Actio Corporation

Documents: the next frontier

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Courtesy of Actio Corporation

A new generation of document management technology more closely tied to business processes offers hope for greater efficiencies.

Remember the paperless office? We dreamed of a day when all documents were digital, what you saw was really what you got, and file cabinets were relegated to museums and other repositories of the outdated. This was truly an idea that sounded better on, well, paper than it did in reality. Until now. Suddenly, everyone is waking up to the fact that all the unstructured, non-relational data that's housed in millions of gigabytes of documents needs a bit more automation than we're used to. Of course, there's been a lot of activity in this domain before: In the 1980s, relational database companies added the eponymous data type BLOB -- binary large object -- to try to manage the growing needs of the unstructured world. Later came vendors such as Documentum, now part of EMC, which took the idea of document management pretty far. Other vendors such as Citadon, FormScape, Actio and Context Media -- which was acquired by Oracle in mid July -- have moved the document management space closer to where it belongs: as an essential part of virtually every business process known to humanity. What's interesting about the new generation of document managers is precisely this understanding of the document's role in the workflow and process flow of a company. In the case of Citadon, the focus is on managing the documents that sit at the heart of any large, capital-intensive project. Project plans, regulatory filings, bills of material, invoices and blue lines, to cite a few, aren't just static files to be moved from one location to another. They're highly-dynamic data elements that need to be moved, modified and sent across borders and time zones in tight synchronization with the rest of the project. Their status is closely linked to their position in a process or workflow, and who has worked on what document has become a question with enormous legal and regulatory relevance. Other vendors are equally creative in how they view the role of the document. Actio provides a twist to the document management story. The material safety data sheet, or MSDS, is the object of its document management prowess. FormScape has focused in on the documents that are linked to the myriad ERP transactions in products. And Context Media is now becoming part of Oracle's database and applications content processing capabilities. What has changed from the days of the BLOB and the dumb document repository is the notion that documents are living objects that are closely tied to the flow of complex and highly-valuable processes. This isn't new to anyone who has seen how products are designed, engineered and made. A core set of documents define the evolutionary path from product definition to end of life, with a host of variants along the way. From the CAD drawing to bill of materials, for example, documents are created, submitted, posted and otherwise modified as part of a dynamic process that needs no less automation than those near-sacred transactions that have formed the basis of ERP software for so many years. Automating how documents interact with our day-to-day work will bring new efficiencies to business processes in ways that we've only just begun to imagine. What we're seeing today is the tip of the iceberg. We may never have a paperless office, but we'll soon have one in which the static notion of a piece of paper will seem quaint compared to the dynamic, process-driven documents of the future. A future that has finally arrived.

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