There are many reasons for businesses to manage electronic files and digitize their documents. Creating a structure to organize and share information is one benefit; as is reducing paper, creating audit trails, ensuring regulatory compliance, and facilitating internal and external collaboration. Document management systems (DMS) help companies digitize, store, manage, and track documents, data objects and images electronically. Whether referred to as systems, software or solutions, DMS offerings come with a variety of features and price tags. We've come up with some of the best across categories to help you sort through what can be a confusing array of options.

In our review, we found a breadth of offerings. Some systems focus on enabling storage, search, security and include some document revision and sharing functions. Others extend beyond DMS providing a multitude of bells and whistles (and plug-ins) for a spectrum of capabilities such as workflow creation, task management, collaboration, automated rules, and more.

Given the plenitude of options, determining the right system can be daunting. We spoke with Jennifer Pankow, Manager, Client Success, SHI International Corp., who helped simplify it: "From a business decision ask yourself 'What does this get me that helps enhance my business or fulfill a critical need?' This is what we help customers look at and map a solution for. Rather than thinking 'I need DMS', ask: 'What is it I need to do?' Then narrow your selection to which solution does that, and which pieces does it do."

Another question to consider is: Where do I want my files stored? There are three types of DMS: Cloud, on-premise and hybrid.

Cloud: With this service your documents are in the vendor's cloud - ready for mobile access anytime and anywhere that you have internet. Storage may be limited by your contract (although most services offer a variety of storage levels and associated pricing), but it's often an affordable option that includes system management and updates, and files are backed up to the cloud.

On-Premise: This option allows more customization as the DMS sits on your server, and you're not limited to contract-level storage. But the up-front cost may be intimidating, IT maintenance may be extra, and you'll need to implement a back-up protocol in case your server goes down.

Hybrid: This combo of on-premise and cloud can allow you flexibility to use the cloud for some document types while you avoid migrating legacy content that you don't need mobile access to.

When looking at DMS options key factors to consider are:

Security: One aspect is your ability to control access and set permissions for documents and files within the system. Assessing how these files are securely shared internally and externally is important. Another aspect is the level of security protecting your data where it is stored. If you're looking at a cloud solution, ensure the vendor's security for their data centers is sufficient to protect your data and compliant with any regulations for your industry.

Scanning: If you're drowning in paper, find a system that allows for scanning mass quantities of documents with features for automated naming and filing. One potential feature, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), turns scanned documents into editable and searchable files.

Search: It is wise to make sure that no matter how the system organizes your files, search capabilities allow full-text keyword searches within files (not just by title).

Access, Edit, Monitor: How extensive are your business's needs for creating, accessing and changing documents? When reviewing a DMS, look at:

  • Document and file access/permission setting, e.g., are roles assigned, is access set by document, folder or both, can you set permissions by individuals and by groups?
  • File sharing/editing, i.e., is there a check in/out, can multiple users edit at once?
  • Monitoring and tracking, e.g., can you see who has viewed the document, do you get an activity/audit log, can you set alerts?
  • Version control, i.e. can you see version history, how does the system ensure the most current version is being worked on, can you access previous versions?
  • Creation, assembly and archiving, i.e., what features are in place for the lifetime of the document from creation through archiving?

Collaboration: How much internal and external collaboration do you need to empower? While version control, editing and electronic signature may be fairly standard DMS features, some systems include workflows, co-authoring, task management, alerts, messaging and more.

User friendliness: You want as close to 100% system adoption as you can get. Be sure the tools and interface are user-friendly and intuitive, so your team can easily use it.

Mobility: If mobile access is a priority, find a system that's compatible with all devices. Consider one that has an app that replicates the desktop experience.

Integration: There is a broad variety of integration ability across the DMS offerings we reviewed. Know what systems you'll need your DMS to integrate with. For example, your desire to avoid having to move files from existing cloud storage, e.g., Drobox, Microsoft Cloud, Google Drive, etc., or your need to connect with your CRM, content management system, or accounting software may drive your vendor decision.

Support: As with any vendor service, be sure you understand how support is provided. Most vendors we reviewed had several support options including email, online chat and phone - although hours were sometimes limited. Some only offer support via a ticket system. Select one that fits the level and type of support you'll need.

Price: DMS price varies by vendor and service. As referenced earlier, on-premise DMS has a substantial up-front cost. However, with cloud service you'll likely pay a monthly or yearly fee determined on a per-user/month or storage-capacity basis, and additional features may add to costs. So, consider your ongoing costs and any increases that will occur if your needs increase.

In our search for the "Best of" DMS, we found qualified candidates in several categories:

Overall Winner, Best Document Management Software/Systems for Small Business: eFileCabinet

eFileCabinet gets our vote as the Best Overall Winner for Document Management Software/Systems for Small Business 2018. DMS is solely what eFileCabinet does. It is a robust offering that promotes its ease of use, mobile access, advanced "never lose anything" search and high levels of security.

Pros: There is a broad offering of DMS features with new features being added such as workflow (currently available in beta). Security and compliance are focus areas.

Cons: Customer support, while quick to respond via phone, email or chat, is only available during business hours. Also, this is not the least expensive DMS option; but not the most expensive either.

See our full eFileCabinet review.

Best Free Document Management Software/Systems for Small Business: Zoho Docs

While many DMS vendors offer free trials, free versions are rare. Those we did find often only allowed for a single user-account. Offering 5GB of storage/user for up to 25 team members for free earned Zoho Docs our recognition as the Best Free Document Management Software for Small Business 2018.

