Document Management and Electronic Commerce

October 31, 1995

Larry Masinter <>


The global network is changing the way every business works. In particular, new networked applications will affect the way in which organizations work with documents. Currently, electronic document management systems are used to facilitate document-centered work on networks inside single organizations. These kinds of applications will expand to include groups outside the enterprise.


The global network is changing the way every business works. In particular, new networked applications will affect the way in which organizations work with documents. Currently, electronic document management systems are used to facilitate document-centered work on networks inside single organizations. These kinds of applications will expand to include groups outside the enterprise.

This paper is in three parts:

1. Document Management: Overview

Document management systems are designed to help individuals, workgroups and large enterprises manage their documents stored in electronic form. Document management systems provide a means to store, easily locate and retrieve, and exercise control over document-based information through the document's life cycle within the context of a group or large organization.

The field of electronic document management can be confusing because different terms are used, referring to either specialized applications, technical components, or particular types of media the systems are used to manage. For example, some systems are described as publication management systems, because they are geared toward aiding in the publication process. Some systems are marketed as information retrieval products, as information retrieval is an important component of document management. Systems that are oriented primarily toward the management of scanned images are described as image management. However, all of these can be considered kinds of document management systems, and all will change because of the changes in networking technology sweeping the world.

Document Management Components

Document management systems combine a number of functional components. Authoring components integrate the user's desktop creation tools with the document management system, to simplify the entry of the user's work into the management system. Acquisition components aid in the bulk import of documents that originate outside the system, e.g., by allowing entry of paper documents using scanners, fax, or conversion from externally acquired electronic media.

A variety of information retrieval methods are employed to find relevant or correct documents within large repositories, either by full-text retrieval, semantic analysis, or probabilistic methods. Document management systems usually feature searching in repositories of documents both by context and by content. Contextual information for a document is derived from outside the document itself: for example, who wrote it, when was it written, the workgroup that produced it. Content search uses the words in the document itself, or the document's structure, for retrieval.

User interface components interact with the information retrieval facilities in the server to support search. Information visualization is a method of using advanced graphic capabilities to help users visualize larger information spaces and structures. Workspace management is a method of using two or three dimensional images to help users organize the state of their work. These components interact with the document management components through a network interface.

Document library services keep track of the attributes of documents as they are being worked on in various parts of the organization. For example, a user can check out a document, reserving it so that no one else can edit it at the same time. When the revision is complete, the user checks in the document, letting others access and revise the new version. These kind of control mechanisms are important for keeping consistency in the creation/review cycle when many people are engaged in working on a common corpus.

Document management systems are distributed. Users at PCs on a network access a common repository of documents on one or several servers. For large networks, or for users with laptop computers that may operate without being connected to the network, distributed system transaction technology is used to keep updates and additions consistent.

While document libraries and repositories keep track of documents and their attributes, workflow components keep track of users, tasks, work queues, audit trails and the like. That is, it models the work of the organization in which the documents participate.

2. Global Networking Trends: Overview

This section lays out some of the assumptions about the future direction of the global information infrastructure that will support new document management applications.

The Internet is growing at an enormous rate, and on-line services and corporate networks are interconnecting. The conclusion of this evolution will be a system where there is one network for connecting computers, services, and people. As with the Internet today, the future network will be a federation of independently operated networks; some components of those networks will have special services, but interactive services will be available across the entire network.

Two fundamental capabilities are being developed that allow for secure communication across the global network. First is the ability to authenticate the source of a message or network connection, so that the identity of a (potential) user can be assured. Second is the ability to have secure communication with that user, without anyone else being able to eavesdrop or modify the conversation. These capabilities require not only the deployment of cryptographic software but also the development of a world-wide infrastructure for determining identity and associating network presence with individuals.

Several developments in technology and infrastructure for managing copyright and intellectual property are also important for some sectors. This includes both systems and institutions, and a legal framework for describing, tracking, and credibly accounting for use of intellectual property. These developments are accompanied by changes in the legal and regulatory environment.

Finally, distributed payment methods are being promulgated by consortia of banks and credit agencies, network providers, and others offering accounting and billing services. These services allow for secure transactions and reliable settlement of accounts between buyers and sellers.

These elements of electronic infrastructure are enabling a very large variety of new systems for electronic commerce: the ability to trade in services and goods across the world. The word trade is perhaps too narrow, as the commerce that it engenders is not only commercial, but also intellectual and social.

One particular kind of trade that is more affected than any others is trade in documents. That is because, of all the goods and services that might be traded, documents can be transmitted across a network, and document services can reasonably be performed by others remotely, while most other goods and services require additional transportation of physical material in order to complete.

3. Document Management and Electronic Commerce

The combination of electronic commerce and document management technologies will give rise to new market segments and opportunities. The opportunities will differ according to the kind of use they are intended to support. Four broad categories of document management are described, along with the opportunities for applying electronic commerce in those domains.

3.1. Document as Memory: Knowledge workers

For knowledge workers, document management systems are used to organize and keep track of the state of the organization and the communication between individuals.

