File Sharing vs. Document Management: Key Differences

Why a file sharing app isn't a DMSThere are many file sharing apps on the market right now. They range from ‘free’ or ‘low cost’ one size fits all solutions like Google and Amazon Drive, to enterprise applications such as ‘Dropbox for Business’, and the ’build your own’ approach of Sharepoint. But can and should they be used as formal Document Management Systems (DMS) to help you meet quality standards or navigate complex high tech development projects?

Personal file sharing platforms have evolved into enterprise solutions for workplace collaboration

In recent years the likes of Google, Dropbox and Box have all moved beyond being basic individual file sharing and storage solutions to become more complex and sophisticated document collaboration offerings.

These enterprise solutions are typically multi-platform (with desktop, mobile and tablet versions), allowing dispersed teams to collaborate on documents at distance - reviewing, commenting on, and accepting corrections, in real time. They are often slick - with plenty of powerful collaboration features and even project management plug ins and integrations to appeal to start-ups and agile companies.

Why not just use Google Drive as a document management system?

Do they meet every business need?

But before thinking about adopting any solution, it’s worth considering where your company currently sits on the pyramid of information management maturity and where you, ultimately, need to be. As this diagram shows there is a hierarchy of document management functionality ranging from the relatively insecure file sharing options of a Google Drive, to those systems where real ‘document controls’ exist, providing for secure lifecycle management and proper information governance.

Document control pyramid

And depending on what industry you are working in, a basic file storage and sharing function (even if they have many novel collaborative features) may not be enough to win you the customers you want or gain the regulatory approvals you need. If you are likely to need to gain ISO 9001 or ISO 13485, for example, the ability to ‘control documentation’ is a requirement of both standards, and should be guiding your decision making about which DMS you choose.

6 ways file sharing apps can fail as formal document management systems

1. Change control

Using tools like Google Docs to write and iterate your documentation is fine if you don’t need a fully auditable version history of its various iterations and a mechanism for recording updates and approvals. Google Docs, stored in a Google drive are autosaved after every change and many users report that version histories are often curtailed and truncated over time. Standards like ISO 9001 and 13485 both require businesses to have clearly defined ‘change control’ protocols for the quality documentation they store and manage. This includes the ability to ‘identify… changes and current document revision status’. Most file sharing apps don’t provide for this kind of rigorous tracking of changes and the proper curation of versions histories.

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2. Naming conventions

In the enterprise versions of Dropbox for Business, Box and Google Drive customers can lock down documentation for changes, but they all rely on users to create and observe the naming conventions that distinguish between drafts and issues as they build out their system. Again, ISO 9001 and 13485 both require that you should have procedures in place ‘prevent obsolete documents from unintended use’. A good Document Management System will automate your naming conventions, ensuring human error cannot result in misfiling, document loss, or confusion between final and interim drafts.

3. Work flows

Effective document management entails repeatability, knowing that when new documents or drafts are created or changed, they can go through a predetermined and consistent review and approval process. The ability to set up automated work-flows that exactly match required processes is somewhere file sharing apps often fall short. Our review of Box, for example, showed that setting up simple document approval workflows was relatively easy, but when it came to creating more demanding approval sequences involving notification of multiple stakeholders and ‘publishing’ final drafts to specific locations, it struggled. Product developers working in highly complex and regulated environments might want bespoke phase-gating capabilities to support Prince 2 Project Management processes. And it’s this kind of functionality that solutions like Box can’t easily replicate. This will create problems for SMEs as they try to bring those systems into alignment with the demands of ISO.

4. Supported file types

Many file sharing platforms just don’t support the range of file types that high tech businesses want and need to share and view amongst stakeholders. These might include CAD files and other outputs from specialist software. A good DMS will allow everyone in the business to automatically view most file types for approval without needing the expensive software to download and open them on their own devices.

5. When SharePoint is not the answer

Many businesses think that if they can’t make a commercial file sharing app work the way they want, they can always use SharePoint to answer their specific needs. And this is right, up to a point. SharePoint can be set up to function in bespoke and sophisticated ways. But you’ll likely need to pay a consultant to set it up in the first place, as well as enlist dedicated IT support to maintain it and all its various integrations. As we’ve pointed out before, the time, effort, cost and expertise you will need to turn SharePoint into a viable DMS will very likely turn out to be a massive distraction for a development house who needs to concentrate on new product development.

Why not just use SharePoint as a Document Management System?

6. The Cost

Many businesses choose to adopt these file sharing solutions because they are perceived as ‘low cost or no cost’. Although you might get some free storage or low cost starter packages, the truth is, if you want to use their features to manage your business in any meaningful way you are going to have to pay. For example, Box Relay, which offers workflow functionality, is only available for purchase with Business Plus and Enterprise level accounts. This means your cost per user could potentially mount up to $500 pa.

The right software solution always depends on your requirements. If you’re in very early stages of a start up, there is no reason why basic file sharing won't meet your needs, and the bells and whistles of a system integrated with Slack (or similar) might well be the answer for you. But when you’ve got tens or hundreds of employees and faced with the complexity of supply chain management or QA / FDA regulatory compliance that’s when the difference between document management and document control will really become evident and important. 

It’s certainly worth exploring your options for a dedicated Document Management System before you get to that critical point.

The value of DMS for Product Development

Tags: Document Management and Control

Joe Byrne

Written by Joe Byrne

Joe Byrne is the CEO of Cognidox. With a career spanning medical device start-ups and fortune 500 companies, Joe has over 25 years of experience in the medical device and high-tech product development industries. With extensive experience in scaling businesses, process improvement, quality, medical devices and product development, Joe is a regular contributor to the Cognidox DMS Insights blog where he shares expertise on scaling and streamlining the entire product development cycle, empowering enterprises to achieve governance, compliance, and rigour.

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