Your business has realized all the benefits of going paperless: It’s earth-friendly, your documents are searchable with a few keystrokes, and your office is uncluttered. That’s about all there is to it, right?
If that’s all you think going paperless is capable of doing for you, you’re probably not taking advantage of your files’ metadata.
What is metadata?
Metadata is the data about your documents rather than the data within your documents. It’s what makes everything searchable, but it can do much more for your workflow than that. This information, which helps classify and organize files, is usually invisible unless an IT professional is looking for it. With a deeper understanding of metadata — what it does, how it’s made, and how it can be optimized — you can leverage it to improve your business processes.
Why does that matter?
Google has made the world comfortable with search. The searchable database your company uses for document management is already taking advantage of your files’ metadata whether you understand it or not, but it’s still worth understanding. Here’s why:
1. Document classification
Done manually, saving documents where one wants them on a server or in a database requires the user to track down the specific folder or subfolder they want their new document to live in. This takes time, and the larger and more hierarchical the database, the longer and more confusing this will be. That’s a drain on productivity.
Metadata protocols can automatically give any new document a classification tag or identity based on preselected parameters as soon as it is created — by author, by time or date of creation, by keywords, etc. When such files are saved, they are automatically saved in places predetermined by their metadata markers.
2. Data sharing made better
The easier access this offers when looking for a file isn’t just confined to the author of a document. Collaboration regardless of time and space is an obvious benefit of a paperless, cloud transition, and good metadata utilization makes this much easier. With well-detailed descriptions and appropriate categorical tags, the documents you need to share with groups or clients make it infinitely easier for your collaborators, too, dramatically improving workflow.
3. Improved accountability
Metadata also includes information about the history of a given file or document. It’s where you’ll find the trail of changes that have been made to it, the users that have been granted access to it, and the users that have actually accessed it, among other things. Granularly tracking the life cycle of your digital documents makes future auditing easy, which is a necessity for staying compliant in highly regulated industries.
Once you understand how to use your metadata, you can begin adding keywords to your documents that will make every file infinitely easier to find. By assigning keywords to different documents and classes of documents, you’ll be able to find them in seconds.
Teach your team
Don’t just tell your team that metadata is important, show them how it can improve their performance rather than just an abstraction. Regular training sessions held when new information and applications come about is important for any IT tool, but the benefits are magnified when everyone is making and utilizing good metadata.
Craft sound, consistent policy
Consistency is key to any effective metadata policy. Make sure the whole team knows the tags and classes that documents should be assigned. It may make sense, for example, for one employee to tag a file as “Accounts Payable” while another tags the same or a related document as “Liabilities,” and yet another as “Unpaid.” A sound policy that is distributed and explained to everybody on the team will make finding and managing information about your outstanding debts much easier.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in hospitality, healthcare, higher education, or manufacturing — every sector benefits from better search and management when they understand and implement sound metadata policy and practice. Beyond these immediate gains in efficiency and workflow, this data-about-your-data can be mined for deep insights into how your teams are working and where improvements might be made.