there are also free and open-source options. All document management systems are designed so that an individual can create, modify, view, and store documents. Users can also share documents with colleagues, supervisors, and clients, and set permissions so that only certain people can perform certain functions on a document or modify them.

Some companies use the term file management system interchangeably with document management system. As the use of digital assets has grown, companies have moved to using more files that are images, emails, or videos and other formats. Companies need a system that can accommodate both traditional documents (Word, PDF, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) and the broader varieties of files, especially if they are publishing their content on the web and on mobile platforms.

Document management isn’t just for large companies. Individuals also create a formal or informal document management systems by filing documents and files they create on their PC, Mac, or mobile device. Some smaller companies use their own proprietary or legacy document management systems, but increasingly, these options have distinct drawbacks since they are not sharable with outside contributors and are limited in their ability to integrate with other tools.

A strong document management system for an organization of any size should not need any clumsy or unreliable workarounds, such as having to email a file or document for rounds of feedback.


Anna Katz

“When everyone is looking to the same management system and can easily see who made the last update and when, it's much easier to keep the process in check.” - Anna Katz, Seattle-based writer and editor

Experts who work with documents every day agree. “Version control is essential for a document management system,” says Seattle author and editor Anna Katz. “With emails flying back and forth between lots of different people, it's easy to lose track of the most recent version, which can result in confusion, redundancy, and wasted effort. But when everyone is looking to the same management system and can easily see who made the last update and when, it's much easier to keep the process in check and save all that time spent consolidating drafts on something more productive.”

What Is a DMS file?

When document management systems were first invented in the 1970s and 1980s, they were used to store and organize actual documents. Since that time, the definition of “file” has become much broader and can include traditional files (documents, images, etc.), internal-facing documents (such as a company memo) and external-facing documents, including content to be published for marketing, sales, brand, awareness, regulation requirements, etc.

A DMS should be able to accommodate any kind of file, and should be scalable to accommodate as many files, regardless of size, as the organization might need. Each file may have one user or creator/owner, or may need to accommodate multiple team members who need to collaborate on it, with approvals at set intervals. Some DMS files may need to be  shared directly with clients, vendors, government regulators, and more.

Noel Christmas, the Email Marketing Specialist at the nonprofit Crista Ministries, believes a good DMS can handle all of these, as well as a lot of varying types of team members.


Noel Christmas

“For any given email that I produce, there are photos, copy, code snippets, and content blocks, just to name a few separate items,” all of which need to be handled in a DMS. — Noel Christmas, Email Marketing Specialist at Crista Ministries

“For any given email that I produce, there are photos, copy, code snippets, and content blocks, just to name a few separate items,” Christmas explains. “We also have quite a few cooks in the kitchen, if you will: As a nonprofit, we have donor representatives, marketing coordinators, digital strategists, and developers involved. With this in mind, transparent collaboration and auto-versioning (such as in Google Docs) is of the utmost importance. Avoiding the dreaded save as is always a win when documents are in use.”

It’s critical that an organization deploys a single, flexible, adaptable DMS solution. Imagine if every employee created and stored documents only on their own desktop — there would be no way to seamlessly share, collaborate, or check status. An effective DMS eliminates those siloes and empowers sharing, filing, and editing so that a file can be made as relevant and accurate as possible before it goes to its final destination, whether into a content management system for publishing, or off to a printer or client for production elsewhere.

What Are the Functions of a Document Management System?

In the last 10 years, the amount of data — and the number of documents and files that contain that data — has exploded. Therefore, good document management systems should be able to accommodate everything a company wants to do with them, and scale as information and workloads grow. Here are some of the critical functions of a document management system, and questions to ask if you are considering acquiring one for your company:

  • The Addition of Documents and Files: How are documents added to the DMS? Can they be created directly in the system, can files be emailed into it, can documents be scanned? What types of formats and sizes can be added, and are there any restrictions?

  • Integration with a Company’s Other Tools: Does a DMS integrate easily with your other software and solutions, like Microsoft Office, Salesforce, and your content management system (if you are publishing to the web or mobile environments)?

  • Workflow Management: Does the system only allow document adding, editing, and sharing, or can the documents also be moved along in the workflow/publishing process? Combining functions can greatly boost productivity.

  • Project Management: It can be helpful to have a document management system that doubles as a project management tool. Can documents be created, organized, tagged, and stored by project name and stage? Can you set permissions so that only those employees on a project see certain files and folders on their dashboard? Are alerts or emails sent when a contributor finishes working on a document and is ready for the next stage of the project?