Office automation systems are used for creating create memos, letters and status reports. However, repositories of these documents contain the state and interconnection of an organization. Workgroups and enterprises invest in document management systems as a way to help them keep track of the work that they have done and are in the process of doing, in order to avoid redundancy and duplication of effort.

In addition, workgroup document management systems offer library services for preserving update consistency, similar to check-out and check-in capabilities of software source code control systems. When a user checks out a document, the system locks the document from other users' changes. When the document is checked back in, the document management system makes it available for others to revise. Along with maintaining update consistency, the document management application tracks revisions in a multi-author/editor setting.

Some current applications of document management in this context include:


The trend to re-engineer organizational practices using document management is spreading. Meanwhile, the boundaries of organizations are blurring, to the point where traditional document management systems are inadequate. Although currently most work-groups are connected on a LAN or enterprise network, there are many situations where the need to share state crosses those boundaries.

It is for this reason that many groupware products are adding Internet capabilities, so that ordinary users with a forms-capable web browser might participate.

Some current examples of network-based distributed document systems include:

The mechanisms of electronic commerce will allow the creation of impromptu organizations geographically distributed who form organizations for a common purpose. Thus, trade associations, consortia, professional organizations might employ workgroup document management technology and groupware to coordinate their efforts.

3.2 Document as Process: Insurance, Financial Service, Government

Some organizations have well-defined work processes that deal with a flow of paperwork. Workflow software is used to manage the organizational process, route documents along the steps of the process.

The workflow software tracks the progress of documents as they are routed through an organization and processed by individuals fulfilling process roles. While document repositories are often organized around the documents, their attributes, and repositories of them, workflow systems are centrally focused on users, roles, tasks, work queues, and processes.

In general, organizations use workflow to minimize the delays in their work processes. The primary opportunity for electronic commerce in workflow systems is the ability to include those outside the organization in the work itself. Some current examples include:

In each of these cases, the challenge is to merge the external user interface over the public Internet with the internal workflow processing steps of the organization.

As companies outsource work to independent contractors, the workflow might extend to include tasks performed by those contractors. The boundaries of enterprises are blurring, and this will require the transition of enterprise workflow to be able to deal with participants beyond the enterprise.

3.3 Document for Product: Manufacturing and Service

Organizations that produce products also produce documents that accompany those products. While many of the steps of document production are the same, there is an essential difference: for these organizations, the documents are critical auxiliaries to the actual product that customers purchase from them. In these situations, the documents are still part of a production scenario, but the organization and management of the document construction are subsidiary to some other work process.

Electronic commerce will enhance the manufacturing and service segment in a large number of ways. However, in particular, it will have a profound impact on the way in which documents are managed within them.

Opportunities for Electronic Commerce in Product Documentation

Direct electronic communication with consumers will greatly improve the quality and responsiveness of the organizations to support their customers, especially with highly technical products. It improves customer satisfaction by making sure the right information gets to customers when and where they need it.

These efforts are critical to fulfilling the promise of electronic commerce. Companies with a wide range of products need to integrate the document management of on-line product information with the external network availability of that information to fulfill the promise. Electronic commerce mechanisms of digital signatures, time-stamping services, and the like are necessary to make this information secure and useful.

While document management systems have been used for the assembly, production, printing of catalogs, now those catalogs can be delivered on-line. The ability to deliver catalogs over the network means that it is possible to give consumers far more information than was previously available, in more detail, and in a more timely fashion. This is a positive move, but it will also require more diligence, as it is not acceptable to deliver out-of-date prices or specifications of discontinued items.

3.4 Document as Product: Publishers and Education

For publishers, documents are their product. Whether newspapers, magazines, book publishers, academic press, or entertainment organizations distributing film, video, records, CDs or tapes, publishers produce and distribute documents in the same way that manufacturers produce and distribute physical goods.

Of all the industries empowered by electronic commerce, publishers are privileged, in that it is possible to deliver samples and actual product completely over the network without transmission of physical objects.

Publishers currently use document management system for document assembly, reuse, and quality control. However, the opportunities to extend their document management system to include authors and creators (as the source of their material) and consumers (using the network for distribution) is enormous.

Many publishers use document management today to aid in the production of their material. For example, textbook manufacturers produce varying versions of their material based on the market requirements in different regions. However, they reuse the same text. Document Management systems help in keeping track of all of the components.

Opportunities for Electronic Commerce in Publishing

Publishers are extending their business to use the global network in a variety of ways:

Insofar as the document management systems used to aid in production can be extended to interconnect directly with end users and recipients, the reach of publishers will be enhanced.

However, publishers are limited in their ability to market final product on the network because of limitations in the technology, infrastructure, and legal protection afforded to intellectual property owners. A number of technology trends may help, though:


In each of the areas, there are two ways to look at the growth opportunity. From the point of view of Internet development and electronic commerce, document management facilities add a source of 'back-end' technologies. From the point of view of document management providers, the Internet and electronic commerce provide new ways to extend their products to reach beyond the workgroup and enterprise to the collaborator, customer or supplier. In each of these cases, the emerging network infrastructure will change the way in which organizations interact with others in ways that are both a challenge and an opportunity.


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Many thanks to Janel Hopper, Beau Vrolyk, and Alan Brown for help with this paper.