Information Through The Ages: Document vs. Data

Business information challenges tend to break down into two main structures, data-driven and document-driven. These are not discrete concepts, but rather represent two ends of a spectrum of managing the creation, movement and retention of information in an organization. Modern business information systems are automating and systematizing work but haven’t fundamentally changed the nature of how we relate to content.

Data vs Document

Not a New Concept

Long before the invention of the PC, Internet and Cloud, organizations had to manage information. Abstracting information management concepts from the modern technology focused environment we can better understand core principles. Content exists in a continuum from loosely organized documents to highly structured records. Consider an ancient example of capturing information on Papyrus. A scribe might document visitors to the Temple by filling in a record of their visit either as an individual sheet of Papyrus for each visitor (form) or as entries on a list of visitors (table). Simultaneously, a scholar may be hunched over a desk writing a history of the day (document).

Times Have Changed … Or Have They?

Technology has fundamentally altered the mechanism by which we create, share, find and store information. Technology has not changed the shape of content. Modern workers continue to enter data on forms or lists and create documents. The vast majority of activity performed by knowledge workers involves working with documents, forms and lists of one type or another.

Different Technical Approaches

As a result of basic differences in how users interact with documents as opposed to forms and lists, most information systems approach user interaction from either a document-centric approach or data-centric approach. The assumptions that make each type of system work well create challenges when those systems attempt to address different types of content. For example, SharePoint was designed as a document focused system and has attempted to evolve into stronger data focused support through the addition of Lists and InfoPath Forms. While these expansions add substantial value, they can’t be seen as an ideal candidate for solving data-driven application needs.

On the flipside, data-driven applications such as Intalio|Create have addressed the need to add elements of document-based interaction through database document records, blob storage and threaded commenting. While this provides for a baseline of critical functions, document management in a database environment will remain a challenge due to the unstructured and highly iterative nature of most documents.


It’s important when making technology systems decisions to understand how different tools support either a document or data-centric approach. A decision for a document-centric approach will reduce the data-centric capability and vice-versa unless an integrated multi-system approach is used or until a technology emerges that elegantly addresses the full spectrum from unstructured document management to highly structured data-driven requirements.

MCFTech can help you determine the best approach according to YOUR business needs! Contact us today!