  • Collaboration: This is a growing need in organizations around the world. The ability to work from anywhere, on any device is a need faced by nearly all businesses, especially in the enterprise. Does the DMS allow simultaneous editing and writing by collaborators? Are there chat features for instant communication? What about controls that can be set so that multiple people can view and work on a document, but with different permissions as needed?

  • Version Control: Anyone involved in the creation of documents that require feedback and editing before completion knows that version control can be a major headache. For example, if a stakeholders sends a document to five different reviewers, all of whom make edits on separate static documents, it can take forever to reconcile all the edits — especially those that conflict. This also introduces the possibility that some edits still might fall through the cracks. Any project member looking into a DMS should be able to easily identify the most recent version of the document. Inviting stakeholders to edit a single document via a DMS, and designating one contact among them to be responsible for resolving conflicting comments and integrating all the feedback, is an easy way to avoid version control.

  • Security and Permissions Controls: What kind of internal and external security is in place for the DMS? How does the system handle user authentication? Can you set different levels of permission (for instance, edit vs. view only) as needed?

  • Adherence to Compliance and Other Standards: If regulations are an integral part of your industry (finance, law, healthcare, public sector, etc.), your documents are likely subject to compliance and other regulations and requirements. An industry-specific DMS for your industry will have the ability to include those requirements into your document management.

15 Key Document Management System Features

Once you’ve decided on document management system requirements, it’s time to evaluate your options. Top DMS features include the following:

  1. An Intuitive Interface: It is likely that a variety of employees, vendors, contributors, and stakeholders will need to work in the DMS, and they will have varying degrees of technical sophistication. Don’t choose a system that is difficult to set up and learn to use. Look for an interface that’s intuitive and requires minimal training to get started.

  2. Straightforward File Structure: Creating documents also means creating folders where they will live. Typically, a file folder structure looks like a “tree,” with related topics and subtasks organized into subfolders. Users should be able to quickly learn how and where to store and file documents.

  3. Ability to Tailor to Meet Naming Conventions and Tagging: Every company has its own conventions for naming files and documents (more on this below), so a DMS should be able to accommodate your existing naming procedures.

  4. Accessible Across Platforms: More workforces are remote, whether they are employees working from home or contractors stationed halfway around the world. A DMS should be accessible from virtually any location and across whatever platform an employee or contributor is using.

  5. Scalable Search: Can you easily search by author, project name, title, type? Additionally, look for a system where you can add or modify search criteria as your business scales.

  6. Version Control: Multiple versions of a document is one of the main reasons people look to implement a DMS. Look at your existing workload and consider what types of version control issues you need the DMS to prevent, and how many versions of a document it can support.

  7. Collaboration: Can employees work on the same document simultaneously? If so, is there a limit to how many can be in the document at once? Other collaboration features include the ability for employees to see who else is accessing the document and providing a way for them to chat in real time. Do you want to enable certain people to collaborate at certain times or have the ability to and turn off that feature?

  8. Integration with Existing Tools: It’s highly likely that people using your DMS are also going to be working in other tools as part of their workflow. Be sure that the document management system you select works with the other programs your company uses. Additionally, employees should be able to move the asset from one application to the other.

  9. Compliance Configurations: If your legal department (or specific experts) are required to review a document before it moves to the next step, you should set up your DMS to include that stipulation. Similarly, if your organization is governed by regulations, your DMS can be configured to protect certain privacies.

  10. Enough Current and Scalable Storage Space: How much storage is enough? That question is unique to every organization, but in this era of big data and the expectation of scaling, growing, and ease of action, it’s better to err on the side of getting more storage than less. Free DMS solutions start at about 5GB of storage, which may tap out far sooner than you think — especially if you are uploading and sharing photos or videos. Most experts agree that it’s better not to get into a position where you run out of space and need to create workarounds.

  11. In-Solution Chat and Email Notifications: Part of collaborating on a document or file includes the ability to ask fellow collaborators questions or opinions in real time. It saves a lot of precious time and frustration if one writer can instant message another while they are working on a document. Email notifications, on the other hand, are important for letting the next person or people who will be handling the document know that it’s ready for them, with notes and caveats if needed.

  12. Security: What kind of security controls do you need to have in place within your company (permissions to work on certain projects or levels of documents) and outside your company (how vulnerable your system is to outside threats, viruses, hacking, etc.). Your documents are the key to your business’ success, so ensure they are secure every step of the way.

  13. Archiving: For how long can you store files or records? Some industries need to keep documents and files for seven or 10 years (or more) for compliance and regulatory purposes. Others, with long relationships with certain clients on certain topics, may want to keep a detailed archive of previous projects and products for reference.

