What’s Under the Rock? PDF in Document Management

SUMMARY: EDMS/ECM systems are stuffed with PDF files but treat them as functionally equivalent to TIFF images. As a consequence, customers are accepting inefficiencies and missing out on the power of PDF.

A mature, highly capable technology, with numerous powerful features designed expressly for electronic document applications, PDF won the battle for the end user’s perception of “electronic document” years ago.

That’s why PDF files are everywhere in modern corporations and governments as the electronic representation of formal or finished documents. Every business unit uses PDF files all day long for routine and occasional tasks alike.

I won’t bang on (this time) about why PDF is the electronic document file-format of choice; we’ll just note that it’s so, and move on.

Here’s a more interesting question: If PDF is in such heavy use throughout your organization, why don’t more EDMS (electronic document management systems) leverage this fact more than they do? For most vendors (I’m not naming names today, in either direction) most EDMS implementations still treat TIFF images and PDF documents the same way. Some that do more with PDF still don’t do much.

What’s missing?

EDMS systems vary tremendously. With respect to documents occurring in the PDF format, however, they vary little.

That’s too bad. With almost no exceptions, every EDMS customer was using PDF files on almost every desktop before they ever started thinking about formal Document Management.

So what are some signs that your DMS/ECM vendors haven’t integrated PDF?

  • The viewing experience depends on locally-installed software
  • PDF files viewed with a browser plugin can take a long time to load
  • Searches that include PDF content tend to disappoint; files that should be found somehow get missed
  • PDF metadata and DMS metadata often don’t agree
  • Documents signed with electronic signatures lose the signature
  • Document annotations aren’t integrated into ECM, nor are the annotations themselves included in full-text searches
  • Documents stored as attachments to PDF files become “lost”
  • PDF forms work inconsistently (if at all)
  • DMS security does not extend to PDF files downloaded from the system
  • Files can’t be readily converted or made to conform to PDF/A (for archiving)

What are the features of PDF that EDMS systems could support, but generally don’t?

  • Page-level management
  • Linearized PDF, for rapid in-browser viewing
  • Annotations (PDF supports highlights, notes, boxes, etc)
  • Integrated navigation (PDF allows for bookmarks, links and more)
  • JavaScript-enabled forms and other document automation (PDF supports JavaScript)
  • Digital signatures (PDF includes a digital signature infrastructure)
  • Attachments (PDF files can contain other files, much like a ZIP file)
  • Logically-ordered text content (PDF files may be tagged with logical structure)
  • Alternative text descriptions of graphics
  • “Interim” vs. “Full” saves
  • Integrated XMP metadata, including at the object level
  • Accessibility for disabled users
  • Delivery and viewing of 3D content
  • Support for PDF/A (quality-control for archiving)
  • …and more…

And yet, PDF technology (as opposed to the files themselves) remains chronically underutilized in the document management and electronic content spaces.

PDF is no longer “Adobe’s PDF”

One of the key perceptions that’s now five (5) years out of date is the idea that Adobe still owns PDF, or is the only serious PDF vendor, or makes the best PDF, or is somehow otherwise the master and commander (and probably toll-collector) for everything PDF.

Indeed, Adobe invented PDF, and certainly, Adobe develops and sells the market-leading desktop software for PDF. When it comes to managing the file format itself, however, Adobe is just another vendor at the ISO 32000 table.

Ask Your Vendor what they do with PDF

Ask your EDMS vendor about their intentions regarding support for the power of PDF. You may find there’s a lot of value and capability going unrecognized in the file-format on which you’ve already standardized.



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