Documentation Workflow Automation Basics

Documentation Workflow Automation Basics

Arguably the most common of all digital workflows available to businesses today is documentation scanning. Every business receives paper documents of all kinds from external sources. Note that for this commentary, content created internally in digital format is not specifically addressed, though the document management and workflow concepts discussed are applicable. It’s the paper invoices, presentations, sales collateral, customer letters, resumes, contracts, faxes and more that are received in the 100s or 1000s daily or weekly by firms that still is a challenge to manage. The challenge can also include historical corporate documentation, hand written notes, and other paper-based documentation created internally that needs to be organized and made accessible.

The proliferation of computers across all segments of business unfortunately did not eliminate paper. Computers have only made it easier for employees across the organization to create paper. Capturing, indexing, and sharing all the paper received by organizations would seem like a basic digital process that would be standardized and available everywhere. It is not. There is a Digital Transformation underway across all industries related to documentation workflow management, and it’s not a simple problem to solve.

I’m sure you, your peers, or your staff have stood in front of the departmental printer / scanner feeding in all sorts of documents to generate a digital copy. How sophisticated is your organization when it comes to ingesting paper documentation? Do you have a centralized repository of information that aggregates scanned documents into a predefined logical structure (i.e. a company documentation database)? Is there a standard set of keywords used to tag information received so documents can be easily identified? Do your documents scan with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) recognizing the document type and initiating software analysis for identification of the document type to then drive an automated internal workflow process for distribution, processing, or approval? Or do you scan files individually, loading them onto your work computer, and filing them into a folder called “Scanned-Documents”, with 100s of previously scanned documents of all sorts? Companies with standardized document management workflows benefit from shared access and company wide availability of critical business information. Those that don’t waste time of each employee with ad hoc document filing and retrieval workflows.

In the paper published in the September 2018 issue of Workflow (WorkflowOTC.com), Tom O’Neill’s article titled Processes, Innovation, Automation, Transformation provides a succinct overview of the basics of document workflow automation. The process O’Neill details for workflow automation innovation includes: Capture, Extract, Validate, and Act. This is a simple and easy to understand approach. Capture data digitally using a scanner, extract information from the scanned document, make sure it’s correct, then do something with the information. O’Neill covers the gamut of hardware and software capabilities needed to automate documentation workflows. While the author discusses the possible application of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, interaction robots, and cognitive intelligence, these are broader development concepts and not specific solutions to documentation workflow automation.

While this is a great summary of the individual elements of an enterprise document management system, you may ask yourself where to begin building out the end-to-end system. If you are interested in gaining control over the paper-based workflows that still predominate business today, I would recommend the following.

Pile Of Documents On Desk

First, do not treat the business process documentation automation project as an IT Department Project. Automating any business workflow requires cross cutting corporate visibility and governance. The IT Department can help select devices and help analyze and compare features of document management and workflow automation software, but the requirements need to be captured and driven from the business domain specific users (e.g. Accounting, HR, Legal, Customer Service, etc.). I would recommend choosing a first key business process and developing the implementation based on that process. For example, if your firm receives 100s or 1000s of vendor invoices each month, automate that process first. Or perhaps you firm is constantly hiring new employees and receives dozens of resumes a week. Automate your hiring workflow.

Second, carefully select your documentation automation enterprise vendor. Almost every enterprise printer, scanner, or Multi-Function Printer vendor offers enterprise documentation automation software that works closely with their devices. If you have a master contract with one of these vendors for all your firm’s printing and scanning devices, this may be a good choice as you will be able to leverage contract renewals / extensions to obtain better pricing on the documentation automation enterprise solution. You should also examine software vendors that are focused on offering documentation automation enterprise solutions. The larger vendors, including M-Files, Dell EMC Documentum, DocStar and many more that offer sophisticated features, including documents type learning which can learn over time to recognize standard documentation type templates. For example, systems can identify specific data and fields in an invoice from Vendor A vs. one from Vendor B, and file and route the documents for approvals, or whatever process you’d like to implement. Note that companies like Box offer secure cloud hosted documentation and file storage. This may be appealing since none of the hardware costs associated with storage need to be budgeted.

I suggest taking a careful look at all three categories of vendors. Many already offer a cloud hosted, monthly priced full service offering. What will be most important is the ease and flexibility of setting up workflows, and whether new workflows can be created by internal staff or if the vendor requires additional implementation fees, and cost. A lower cost system may seem attractive but may not have the range of features and functionality needed to scale your enterprise documentation automation workflows across the organization. You will need to examine what interoperability options are available so data extracted, for example from an invoice, can be automatically routed with discrete digital data to your accounting or general ledger system. You should also carefully evaluate the quality of the vendors technical implementation team. No matter which vendor you select, you will need help and support with the initial system setup and implementation. Make sure you have a clear view of the technical skills, the implementation project timeline and activities, and make sure your initial project requirements are fully scoped for implementation and delivery.

Digital transformation is taking place all around us, but even with a fundamental basic process of documentation organization and management, much work needs to be completed in most organizations. Be smart about the process, and don’t automate a broken workflow. Creating a corporate solution for managing your corporate documentation workflow will take a coordinated, strategically managed approach to insure success.

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