  14. Customer Support: How much customer support does the DMS company offer? If you opt for a free or open-source version, support may be minimal (though many open-source communities can be very responsive to fellow users). Find out how quickly you can reach customer support for troubleshooting DMS issues. The last thing a project on deadline needs is a system that crashes without being able to reach customer support in a timely manner.

  15. Publishing: As previously mentioned, document management systems are different from content management systems, but ultimately you and your company want to do something with a document once it’s complete. Make sure you know what steps it takes to move a document from the DMS into the publishing tool.

Some of these desired features are at odds with each other. For instance, a DMS with higher levels of security may be less able to accommodate collaboration in some circumstances. For example, as Microsoft adds more layers of security to its OneDrive suite (see chart below) and SharePoint, the more challenging it becomes for users to truly be able to collaborate in real time.

While all of these functions may be desirable, the growing global workforce points to collaboration being a business-critical feature. David Obelcz is Director of Product Marketing at iSpot.TV and the Principal Consultant of Badon Hill Marketing. He has worked for over 18 years in product management, product marketing, and marketing in the tech industry. “The most important feature in a document management system for me is real-time collaboration,” Obelcz says. “This goes beyond the ability to have multiple editors view and work on a document at the same time, which is just table stakes.”


David Obelcz

“Having rights management, the ability to easily add and remove editors down to the document level, is critical to provide simplified real-time collaboration.” — David Obelcz, Director of Product Marketing at iSpot.TV and the Principal Consultant of Badon Hill Marketing

“For example, having rights management, the ability to easily add and remove editors down to the document level, is critical to provide simplified real-time collaboration,” Obelcz explains. “This includes federation, the ability to add and remove editors easily both inside and outside of my organization.”

In Obelcz’s opinion, there are other critical functions in a top DMS. “An often-overlooked component of a good DMS is a system to flag content to be reviewed on a preset time interval. In marketing organizations, there is a tendency to create and forget, leaving content to grow stale. Often this reaches a critical point where the material is so out of date that an urgent need to update is artificially created. The ability to tag content owners and automate the review process helps prevent fire drills and keeps content fresh. Additionally, a solid DMS needs to have an excellent file structure that can be customized to meet the needs of the organization. Finally, a robust search engine should be included. As the content within a DMS grows, the complexity of locating content increases exponentially,” explains Obelcz.

What Are the Top Open Source and Free Document Management Systems?

Organizations and individuals wanting to save money may prefer to use open source and/or free options. There are free and open source document management systems with decent functionality, but there are also limitations. Here are some popular choices:

Google Drive: Google Drive has become adopted quickly around the world by individuals and smaller companies because it’s essentially free to anyone with a Gmail account. (There is a paid commercial version, too; see graphic below). Here are some of its features:

  • Drive allows sharing and collaboration in real time; live chat among collaborators, the creation of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and the uploading, filing, and storing of all kinds of files.

  • Depending on the Google application, free functionality includes formulas/functions, sorting, data filter, pivot table, hyperlinking, and charting.

  • Disadvantages include an unwieldy navigation interface, and making copies can be buggy. It doesn’t always work well with Microsoft or other software products.

  • It is cloud-based, so the user needs an internet connection to access the most updated version of files, as some editing can also be done offline.

OpenKM: This free open-source DMS is based on the source code GitHub. The solution is web-based, but operates only on Microsoft Edge, Chrome, and Safari. Resources and support are limited, but OpenKM has a passionate developer community who will try to answer questions within 48 hours. The product was launched in Spain and continues to derive most of its user base from Europe.

Dropbox Basic. In the early 2010s, Dropbox was a popular free storage and document management system. As the company has moved toward paid subscriptions, however, the free versions tend to run out of space quickly.

Mayan EDMS. This is a free, open-source product popular with Reddit users. There are also related products for filing, sorting, tagging, and naming your documents. Mayan EDMS is released under the Apache 2.0 License, uses Django web app, and is coded in Python. Its community is also passionate and relatively responsive if and when issues arise.

Machine-installed: Your PC and Mac computers have existing DMS solutions out of the box: File Explorer and Finder, respectively. These are useful to a writer, project manager, or other team member who needs to create, edit, and file lots of documents in any given work week. But these are designed for only one user and are not shareable. Users who don’t want to lose all their work will need a dedicated backup system. Individual thumb drives stored off site can be an inexpensive backup.

What Are the Top Paid and Subscription Online/Cloud DMS Solutions?

