Digital Documentation: Opportunities and Risks

Documentation needs to be comprehensive, understandable and secure. The notebook has become obsolete in this day and age for a variety of reasons. Digital tools are uncharted territory for many in our sector, raising some justifiable questions. 

FeuerTrutz International 1-2019: Digital Documentation
Fig. 1: Digital documentation hugely simplifies everyday work and makes things more efficient and secure – if the right application for your own organisation and structures has been carefully selected. (Photograph: themis@grid-it.at/Dr. Hannes Kleindienst)

By Michael Lehmann. Several different solutions are now available – this article is designed to help you ask the right questions when making the switch to digital documentation so that you can find the ideal system for you.

Document things – but what?

The first question is: what do you need to document? Do you have lists provided that you must work through? Do you have special requirements or your own content? If yes, you should select a tool that gives you the freedom and flexibility you require. Describe the processes that you carry out.

You should be able to continue to carry out the same work processes (almost) unchanged but with support from the technical possibilities that digital documentation is able to offer.

A picture says more than a thousand words

Being able to quickly document facts is highly important in today’s world. At the same time, photographic documentation and other visual forms of documentation play a decisive role. Especially when you consider the sheer amount of data we collect, images can be efficient and meaningful.

An important question is thus what medium should be used. Is the camera on my tablet or smartphone sufficient or should I use an external camera with a telescopic lens and flash? How can these images be imported into the documentation easily and automatically and saved there directly in the correct place?

Reports in your own layout

Do you create your own reports or do you have to fill out forms provided by the program? If you work with your own layouts, you should be able to generate them with the tool.

In addition, interfaces to other systems such as SAP, cost accounting, etc. are also required.

After considering all of these factors, the price for integrating all of the necessary modules and making any adaptations to meet your specific requirements needs to be appropriate.

Are you the master of your data?

In the digital age, this question play a crucial and direct role when deciding which system to use. It is vital to clearly clarify where the data will be saved and what guarantees the supplier provides for unrestricted access to the project data at all times. Check the compliance rules of your client – and whether your company rules even permit the use of external storage media e.g. a cloud storage solution. In view of the current discussion about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the EU, suppliers in Europe must be able to provide reliable statements on these issues. The system should already have been adapted to comply with the changed legal situation. Alternatively, the supplier should be able to guarantee through the set-up of the tool that the type and scope of the data prevents any possible difficulties and attack points from the very beginning. These arguments will be essential for you in making the decision as a client to place an order. Also ask your IT department whether any changes to the system are already being planned. Then ask your future tool supplier about how you will still be able to access your project data in this scenario. In general, it is advisable to steer clear of cloud-based solutions. If you nevertheless wish to use a supplier offering a cloud solution, make sure that you receive approval from your IT department, your client or your management. Also enquire about any emergency plans and communication standards should there be any misuse of data.

FeuerTrutz International 1-2019: Digital Documentation
Fig. 2: The installation of fire protection products should be documented. (Photograph: FeuerTrutz)

Legal certainty of the documentation

The legal certainty of a system stands and falls with traceability: How were the data created? The system must plausibly document when the data was collected and by whom. Pay particular attention as to whether any subsequent changes and additions to the data can always be recognised in full.

Ask to be shown what measures are built into the system to ensure that any attempts at manipulation will be prevented as far as possible.

Using the system

Critically analyse what access and functions are really required. Numerous “useful” functions are often advertised and promoted that nobody in your company will need. Also consider how many licences you actually require. Appropriate organisational measures within the company can often ensure that the same processes can be carried out with fewer licences. Another important decision-making criterion is also whether external third parties such as authorities, insurance companies, planning offices, auditors, experts, etc. need to receive your data or whether they should or must work with it. The supplier should be able to provide you with corresponding solutions for these workflows and enable access to the data on an individual basis. Furthermore, the supplier should provide you with other optional forms of visualising the documented information.

Technical requirements during ongoing operation

The following questions relating to the usability of the system during everyday work should be clarified: Does the proposed system require a permanent connection to the Internet? In particular, this needs to be guaranteed when handling documentation in existing buildings. Interfaces can also pose challenges. However, they are essential to avoid e.g. duplicate records or to stop different versions of current documents being circulated. In addition, it is necessary to scrutinise the interface landscape: What interfaces (e.g. to SAP, cost accounting, FM tools, databases, etc.) must handle your documentation? Ask to be shown how much work is involved in transferring data from the application. The hardware is also a crucial criterion: Newly purchased hardware means additional costs and could be avoided if existing equipment can be integrated with the system.

Service and support – even after the purchase

Following the purchase and implementation of the system, there are other challenges that need to be taken into account. What support services are important to you and how much will they cost? It is vital to clarify in advance whether service provision is included with the licence and what it covers.

Furthermore, it is essential to clarify with the supplier what level of training is required (time and costs) so that users are able to efficiently and effectively work with the tool.

Practical tests

You already know that every new program, every app and every tool always requires a certain amount of effort to set up. Therefore, ensure that the supplier provides you with satisfactory answers to the following questions free of charge before making any decision:

  • Can you test the full features of the application in your existing IT environment?
  • Do you find the program and menu navigation easy, logical and intuitive to handle?
  • In particular, is the menu navigation similar to already existing applications and thus easy to understand and use?

Value for money

When reviewing prices, ensure that all the functions and modules that you require are also included in the quote. Pay particular attention here to support services, training courses and individual services. Good software is not free and a fair price should be paid for a service provided – this price should, however, also be transparent and easy to understand. Prices that are based on the number of deficiencies are almost impossible to calculate. If you are required to pay for additional functions, ask for the price for the maximum number of features. The services that you will technically purchase in cooperation with the supplier should be transparent and understandable.

FeuerTrutz International 1-2019: Digital Documentation
Fig. 3: Mobile solutions enable fire protection measures to be documented in full directly in the building. (Photograph: Themis)

Reliable references

There is nothing more valuable than talking to users who already have practical experience of using the system. Always ensure that the supplier provides you with contacts who can give you independent and objective answers to at least the following questions:

  • For what purposes do they use the system?
  • What tools and form of licence did they choose?
  • Are they satisfied with their decision?
  • What additional services have they purchased?
  • Do these additional services provide any actual support?

Summary

In this day and age, there is no way to avoid making the switch to digital documentation. It is an absolute necessity for all of us. There is no real alternative especially when considering factors such as time, cost and above all the reliable and legally conform storage of the data.

It is important to never lose sight of the following during the decision-making process:

  • Select an application that meets your requirements. Do not allow anyone to force a system on you.
  • Critically assess whether the system offers value for money and avoid any hidden costs.
  • Always think about the people who have to work with the tool when making a decision (user friendliness).
  • Is the proposed system compatible with your existing IT environment and does it satisfy the compliance rules at your company?

Digital documentation hugely simplifies everyday work and makes things more efficient and secure – if the right application for your own organisation and structures has been carefully selected. The selection criteria described here are recommended by the author based on his own personal experi-ence to ensure you make good decisions.

Author

Michael Lehmann: Graduate in Public Management; L-Partner Risk Management, Düsseldorf; BSB-CFPA, guest lecturer at VdS Cologne, specialist planner for preventative fire protection at the TÜV-Süd Academy, CCM Covestro PCT-NRW

The article was published in FeuerTrutz International, issue 1.2019 (January 2019).
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