Document Workflow: Move Beyond Capture to Digital Transformation

Jeff Fried, CTO and VP Engineering, BA Insight
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Jeff Fried, CTO and VP Engineering, BA Insight

Every business has some sort of document workflow process in use. It may be order processing, invoicing, or a customer support escalation process. It can involve a single individual, or touch multiple people in disparate locations and even in different organizations. Digital information–ranging across all types of documents, emails, financial records, and social media entries- is essential to business. Workflow (which, simply stated, is the step-by-step procedure used to complete a job) is required, so the organization can be both efficient and effective in how they do their work.

“Awareness of the true potential for transforming document workflows across the business creates a top-down mandate”

There are huge benefits to be gained by automating document workflows. For example:

• Cost savings including decreased print-related expenses, and lower transaction times 

• Increased employee efficiency, since automation speeds the routine elements of each task 

• Fewer errors and less rework, as information can be validated as part of the process

• Improved security and compliance, better auditability, and reduced fees for non-compliance 

Document workflow management can result in true business transformation and competitive advantage, if done well. There are a few core strategies I recommend for implementing effective workflow across the organization. 

Start with paper, but look beyond it

Reducing paper is a great place to start. Paper remains an issue for businesses of all sizes: 

• Searching for and accessing paper documents is enormously time consuming 

• Integration of paper with digital back office systems requires manual data re-entry

• The content required to complete processes is archived in multiple silos, including dusty file cabinets

The challenge is only growing, as the volume of incoming and outgoing content expands, and the variety of that content (structure and unstructured, formal and informal) rises across a myriad of digital channels.

Where you’ve identified a place to eliminate paper, there’s probably an easy opportunity to go beyond this and improve the process itself. Organizations often have areas where one person’s initiative in one corner of the business resulted in a good solution for a particular process; you can leverage that success and spread it wider to grow bigger benefits. There are usually inefficient, outdated, highly manual document processes everywhere; it’s just a matter of picking the ones to focus on.

Grow awareness of document workflows

The most frequent reason people don’t do more with document workflow management is simply awareness. The expense related to inefficient document processes is easily overlooked because it’s spread out across many processes in the business. Outdated, inefficient processes may not be top of mind for decision makers, and the potential for transformational improvements in these processes may get less attention than flashier or sexier initiatives.  

You can get things moving simply by raising awareness, touting success stories, and identifying existing workflows. Some document workflows are readily identifiable as traditional workflow or ‘case management’; they are high-volume, repeatable processes that already have process controls in place. Others are “ad-hoc workflows”–an analyst, consultant, or researcher may not like to think that their work follows a standard process but there is still a huge benefit in providing automation and digital tools to help them.

You can treat each of these processes individually and get good benefits. I regularly see ‘grass roots’ improvements, as individuals push through improvements in their own everyday document processes. In other cases, awareness of the true potential for transforming document workflows across the business creates a top-down mandate. You can be the catalyst who turns lots of small problems into a single big problem, solves it, and creates a true business transformation.  

Track New Trends and Identify Opportunities to Innovate

This is a dynamic area, so I recommend staying aware of a few key trends and scanning for new opportunities within your organization.  

Here’s the top trends in the workplace climate I track:

• An increasingly mobile workforce, made possible by ubiquitous connectivity and the rise of digital workplaces. This includes independent subcontractors, who often come with their own electronic tools and devices.

Customer acceptance of online interactions (and increasingly, preference for them) and expectation of responsive, informed service.

• Continued shift from paper to electronic formats, including new cross-organization information interchange standards, e-signature acceptance, and records management sophistication.

Dynamic regulatory environment including increased auditing, discovery, and information privacy mandates around electronic information.

Social media and enterprise social networks becoming a standard element of the workplace and bringing with them a higher expectation of transparency as well as a new type of document.

The technology is changing, too. This is a healthy market (estimated by IDC to be a $12B industry, growing at 8 percent a year) with a lot of proven technology, and a lot of new innovation. Here’s a couple of areas to watch:

Intelligent Character Recognition has gotten steadily better year after year. There are new solutions on the market applying semantic technology to bring this to a new level. 

Workflow management is getting more accessible. It still takes a business analyst mindset to define a broadly used workflow, but power users are adopting new personal workflow tools.

SharePoint is enjoying a recent resurgence, and has a large number of add-on products available. These include several great workflow, content management, search, and document assembly tools. 

• Document Workflow has been getting more connected. If you have information stuck in silos (and who doesn’t?) it’s possible to leverage it and bridge across systems without a huge project.

There is a notable trend towards electronic and non-traditional document processes enabling innovation and new business models. Document workflows that are online, managed, and flexible fundamentally improve business innovation and business agility.

Take a Few Tips from Experience

1. Focus on making people’s work easier. That sounds obvious, but it’s the difference between pushing a compliance or standardization requirement that people go around versus providing something that takes hold because it helps them do their job. For example: capture auditing or control information as the side effect of a process, rather than as a specific task required of employees.

2. Tap into unstructured information. The easiest documents and information to include in a workflow are the structured records; they’re the right starting point but they’re ultimately not the most important. Make it easy to use the unstructured information–the commentary in insurance claim forms or the emails surrounding a customer inquiry–and you have your fingers on a very powerful asset.

3. Look for process and technology assists even when others don’t see it. What seems ad hoc at first often has more structure to it than meets the eye. Even if the pattern is something like using cut and paste for reports, there’s tools like content assembly that can save people time and simultaneously ensure better compliance.

Step to the Next Level

Whether you are just starting with Document Workflow Management or well down the road, a little effort in building awareness including showcase or pilot projects is a good investment in getting to the next level. Don’t let the mundane nature of improving processes take attention off of it. There are big benefits in terms of cost savings, efficiency, and compliance–and a real opportunity for transformation.

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