More companies, large and small, are relying on paid/subscription online or cloud-based document management solutions. These are the most popular paid DMS solutions currently in use:

Microsoft OneDrive: This cloud-based tool syncs with all of Microsoft Office and PCs. The key difference between it and Microsoft SharePoint, another popular solution, is that SharePoint is often used for tasks other than document management, such as for a company’s intranet, training, human resources, etc.

Microsoft OneNote: This solution was at its peak popularity in the early 2010s, but it is being phased out unless OneNote is hosted within SharePoint or OneDrive. The application is now best used for one person’s document management.

OpenKM-Professional: There are two paid versions of the free open-source solution, each with increasingly more capacity and features than the free version. The most important features included in the paid versions are analytics and customer service and support.

Ascensio System OnlyOffice: This solution offers solid performance, features, and storage capacity that are best for small or medium-sized businesses. However, the company’s competitors offer more cloud storage and compliance features.

DocuWare Cloud: This product provides flexible data fields to set and tag documents as desired. It has difficulty integrating with some other cloud solutions, and has limited collaboration and sharing abilities.

Dropbox: People have been using Dropbox for years and are often reluctant to drop it, though its pricing and capacity structures have been changing a lot recently. The interface is easy for new users and the app integrates into each person’s own File Explorer organization.  

Box for Business: This brand has been growing in market share, as it has competed directly with Dropbox and typically outperforms it. Box integrates with Microsoft, Smartsheet, Google, Salesforce, etc., and also offers strong cloud support.

SAP DMS: One of the oldest paid DMS systems is the SAP DMS, which integrates with other SAP solutions to manage content, documents, images, and other assets. The solution, part of the SAP Project Lifecycle Management solution, integrates with other SAP products and is built on SAP NetWeaver.

Smartsheet: This cloud-based solution offers easy collaboration and integrates well with a variety of other products, including Google, Box, and Dropbox. There are a wealth of tagging and organizing features and it supports multiple file formats.

Document Management Systems for the Enterprise: How Do They Compare?

As you can see, there are a variety of DMS choices available and they have come a long way in terms of features and scalability in a relatively short period of time. Most DMS systems are cloud-based (which boost security and scalability), offer the ability to build in email alerts, and work across mobile and other platforms. The brands still differ on their pricing, storage capacity (which can affect not only archiving, but actual live workflows), and on their ability to integrate with other commonly used business tools.

Obelcz explains, “Many DMS solutions are information islands that don't integrate into the systems used by others within an enterprise. This creates more than one version of the truth, where copies of content in the DMS are moved over into other tools such as CRM, marketing automation, and content management systems. As soon as you do this, you've defeated the main purpose of a DMS and you start creating multiple versions of the same document.”

In such a scenario, “A document might get updated in the DMS, but not get pushed into the supporting systems,” Obelcz adds. “An ideal solution will either support varying departmental needs or can integrate into existing systems without requiring a rip and replace. If this isn't possible, then a robust process must be created that includes a launch checklist that assures that document updates happen in the DMS, not the supporting systems, and the updates are rippled out to the other systems.”

Use this chart to see how the enterprise solutions compare:


Document Management Systems for the Enterprise

Download Chart Here

Filing Documents: Best Practices and Helpful Tools

Once you’ve picked the right document management system, it’s important to set up your conventions and systems for naming, filing, and storing. Putting a filing system in place will save tremendous time over the long haul, whether it’s for your personal work or for an enterprise-wide document management system.

There are lots of conventions any one organization can incorporate into its DMS. Documents can be filed and named by project name, team name, time frame, topic type, and sometimes a combination of these. Creating and enforcing a consistent naming convention is critical so that everyone can identify the most current version, or the one they need to review. Adhering to naming conventions can help avoid version control problems.

You might institute one type of naming for vendors, one type for clients, one type for staff, etc. For example, a content document assigned by an agency to an outside freelance writer might have the following protocol: The name of client, specific project name, round of review (“Round 1” would reflect the first version the agency and the writer are creating to present to the client), and the version you are working on. For example, the name of a file might look like this: SS-SpreadsheetUse-R1-v1. In other words, this file is for the Smartsheet project, topic on SpreadsheetUse, round 1, version 1. As the document goes through rounds of revision and feedback, the numbers in the rounds and versions will be changed to reflect the most current version.

