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Document Management For The SMB Masses

Document management systems are too expensive, and way too complicated, for small businesses to use -- right? Not necessarily.

Document management systems are too expensive, and way too complicated, for small businesses to use -- right? Not necessarily.Smaller companies assume that a document management system is the kind of product that only an enterprise can afford to implement. In many cases, that's true: Products like Microsoft SharePoint and Xerox DocuShare are generally designed (and priced) for enterprise users.

But that doesn't mean document management isn't a useful small-business technology. Even an office with a handful of employees can run into problems when multiple contributors work on the same documents. And the dream of a "paperless office" becomes a nightmare when companies fail to establish a rational workflow that allows them to identify, modify, and track large numbers of electronic documents -- often involving multiple formats and content types.

Some companies try to work around the problem by setting up file systems with elaborate folder hierarchies and document naming conventions. These methods work just fine -- until you actually use them in a real-world collaborative environment. Then they promptly turn into an unholy mess.

Yesterday, I pointed to a list of 101 open-source enterprise apps, many of which allow small businesses to take advantage of tools that combine powerful features and very modest price tags. One of the products on that list is an open-source document management system called KnowledgeTree.

KnowledgeTree is both an open-source document management software project and a company. The commercial version of KnowledgeTree includes technical support and additional features that aren't (yet) available in the community-developed version. The upscale "Plus" and "Premium" versions include some really interesting features, like Microsoft Office integration and the ability to do a simple, visual comparison of different versions of common office documents.

As such products go, the commercial versions of KnowledgeTree are extremely affordable. A 20 user license for the "Plus" version, for example, runs $2,800 per year.

Some of you are telling yourselves right now that doesn't sound very affordable. Trust me, it is. Years ago, I covered this type of technology for Seybold Publications (a great resource that is now long gone, unfortunately). At the time, a typical DocuShare or Documentum implementation could run well into six figures, and nobody simply installed one of those systems and just started using it.

The same is true today of Microsoft SharePoint. It's a very impressive product, and it offers a great deal of power and flexibility for enterprise users. As a small-business document management solution, however, SharePoint is a cash-sucking beast of an application.

And honestly, a product like KnowledgeTree will pay for itself the first time it keeps one of your employees from overwriting that finished RFP response you're supposed to submit tomorrow morning.

KnowledgeTree claims to offer a relatively quick and easy implementation process that many small businesses could tackle without too much trouble. After taking a quick look at the product, I'm inclined to believe it really could offer a turnkey solution, keeping in mind that business document collections are like snowflakes: no two are ever the same.

I have also seen some news releases that refer to a hosted version of DocumentTree, offering access on a pay-as-you-go basis.While the KnowledgeTree site refers to an online demo of its product, I can't find any current links to a functioning SaaS version of the product. (I'll post an update here if I find out otherwise.)

Not every business application is worth the time and trouble to explore, even if it won't cost your company a dime. KnowledgeTree, however, is probably an exception to the rule; if you think your small business needs a document management solution, it probably does.

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