Over ten years ago, I volunteered for an assignment I had no idea how to start.  It took me back to the days in high school algebra class.  If the teacher turned and began scribbling a long equation on the blackboard, you knew that when she turned around and faced the class she was looking for a victim to call on to solve the problem.  That was something you never volunteered for.

The assignment I mistakenly volunteered for was to help my client select an electronic document imaging/management solution (ECM).  Maybe you are in the exact place I was those many years ago, you are responsible to select an ECM system and you too do not know where to begin.

I began my task by talking to vendors of these products and their references, and I learned very little.  It wasn’t until I remembered that in life we learn from our failures.  So, I began searching for “failed” ECM projects and that is when I really began to learn.  From the lessons learned from the failures, I came up with what I call the 7 ingredients for a successful ECM project.  If you use this recipe of ingredients, you will find the result is a successful implementation of an ECM system.


Ingredient 1:  Easy to Learn and Use:


The product you select must be easy to learn and easy to use otherwise your project will fail.  Why you ask?  I believe there are two reasons: people are too busy or too lazy to learn a complicated program, or people take the path of least resistance.  In either case, most people will either go back to their old ways or go to the one person that took the time to learn the product.

Another important aspect to this ingredient is that it is important for the user to easily find the document they are seeking no matter what they know about the document.  That means that the product you choose should have a good search engine and allow index searches as well as full text searches.

Ingredient 2:  Non-proprietary


The product that you select cannot have anything proprietary in it.  Many of the early ECM products were loaded with proprietary technology — they had drives, hardware, database, and image file formats that were all proprietary.  Today we even see that in many products.  These products with use a modified TIFF file format or will use the popular PDF format which requires an Adobe reader.

Also, many vendors offer an add-on imaging module to their product such as a CRM or ERP system.  These imaging modules for the most part are very limited in their capability and are only useful for documents related to the vendor’s product.  And often they use proprietary formats or methods of attaching documents to their system.  Having these proprietary items may make it difficult to upgrade the system, integrate it to another system, use for other documents in the organization, or migrate to a completely new ECM system.

Ingredient 3:  Scalable


Any product you select should be able to grow as your needs grow.  Many of the early systems came in certain user units such as 10, 25, 50, or 100, so if you were at 24 users and wanted to add just one more user, you had a huge expense.  Also, many systems have limitations on the number of users and the number of pages it will handle.  The system you select should be able to expand from one user to any number of users you need and add features such as batch processing or workflow if and when you need it.

Ingredient 4:  Adaptable

The product you select and the way you implement it must be able to adapt to the way people are accustom to working.  That means that the way we stored things on paper should be similar to the way we store them electronically.  For example, if we stored accounts payable documents on paper filed by company name, then in the imaging system you should be able to able to see the AP documents stored in electronic folders alphabetically by company name.  You should not have to change the way you do business to fit the software.

Ingredient 5:  Open architecture


Electronic document imaging systems are very powerful and useful to an organization as a stand alone unit, but the value grows exponentially when you are able to integrate it with other existing systems such as accounting or contact management systems.

I suggest picking a system that runs on an open platform such as Microsoft SQL and has a programmer’s tool kit and other utilities that allow it to link to other databases.

One city that I work with realized the power of integration when they integrated their document imaging system with their graphical information system (GIS), their permit program and their online credit card processing system.  Now they are able to go to a map of the city and clink on a parcel (lot) and quickly see all documents associated with that parcel of land including permits, correspondence, payments or building prints.

Ingredient 6:  Long term vendor


When I was doing my research on failed ECM projects I was surprised to find a large number of failed projects were caused by the vendor no longer supporting the product that the organization was using.  Looking deeper, the companies that dropped their ECM products were not the small entrepreneurial companies but were large, solid companies that had their major focus in some other product area such as copier equipment or computer hardware.  These companies saw ECM as a small distraction to their large corporate portfolio, but to their users it was a key product that housed vital company documents.  The users felt betrayed and left hanging with no recourse but to find a way to migrate their data and documents to a new system.

Today, I tell people to find an ECM vendor who main focus is document imaging and that has been in business for more than ten years.


Ingredient 7: Phased approach

I also found that organizations that tried to implement everything all at once were more likely to fail than the organization that broke the project into several phases and systematically moved thru the organizations.  One reason these all or nothing type projects fail is that nothing actually gets completed because time is divided amongst all the departments.  The other reason projects like this fail is that people basically hate change and when you change everything at once they push back.

The best way to implement document imaging in an organization is by evolution rather than revolution.

Hope you find this article helpful. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Larry Phelps


Minneapolis, Minnesota

St Louis, Missouri


One thought on “7 Ingredients for a Successful Electronic Document Imaging Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s