Besides a naming convention, a company should clearly define the process for reviewing and filing documents. After initial internal review by a project manager, for example, does the file go into a different folder for the team leader to review? It’s important that everyone in a company follows the same conventions for filing, naming, and routing, because project managers may need to work on different projects, and staff could rotate in and out of a project. You can also set up alerts to be triggered when documents are moved from one place to another, or when their names change, or when one reviewer is finished reviewing it. In addition, in spite of how many automated features a DMS might have, a human being should be responsible for monitoring where and how documents are filed to find and correct any inconsistencies.

Some Helpful File Management Tools

A file management utility is the visual representation of the organizational architecture of a DMS. For instance, Microsoft’s File Explorer, with its system of folders and subfolders organized into trees, is an example of a file management utility. If you are creating a tree or organizational architecture, the layout and organization should be intuitive for colleagues to navigate. Typically, subfolders are created for subprojects to a main project. But some experts advise that filing systems don’t get more than three layers deep to avoid wasting time trying to find documents.

Tagging allows people to search easily for terms, dates, products, authors, etc. Adding tags when initially creating or filing the document will streamline the process as the documents multiply and the project gets under way. Don’t save every document. Save as many as you need — you can have a copy for multiple versions (i.e., for regulatory or legal reasons) — but don’t save every scrap of content. If you need to save a copy of every version, then create a separate archive folder.

Potential Pitfalls and Risks with DMS Systems

Few organizations would argue against the use of a DMS at all. The alternative is far worse: emailing documents that can get lost and introduce version control issues. Still, there can be challenges in the use of even the best DMS. They include the following:

Lack of Preparation: This can include deficiencies in training staff; not checking to ensure the DMS integrates into existing systems; failure to accommodate compliance needs; and a lack of support provided by the seller or host once the system is installed.

Signing Up for a Free or Inexpensive Version and Running Out of Storage Space: In theory, since most DMS systems are now cloud-based, the capacity for storage is unlimited, but companies assign a storage capacity to users/accounts based on a pricing tier. A free storage account might offer about 2GB of space, which could serve a small business that deals mostly in Word or PDF files. But photos and videos take up much more digital space and many subscription- or tier-based solutions will simply not sync if a user tries to upload too many large files. This issue can lead to a total work stoppage, frantic attempts at workarounds, and the last resort solution of emailing a file.

File Expiration: How long is file storage guaranteed? As mentioned previously, a company might be audited or need to keep documents for a period of years after they are published. A company may also just want to keep a record for its own archive. Either way, make sure your DMS provider guarantees storage of your documents for as long as you need.

Lack of Integration: One DMS might integrate with Google or OneDrive, but not the other, forcing some workers to create workarounds like downloading a copy to their computer to create edits, then uploading it back, or emailing a doc, or using their own Dropbox or other account, which introduces possibility for many errors.

What Is Document Control?

A document control process outlines how documents are routed to approvers, defines required  sign-offs, whether documents can be edited in the process, and if so, by whom. A document control process affects documents covered by compliance, regulatory demands, legal requirements, and so on. A company needs to be able to demonstrate that a document was under the strict compliance guidelines affecting it during every stage of work, and by whom.

Of course, not all documents created, shared, or published need to adhere to a formal, rigid control process. But your organization’s DMS needs to be able to be accommodate this for compliance-related documents.

Best Practices in Filing Documents for Personal or Professional Use

Any document management system is only as effective and useful as the systems put in place by the people who will use it. Here are the top tips for effectively filing documents for personal or professional use:

Naming Conventions: Consistency is key; the most current version of a document should be obvious to anyone looking into a folder or section of the DMS.

Archiving Older Versions: Some documents go through a dozen rounds of internal or client review. So by the time you’ve reached “v20,” the final version of your document, you have 19 other ones that are no longer up to date. You should create an archive folder if you need to keep those versions for any reason, and move them there. Of course, delete anything you’re sure you won’t need.

Staying Ahead of Version Control Issues: Using a consistent naming convention will help, but project or content managers also need to ensure that parallel versions with different edits from multiple people don’t slip into the mix. If they do, it will be up to someone to painstakingly put those versions next to each other and resolve the conflicting feedback and make sure one document contains all the edits. Obviously, preventing that from happening is a much better option.

Creating the Right Filing System: Your filing system should be detailed enough to be meaningful, but not so detailed that it becomes an unuseful grouping system. You don’t want to be swimming in details — but if you file things correctly, that won’t happen.

Remember Enterprise-Level Considerations: Make sure your filing system addresses permissions levels, compliance matters, read only vs. everyone can edit, and whatever else is needed.

With the right document management system in place, your company and your employees can create world-class content and experiences for your customers. Employees can collaborate easily, from anywhere, on any device. And everyone who needs to know can see where a document is in the creation, editing, feedback, and workflow process.

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