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Dropbox - just another storage mechanism?

By Craig Hawker, Web Services and Development Consultant at EBC Group

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Posted 19 Oct 2015

Whilst reading "The case against Dropbox looks stronger with each passing day", I started wondering to myself where systems such as Dropbox can go to keep themselves from becoming just another storage mechanism.  In his article, Casey Newton describes additional features of competing platforms (such as project management and workflow automation), but is the ability to tack on features such as this just diluting or complicating their core business - one which Casey still argues is the best in the market today - or is it a requirement for the business to survive?

The primary problem that Dropbox has is that it, like others in the market, is so highly focused on the concept of files and folders.  This structure - which has pretty much been with us in one capacity or another since the dawn of practical computing - is what virtually everyone, on every modern operating system, works with on a daily basis.  After all, everyone knows that the Sales documents live in the "S" drive and, if you want to find Dave's current quotes, you go to "S:QuotationsDave.SmithOctober 2015".  Approaches like these are fantastic when they are unambiguous and the people working with the data consciously maintain the structure as and when the document moves through it's lifecycle.  You see: if Dave sends out his quote in September, but it's not accepted until October, what folder should it sit in?https://www.ebcgroup.co.uk/dropbox-just-another-storage-mechanism%3F

One alternative approach is to use metadata - information about the files - to describe the file's current state and details.  This metadata could be maintained automatically (e.g. who created it), or updated by the user when the document is created or processed (e.g. quotation date, valid until, client).  This approach gives huge flexibility when dealing with large amounts of information:

  • If you know that a quotation hasn't been accepted or declined, and it's before the quotation valid-until date, list it for the salesperson and sales manager to see it as active.
  • Part of that metadata can be used to process a document through a workflow.  For example, you can ensure that quotations get signed off by the technical lead before they get sent across to the client, or you could notify the projects team when a quotation is accepted.
  • Structured storage of information - such as folders - become irrelevant, as the system can automatically place the files in the right places depending upon their information.  They may even appear in multiple places at once to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need, rather than copies being held in multiple folders (or worse: tied up in email).
  • You can enforce access permissions automatically based upon that information, allowing departments such as HR to access documents securely without people having to remember to save the item to the correct location, or to manually set up permissions.

The real differentiator between these Enterprise Content (ECM) - or Enterprise Information (EIM) - Management systems, though, is their current ability to reference and manage non-document content, and this is where I find that businesses are encountering frustrations.

Most businesses, regardless of their size, work with data which is both unstructured (e.g. files in Dropbox) and structured (e.g. customer information in Microsoft Dynamics CRM).  Working with data within its own silo is often frustrating for users (e.g. putting the customer's address from a CRM into a quotation), and solutions which can bridge these silos of information are starting to bring real benefit to businesses.

One such system is M-Files.  M-Files' approach focuses on dealing with both structured and non-structured data as first-class objects, regardless of whether that data is managed within M-Files or referenced automatically from other systems such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Sage, or others. All of these items then benefit from the same features as documents such as automatic version history, workflow and automated permissions.

So I asked myself again: what can Dropbox do to keep themselves from becoming just another storage medium?  If the future is solutions which revolve around the integration, aggregation and collation of information from across the business - all designed at supporting the business - then Dropbox needs to look closely at solutions such as M-Files; once businesses start buying into cost-effective and powerful systems that combine the best of document, content and business process management then who needs "just" online storage?

For more information please contact craig.hawker@ebcgroup.co.uk or alternatively 0121 585 4400

Tags: Controlling Documentation, Information Management

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