NextPage manages documents with a light touch

Unobtrusive document tracking fits smoothly into existing workflows to provide basic, no-frills management

"Compliance" is a word that can make a CIO cringe, especially when it comes to document retention and -- just as important -- destruction.

[ See also: InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards Data Management winners ]

Traditional document management products require that knowledge workers use a centralized system to track documents associated with a project. For some organizations, this is just enough of a disruption to established workflows that the systems frequently aren't used at all. The very applications we use to create, edit, and share documents often compound the management problem by hiding multiple copies all over the computer.

NextPage 2 Document Retention changes all that. The beauty of Document Retention is that it increases compliance with your organization's document retention policy without requiring significant changes to an employee's normal work habits. Once installed, it functions as an interested observer, watching actions taken by the user and keeping track of document flow and versioning. What's more, Document Retention requires minimal information from the user to accomplish this task. 

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Document Retention injects modest amounts of workflow into the user's normal routine, but does so at appropriate spots. The user creates, edits, saves, and shares Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents as usual; Document Retention watches these actions and creates a document tracking database in the background, based on the distributed information from each user. 

As I worked through my test scenarios with Document Retention, it was very easy to envision how a group could effectively use the tools to manage documents without significantly impacting their workflow. I suspect that after a few weeks, no one would even notice it was there. 

Installation and authorization
I tested Document Retention using two instances of Windows XP running inside the Parallels Desktop virtualization system on my MacBook Pro. These two instances acted as two different people working on the same project. My imaginary workers created, edited, and exchanged documents and e-mail messages in a simulated workflow. 

The first job, of course, was to install the product — a simple task — and activate it. Activation ties the instance of Document Retention on a particular machine to a set of projects inside the enterprise. The installation process requests the user's e-mail address; if that address is one authorized by the central administrator, the system automatically sends an e-mail message with an activation attachment to complete the initialization.

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When you first launch it, Document Retention brings up a page warning the user that Document Retention complies with strict privacy policies and requires that you click a box stating you've read the warning. When you link out, however, the site seems to offer a general NextPage privacy policy that applies to NextPage's Web site as much as it does the Document Retention product. This is confusing — a link to specific information about how the product handles personally-identifying data would be more comforting.

Natural interactions
The first time a new document is saved, Document Retention prompts the user to select an existing project to add to, or create a new one. Document Retention automatically tracks any new documents that the user creates, but needs the user to assign them to the correct project before tracking can begin. While only administrators can create permanent projects that are visible to all, anyone can create a private project that can later be made permanent. This allows individuals to begin work immediately without a cumbersome permissions process — a good example of Document Retention trying hard to not get in the way of getting things done. 

Document Retention assumes that copies of a single document created using the Windows Explorer "Copy Document" function are part of the same project. One caveat: When I created a new version, using Word's "Save As…" function, Document Retention asked whether it should be considered a new document or a version of the old one. This is probably a reasonable default, since "Save As…" is frequently used when one document is used as a template for another, often in a different project. Still, it could result in document copies ending up in another project unintentionally if people aren't careful when they select projects.

Documents and document threads can be reassigned to other projects as needed. Files can be renamed, moved, and edited, and Document Retention will continue to accurately track them. A convenient dashboard displays copies of all the files associated with a particular project on a user's own machine as well as others' systems.  
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To test Document Retention's ability to manage documents that users share via e-mail, I sent a Word document to the other machine and saved the attachment. Document Retention not only successfully tracked the file I saved, but kept track of temporary copies that Outlook used in managing the attachments. A convenient "Delete" button allows these temporary files to be easily cleaned up.

It's important to note that Document Retention is a tracking system, not an enforcement engine. If you e-mail a document to someone who is not using Document Retention, that action and the recipient will be recorded, but any changes they make to the document and any copies they create will be will be invisible to the system.  

There can be some delay, on the order of a few minutes, before the dashboard registers actions that others are taking. This was obvious in a test scenario, but in real usage would probably not be critical. 

A global view from little pieces
After an hour of successful editing, it was time to close the project down by making an archival copy of the document and cleaning up the various versions floating around on the two machines.

Document Retention archives copies of documents to either a shared location (assigned by the project administrator) or another location on a local or networked drive. Although NextPage makes this convenient by including the archive tool in the dashboard, using Document Retention for saving archival copies of the document isn't required: the system also successfully tracked documents I archived outside the tool through Explorer or other means.

Sending a clean-up request is as easy as selecting the document to remove and pressing the "Send Cleanup Request" button. Document Retention automatically creates an e-mail with a clean-up request attachment that other copies of Document Retention will understand. The requestor can send the clean-up message to everyone who has versions of the document or to selected individuals. Opening that attachment on another machine automatically places the user in a three-step clean-up workflow inside Document Retention. 

In the first step, the user can add or remove files from the clean-up list. In the second step, the user selects any files that should be archived. In the third step, the user actually deletes the files. Once the files are deleted, other copies of Document Retention reflect the change, allowing the owner to verify that the clean-up is complete.

Ease of use is top of mind
One of the nice touches in Document Retention is the help system.  Each time a user is asked to take action, there is a convenient help link that explains what that action does or how to handle exceptions. For example, Document Retention might ask a user to "Look over the list to make sure no files are incorrectly assigned or missing," followed directly by a link that reads "What if there are?" that provides instructions to deal with the problem.

Document Retention is a good fit for any company that needs to meet regulatory requirements for document retention and management. Its distributed nature makes it particularly well-suited for deploying to groups within a company and then moving it out to other groups as needed. Remember, though, that this is not an enforcement engine; it will track a document's movements, but won't prevent it from being sent to unauthorized users, for example. (That task can be handled by data security products, such as data leak protectors).

Complying with document management practices mandated by external regulations or internal policies is nearly impossible to achieve without tool support. Good tools should fit the way people work without compromising functionality. By those criteria, Document Retention measures up well. 

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security (15.0%)
Ease of use (25.0%)
Features (25.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
NextPage 2 Document Retention 8.0 9.0 9.0 10.0 8.0 8.0 8.8
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