Pros: Zoho Docs touts strong security and compliance, has a friendly user interface, online forums for support and many of the features of paid services we reviewed.

Cons: Zoho Docs, like Google Docs, has its own format for files. Some users commented that working with Word documents in this system is more challenging than they'd like.

Read our full Zoho Docs review.

Best Document Management Software/Systems for Customer Service: eFileCabinet

eFileCabinet gets our vote as the Best Document Management Software/Systems for Customer Service in 2018. While this DMS may cost a bit more than some competitors, several user reviews state that it's worth it because of the people and customer service. The Customer Success Team commits to every new customer receiving a call right after purchase to ensure they fully understand the product and their company can benefit from it.

Pros: When contacting customer service via their three methods, i.e., chat, phone and email, we heard back very quickly, and the representatives were friendly, professional and helpful.  

Cons: Customer support is only available during business hours (8am - 5pm MT) Monday through Friday.

See our full eFileCabinet review.

Best Document Management Software/Systems for Collaboration: SharePoint

SharePoint, a DMS from Microsoft, includes many features that will interest companies or teams needing to collaborate efficiently. Designed with an intention to "empower teamwork" and "seamless collaboration across the organization", SharePoint is our pick for Best Document Management Software/Systems for Collaboration 2018.

Pros: As a Microsoft product, SharePoint provides high levels of security and customer support with a range of price points. Capabilities seem almost endless when considering the full suite of Microsoft offerings SharePoint integrates with.

Cons: Many reviews indicate that to fully utilize SharePoint expertise and customization is needed. This potentially could make the solution too time consuming and costly for small businesses.

See our full SharePoint review.

Best Document Management Software/Systems for Law Firms: M-Files

Because law firms deal with a ton of paperwork, much of it containing confidential and sensitive information, there are additional considerations for selecting a DMS. According to an article in the ABA Journal, "Here's the Legal Lowdown on Document Management Software," the document management components in the practice management software a law firm currently uses may be sufficient for solo practices or small firms in practice areas that are not document heavy. But for small firms that manage massive amounts of documents, finding a stand-alone system that can integrate well with your existing practice management and accounting software may be extremely beneficial. Because of its innovative technology, security, support for data compliance, and integration ability, our selection for Best Document Management Software/Systems for Law Firms is M-Files.  

Pros: In addition to solid DMS features such as scanning capabilities, OCR for organizing and searching, and access control, this technology offers law firms contract approval workflows and supports eDiscovery.  

Cons: M-Files does not offer pre-configured packages as some competitors do so it is hard to gauge what the cost will be for a small law firm to get the features they need. Solutions are customized for each client and pricing starts under $2,000 per year.

Read the fill M-Files review.

Other Document Management Services

In addition to those we selected in our Best Of categories, here are other companies we reviewed:

Dokmee describes it's offering as a secure, easy-to-use document management system designed for a variety of purposes including document capture and storage, search and retrieval, and file sharing.

Asite document management suite is used by architecture, engineering and construction companies for workflows, information management and compliance with global standards.

DocuWare Cloud digitizes paper processes, enables configuration of custom workflows, and integrates with ERP, CRM and other systems.

Adobe Document Cloud includes Acrobat DC for PDF productivity and Adobe Sign for integrated e-signing.

Hightail Business, formerly YouSendIt, is comprised of their File Sharing and Creative Collaboration offerings.

Ascencio ONLYOFFICE provides online document editors and productivity business tools via Cloud or private network.

Alfresco One from Alfresco Software, Inc. is an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) platform that includes document management, collaboration and process automation.

Methodology

We utilized an expansive review of search terms, social trending and web research to narrow our list of DMS offerings. We interviewed client services professionals who have experience using DMS and helping customers with their content-management or software-purchasing decisions. With our selection narrowed, we then reviewed each company's website and watched demos or signed up for trials, and compared offerings specifically around service type, pricing, customer service, scalability, functionality, ease-of-use, customer reviews, business and technology website reviews and awards. For any missing information we contacted the company. In this process, we not only filled in information gaps, but also assessed their speed and thoroughness of response.

Editorial Disclosure: Inc. writes about products and services in this and other articles. These articles are editorially independent - that means editors and reporters research and write about these products free of the influence of any marketing or sales departments. In other words, no one is telling our reporters or editors what to write or to include any particular positive or negative information about these products or services in the article. The article's content is entirely at the discretion of the reporter and editor. You will notice, however, that sometimes we include links to products and services in the articles. When readers click on these links, and buy these products or services, Inc may be compensated. This e-commerce based advertising model - like every other ad on our article pages - has no impact on our editorial coverage. Reporters and editors don't add those links, nor will they manage them. These ads, like others you see on Inc, support the independent journalism you find on this site.

 

Editorial Disclosure: Inc. writes about products and services in this and other articles. These articles are editorially independent - that means editors and reporters research and write on these products free of any influence of any marketing or sales departments. In other words, no one is telling our reporters or editors what to write or to include any particular positive or negative information about these products or services in the article. The article's content is entirely at the discretion of the reporter and editor. You will notice, however, that sometimes we include links to these products and services in the articles. When readers click on these links, and buy these products or services, Inc may be compensated. This e-commerce based advertising model - like every other ad on our article pages - has no impact on our editorial coverage. Reporters and editors don't add those links, nor will they manage them. This advertising model, like others you see on Inc, supports the independent journalism you find on this site.