Structured vs. Unstructured: Which Document Management System Is Right for You?

By Andrew Bailey posted 06-09-2014 15:56


So, you’ve decided to move forward with taking control of the paper in your office and investing in a document management system. Congratulations! You’re on your way to improved efficiency, better organization and improved security.

One of the first things you need to consider – seriously – is how your documents will be organized. It’s a consideration that should not be taken lightly and that should be given some thought with regard to how you typically file important documentation and paperwork.

I would also recommend seeking counsel from your document management solutions provider for advice and to help you weigh the benefits of different types of organizational systems, keeping in mind the workflow and existing processes of your business.

The question you should ask your provider is “Do I want a structured system or an unstructured system?

What is a “Structured System?”

A structured document management solution allows users to configure filing structures similar to existing or desired paper filing structures.

When you have paper files, for example, the file rooms contain file cabinets. A company could have, for example, five, four-drawer file cabinets for clients; a cabinet for vendors; a personnel cabinet; etc.

Within those cabinets are folders and within those folders, documents. That’s a structured system.

And that kind of structured document management system would allow you to set up similar digital cabinets. To find a document in the future, users navigate to the cabinet and folder they want, and can see a structured list of documents in that folder.

A good example of a structured system is the Dewey Decimal System. Once used as a paper catalog in your local library, the system has mostly been digitized and enables librarians and library visitors to find exactly what they are looking for in a structured, systematized way by either author, publication date, subject, keyword, etc.

What is an “Unstructured System?”

Unstructured document management solutions store all documents in a single stockpile.

So, using the filing cabinet example above, there would be no cabinet specified for, say, personnel records or financial documents; those documents would be stashed in the same filing cabinet.

But it wouldn’t be complete chaos.

Instead of being stored in a particular cabinet or folder, documents would receive a keyword or tag. So, in our paper world, maybe personnel documents are tagged with a red identifier, while financial documents receive a green identifier. A person looking for something in particular is able to quickly scan the identifiers to find what they need.

When going paperless, the idea is basically the same – but much more efficient. To retrieve a particular document in your document management system, you’d simply enter particular keywords as a query and then be presented with all matches to that query.

Examples of unstructured data include audio, video and images.

So … which system is better?

While “better” is a relative term, it’s helpful to know that most structured document management systems also provide the ability to do keyword searches (and thus provide the most flexibility in retrieval methods, in addition to shallow learning curves). Unstructured solutions, by contrast, do not – by definition – allow for logical structural searches.

As a result, structured document management systems, which store documents in a logical fashion, are almost always preferable to unstructured systems, which rely entirely on keyword and tag searching.

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