How to create a document management system for your small business

What you’ll learn:


Documents are vital to running a business of any size. If you don’t manage them well, you could find your small business or freelance side hustle runs into trouble. A document management system (DMS) will help you ensure everything keeps ticking over. 


Document management systems can capture, store, and retrieve your documents. They make it easier to keep track of where your information is saved. All businesses need them, but it’s especially important if you’re a small team who need to stay organised.

What is a document management system?

A document management system is a computer system, software or tool that helps you manage all the documents your business uses and owns. Most document management systems will help with document:


  • Creation
  • Storage
  • Management
  • Indexing
  • Protection
  • Retrieval


Most document management systems store your digital documents in the cloud, but they're much more than just cloud storage. It's a digital framework that enables you to manage the flow of business-critical information to everyone within your company.


A document management system can help you to organise your files and data, keeping everything in one place. It makes it easier to:


  • Find and track your critical information
  • Speed up your workflow
  • Improve accuracy 
  • Provide round-the-clock, easy access to your records

Why is a document management system important?

Managing your small business or freelancing empire can be stressful. There are deadlines to meet, invoices to file and contracts to sign. It’s a bit like spinning plates, and unless you know where everything is, it’s easy for one of those plates to spin out of control and shatter on the floor.


Having a system in place will help your business operate smoothly. Here are a few ways a document management system can make life easier.


Compliance and security


Document security is a serious business. Compliance certifications (like ISO 9001 or ISO 13485) can have complex requirements. Such complexity means there are often limitations with paper-based filing systems.


Thankfully, digital document management systems can help hugely with compliance and security. So, you can send that dusty old filing cabinet packing.


Document management systems help you tick all the right boxes when it comes to meeting compliance rules. They make it easier to keep track of your documents for a clear audit trail. See exactly where your documents have been accessed and by who at the click of a button.


A document management system will provide secure storage for all your sensitive information. Control access with passwords and firewalls to keep your data out of the wrong hands.




How many times have you wasted your morning trying to find a document? From frantically flicking through piles on your desk to forgetting which folder-within-a-folder-within-a-folder you saved it to.


On average, professionals spend 5 to 15% of their time reading information, but up to 50% of their time looking for it.


A document management system makes it easier to find what you're looking for by keeping all your documents and information in one place. That means no more wasted time searching for what you need.




Collaborating with colleagues or clients makes it easier to develop new ideas and evolve your business. It makes it much simpler to get things done – two heads are often better than one.


A document management system links people with the documents they need. This smoother workflows, so colleagues can collaborate on the same document, at the same time, no matter where they are. You can also give specific people access to information and monitor how, when and where they use it.


Managing workflows


Even if there’s only a handful of people at the business, managing your employees' workflows makes it easier to identify pain points. By addressing and smoothing these out you can work more efficiently and hit the deadlines you just cannot afford to miss.


Share PDFs and other documents quickly and easily so people can edit and comment without missing a beat. Take contracts. Imagine you need to get it over the line asap, but post and fax will slow you down. Digital signatures on PDFs can keep things moving.


Using a paperless document management system

Everyone wants to use less paper, right? Whether at home or work. Reducing the use of paper is a priority for 92% of organisations, according to McKinsey. That's no surprise when you consider the enormous benefits of going paperless in the office.


You have  the obvious eco-friendly benefits of reducing paper waste, but there are also practical benefits for your business. 


A paperless office can save vast amounts of storage space, giving you more room to accommodate new hires in comfort as and when your team grows.


It could also increase productivity, thanks to the immediate access to important documents. You and your team can spend more time doing the work you need to, and less time searching through piles of paper.


How to implement a document management strategy

As with setting up any new system, there are certain steps you'll need to take to help put everything in place.


Decide who has ownership of the document management strategy


Moving from your existing document management strategy to an electronic alternative can take a lot of work. There's the initial setup and getting everyone on the team up to speed. After it’s set up, you'll need someone to continually monitor the system to ensure it’s doing its job.


Assess your current document system


Once you've decided who’ll manage your new electronic document management system, they'll need to take stock of what you use already. That way, they'll see what works for you and what doesn't, making it easier to see what needs to change.


This means they'll need to:


  • Review how you currently receive, process, review and store documents.
  • Speak to different departments to find any differences in how they work to ensure your new system will suit everyone.
  • Figure out what's necessary to complete the new document strategy.


Identify the types of document involved


The next stage is to work out what types of documents each department has and how they're used.


Make an inventory of the papers in every department's office. This could include:


  • Records
  • Reference materials
  • Personal papers and data
  • Duplicate documents
  • Client information
  • Blank forms.


As you put your inventory together, you may find you need more resources than you first thought. Creating a checklist will help you identify the types of documents your organisation deals with daily.


That way, you'll know which records need to be immediately available and what your new system needs to be compatible with. You can also work out which documents you have that don't get used and clear your system of unnecessary forms.


Set new rules for your documents


Once you have an idea of how your company currently works, you can start planning how you’ll change things moving forward.


That means creating a set of rules to ensure everyone knows how to use and make the most of your new system. This could involve:


  • Reviewing large documents to see whether you can slim them down for easier upload and use.
  • Deciding how you'll store different document types on your system.
  • Working out how you'll limit who can access and edit certain documents.
  • Discussing how you're going to name files to make them searchable.


Decide on your document management software


Once you've taken stock of your current situation, it's time to start looking at your new options. Research the different document management systems available and how they work.


Each system will have its own benefits. Ensure the one you choose works for you. For example, if you use a lot of PDFs and need your employees and clients to be able to edit, sign and comment on your documents, Adobe Acrobat could be your best option.


It helps you stay connected to your team, enabling better collaboration and full access to the information needed. Discover the power of Acrobat today.

Thinking of starting your own business? Be inspired to make your move with advice from those who have made it happen.

Learn about Dom Santry's journey

Discover how cloud storage can help your business become more secure and agile. Find out what the cloud is, how it works, and what its key benefits are.

Creating a business plan that’s realistic is vital when starting or growing your company. Learn how to create a business plan successfully with Adobe.

There are so many benefits of using version control to organise your documents. Find out more about document control systems and how they work with Adobe.

Get Adobe Acrobat Pro

The complete PDF productivity solution. Edit, convert, share and sign documents anywhere, anytime. 7 days free, then   .