Document Strategy Design and Information Agility

Published in April 2006

The number of documents found within an organization can be so overwhelming that it paralyzes attempts to design and implement a document strategy. While there may be thousands of documents in your
organization, the central question is: What are the documents that drive the essential functions of your organization? Chances are good that only a few documents are absolutely indispensable to
your business. You don’t necessarily need to re-engineer every document. Start your strategy with only the most essential.

Since documents are the subject of your document strategy, it stands to reason that you should determine which ones are the most important to your organization. How can you identify a “vital few”
documents that offer the highest return and the best likelihood for success in terms of meeting the needs of your organization?

The Pareto Principle

Joseph Juran, a venerable leader of the Total Quality Management movement, coined the concept of the “Pareto Principle” in the 1950s after he observed that the majority of problems result from
only a few causes. Juran named the rule after Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist, who determined that eighty percent of the wealth in Milan was owned by only twenty percent of the
people. Some people refer to this idea as the “80-20 rule.” Juran first applied the notion in a practical sense by suggesting that poor quality can often be successfully addressed by attacking
the few major causes that result in most of the problems. In much the same way, identifying the “vital few” documents within your organization will direct your attention to those documents that
are the most important and ensure a more fruitful return on your effort.

For example, suppose your organization has approximately fifty thousand documents that are used within your enterprise. Consider now that only twenty percent of those documents actually drive the
core functions of your business. Only ten thousand of the original fifty thousand are “core documents.” The rest have only periodic or specialized importance, or are used in secondary functions
that are nonessential. In fact, I’m betting that many of these documents are obsolete, duplicate or redundant.

Ten thousand is still a daunting number, however, so take the next step by asking: Of this twenty percent, which documents are absolutely essential for our business to run? Which have the capacity
to bring business to its knees? If ranked in priority, which documents rise to the top? The surviving documents – say, two thousand – are “mission-critical.” Out of ten thousand core documents,
only twenty percent remain.

Target Documents – the “Vital Few”

Once you have determined which documents are the most important for your business to run, you still need a place to start. As Juran might suggest, it is important to identify those “vital few”
documents that provide the most potential benefit in terms of improving the performance of your organization. If you could select only a handful of documents to target in your strategy, which ones
would they be?

Select your target documents by asking: Which documents have the greatest influence on the success of your organization? Which ones play a part in realizing your firm’s objectives and vision?
Which are in most need of improvement, are the most troublesome, or provide the most potential return for your effort?

Here are some more questions to ask when selecting your “vital few” targets:

  • Which documents have the biggest influence on our numbers and measures?
  • Which help manage the needs, pressures and constraints of doing business?
  • Which contribute to meeting our specific goals and objectives?
  • Which serve our overall mission and vision?
  • Which are the most troublesome in terms of support, errors and efficiency?
  • Which are the most costly to create, produce and process?
  • Which have the biggest influence on customer satisfaction?
  • Which have the biggest influence on efficiency?
  • Which serve important strategic initiatives?

This exercise is valuable since it illustrates how you can reduce the seemingly overwhelming scope of your document strategy to a more manageable project by concentrating only on those documents
that are vitally important. You may find that there are several, or only a few, that are absolutely essential for your business to run. When you elect to concentrate on your “vital few” rather
than attempt to re-engineer all fifty thousand documents within your enterprise you will begin to build a strategy that is manageable, meaningful and more likely to succeed.


Organizations must adopt a document strategy if for no other reason than the current exponential growth of information. More information has been produced in the last thirty years than in the
previous five thousand – the entire history of civilization. What’s more, that body of information is expected to double in less than five years. With over 90 percent of information contained in
documents, it is clear that whatever the medium – pixels or paper, bytes or birch bark – documents are the currency of human communication. Information: You’ve got to be able to find it, you’ve
got to be able to use it, and you’ve got to be able to keep it. Documents allow us to do all these things.

In my book, “Designing a Document Strategy,” ( I explore the fact that for most organizations documents compose
much, if not all, of the product they sell or the service they provide. A health insurance company, for example, does not provide diagnosis or treatment, only information about what doctor is
available, what coverage is provided and what claims have been paid. For companies such as this, documents are the product – the only tangible evidence of the service provided.

Information Agility

If firms are not competitive in using the information they have within their enterprise, they will be less able to face the competitive pressures of changing markets, shrinking margins and
increasing competition. Companies must have “information agility” in order to effectively react to dynamic changes in their marketplace. Traditionally, change in the marketplace was somewhat
predictable; business increased or decreased in a reasonably linear pattern and competitors entered or exited the market in a relatively logical and predictable fashion. Today, however, the
economic, technological and societal factors that influence change are moving simultaneously and unpredictably. A document strategy ensures that an organization can find, use and keep information
with agility and effectiveness.

Information is now the most valuable component of the entire economic chain, according to Peter Drucker, the prominent management consultant. Organizations that are able to harness the power of
information and manage, share and use information effectively are well positioned to create value for everyone involved, says Drucker.

The Cost of Information

But the cost of harnessing that value is high. Investment in information technology now accounts for over one-half of the United States’ gross investment in equipment. It has been estimated that
U.S. businesses spend more than $100 billion each year on IT hardware alone. Documents are a vehicle that can turn the expense of gathering information into an asset. They are one aspect of
information processing that can be quantifiably measured and improved. A document strategy is vital because it monitors, directs and improves the way information is used in a very tangible way.
Enhancements made in document systems can provide “information agility” that can ultimately determine the real value of the information you have gathered and the technology used to collect it.

Documents are Strategic

It is no longer enough for organizations to plan and implement strategies in isolation from the Document. Documents play a significant role in nearly every business strategy or initiative.
Therefore, documents should be given the same attention in strategic planning as other important aspects of business such as marketing, finance, human resources and information technology. A
document strategy that is sensibly linked to organizational objectives can give organizations an edge. The challenge, as Peter Senge puts it, is to “think systemically and act holistically,” and
organizations must adopt a document strategy as a vehicle to bring alignment and success to their entire agenda of business strategies and objectives.

The essential questions are: What is your corporate strategy and how can your document strategy support it? What are the IT strategies needed to enable both?

How we manage documents has a great deal to do with how we manage business. A document strategy can help make documents part of the success of a business rather than one of the problems. Yet, only
25 percent of companies have a document strategy. “Designing a Document Strategy” is a book that describes a much-needed method for putting one into place.


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About Kevin Craine

The author, Kevin Craine, EDPP is Supervisor of the Output Management, Electronic Publishing and Corporate Forms departments for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon. Kevin can be reached at 503/225-5213. Visit his web site at: