Workflow Automation Software

Folders and paperclips, the original workflow tools

via Flickr by Michael CoryI don’t think I would like to be in the folder, inter-office envelope, paper clip or staple businesses.  They had a great run.  They served a very good purpose.  But it’s time to move on to new forms of workflow.  Yes, that’s right, paper clips, folders and envelopes were the first workflow tools.

Paper clips and staples separated documents into relevant parts.  Folders and envelopes kept the collection of information together as it moved through the company for decision making purposes.  Plenty of business decisions still rely on a collection of data and documents.  So where have all the folders and paper clips gone? To digital workflow packages, which are the new tools for business process.

Some business processes can be very simple and decisions can easily be made with limited information.  For instance, maybe it’s a help desk situation and a user entered information into a form that indicated they needed help re-setting their password.  The help desk worker (workflow participant) receives that notice, reads the information on the form and sends a response.  Decision made, workflow complete.

There are many business processes that require far more information to permit a participant to make a decision.  Calculations might be necessary and result in the creation of a spreadsheet.  Historical documents may need to be reviewed.  Other live data may need to be considered.  This is not so simple. The good news is that current tools can accomplish all that the folders and paper clips did, and much more to ensure better AND faster decisions. 

Document management based workflow systems can create or assemble collections of documents, both new and historical and also display data, all in one decision making package.  This lowers the friction for a user to access the necessary information to make the most informed decision possible.  And with the benefit of database logic that can be included, the right information gets to the right people at the right time.  For instance, the package doesn’t hit the VP’s desk unless the project exceeds $500,000.

It’s not to say that the inter-office envelope didn’t contain good information.  But let’s face it, it wasn’t always sufficient to hold everything so maybe a few pages or documents were left out.  The envelope couldn’t carry real time information or electronic data.  And only one person ever knew where that envelope was.  If there are complex processes in your company that are reliant on a folder or envelope of information, look into a document management centric workflow tool.  You won’t miss the office supplies and you will really appreciate better, more timely decisions.

Millennia Group has been providing workflow and document management solutions since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577, info@mgdocs.com

Why is the mustard in the fruit drawer?

Via Celeste Lindell at FlickrHave you ever found a jar of mustard in the fruit drawer of your refrigerator?  How about the Penske file in the folder labeled Clients D-E?  Let’s face it, there are those of us that are very organized and there are others that aren’t.  This could be at home or at the office and it can be both frustrating and in the case of the office, costly. 

We were recently asked if there is an optimal company size that dictates when it’s time to use an electronic document management system (EDMS) rather than a file storage solution like a network drive?  I would say as soon as you find the mustard in the fruit drawer, it’s time.  However, there are several factors that should be taken into consideration when considering the need for an EDMS and two stand out, number of employees and industry the business operates in. 

The number of employees or users is certainly a very important factor.  With a large number of employees, the quantity of files can grow so large that it becomes impossible to find documents.  All or most of the employees may be well intentioned, but there are going to be some that just don’t have the organization gene.  Every company has experienced the all-hands-on-deck search for a file and every company knows that is costly.  But it’s also costly when every document search takes even 30 seconds longer than it should and you multiply that by 500 or 1,000 employees searching every day.

When you have a small company, it’s much easier to overcome a lost file.  Everyone knows that Jake is prone to put things in the fruit drawer so look there first.  But when employees are spread out over multiple office locations or there are thousands, it‘s not practical to function based on guidelines or tendencies alone.  An EDMS with automated rules that force users to provide some basic information for new files will significantly reduce the instances of lost files and speed up the every-day search as well.

The other factor that can drive the need for an EDMS is the industry that the business operates in.  Even a small company with only 50 or 100 employees may find that they need to have detailed file access logs and strict file sharing permissions enforced to meet industry standards.  It’s even possible that the industry has specific solutions that are standard or solutions that must meet certifications like department of defense (DOD) or Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS).  Windows explorer does not meet either.

There are other reasons that companies want to use and should use an EDMS.  Just the fact that an EDMS makes finding, sharing and collaborating on documents easier is a good reason as those things lead to a more efficient company.  Smaller companies can use that solid, EDMS enabled foundation to become larger companies.  There is no doubt that large companies with hundreds of employees need EDMS.  Do some math on time saved and lost document costs.  Then throw in other efficiency gains from available workflow and collaboration.  You might find that the optimal size company is much smaller than you thought.

Search for the needle OR the haystack

via Peter Pearson, FlickrThere are many benefits to using electronic documents versus paper.  One of those benefits is being able to do a search to quickly locate the one document that you are looking for.  This takes only a matter of a few seconds in most any document management system.

But what if you are looking for more than one document?  What if you need a collection of documents, like all of the contracts for customers with model number 123abc?  What if you aren’t exactly sure what documents you need and only have a few pieces of information to go on?  This is where you will get your money’s worth when properly configuring your document management solution.

The main approach to good document management is having good meta data or good descriptions of the documents.  For instance, when you create a new contract for a customer, you want to be sure to include the customer name, that the document is “a contract” and you might want to include the model number.  This is all meta data that relates to that document and this will help other users find that document.

You can get a sense of how powerful this meta data concept is by looking at the car shopping experience.  Go to any online car buying site and you can specify that you want a 2017, Mustang, red, six cylinders, with leather seats.  Bam! – all the cars within 50 miles that match that “meta data” will show up in the results.  Best of all, you can quickly change the parameters (meta data) to look for blue or V8.

As a car shopper, you want more than just the one result.  You want sufficient results so that you can research what might be best.  This is also true of your documents.  You want to be able to see results that include more than just documents that have the word “contract” in the title.  You want to have other meta data to help filter the results and help you gather or collect the information that is most useful to you. You want meta data.

To get there with your document management system you need to follow a few simple steps.  First, make sure that users are required to enter in a basic set of meta data for each document.  Second, specify the type of meta data that is required by document type.  For instance, invoices require vendor name, dollar amount and invoice number, while contracts require customer name, date and model number.  Third, configure the search results to include all of the meta data in filterable fields so that users can find exactly the information they are looking for, whether it’s a needle or a haystack.

Millennia Group has been providing document management and workflow solutions since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577

Looking well beyond the next quarter

Millennia Group just wrapped up being a sponsor and participant in the 19th annual Realcomm IBCON tradeshow in San Diego.  This is a show dedicated to the understanding and use of technology in the commercial real estate industry.  As one might expect for a technology show, there were some familiar topics including robotics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality and renewable energy.

The current news touches on these topics, but from a different angle; the death of the retail industry, the reshaping of office workers and their environments and Amazon warehouses – they’re popping up everywhere.  After 19 years of participating in this industry trade show, it is still very clear, there is a long term focus in this industry, well beyond how these external forces will impact the next quarter.

Based on the content of the breakout sessions at the show, it appears that approximately half was dedicated to how technology could make the use or management of real estate more efficient.  The other half was dedicated to how technology could impact the business today and in the future. 

Vendors are promoting and owners/occupants are evaluating options for reducing energy consumption, improving customer engagement, eliminating friction to onboard new tenants and streamlining the valuation of properties and getting those things done now.  Both vendors and owners/occupants are simultaneously factoring in the potential impact from disruptive technologies and how to deal with that for tomorrow. 

There were robots wondering the show floor – will that mean office or industrial jobs will be eliminated and will that mean no more need for lunch rooms or restrooms?  People were testing virtual reality – will that mean no more trips to the store to touch and feel a product?  There were sessions on how blockchain will impact transactions and discussions of Teslas dropping off people and product – where will that lead?

Every industry is dealing with the impact of these issues.  It is good to see that the commercial real estate industry is looking technology in the eye to see how it can benefit.  How can cloud based workflow make my operation more efficient?  How can technology help me track and lower energy consumption?  How will people and businesses need and use real estate in the future?  That is not an evaluation for the next quarter, that’s a long term, full time effort and that is a professional approach.

Technology goggles make work flow

via Flickr - Chief RangerThe first thing that comes to mind when you hear about workflow is most likely order and process.  There is validity in that thought.  Workflow is intended to deliver efficiency and cost saving by using defined order and automated process. 

Defining what the process should be is the tricky but necessary part and it’s the fun part.  Yes, fun.  When you dig in and people realize how many time wasting tasks can be eliminated, you can feel the joy.  So how do you re-connect the dots to create an effective digital workflow and really make work flow?  Put on your technology goggles and look at the process.

The first step is to have the people involved in the process document how the process works.  This will initially result in a small number of simple steps.  The process of writing down those simple steps will produce some ah ha moments and more steps will be added.  Then with a business analyst or consultant doing some question and answer sessions, the truth will come out and now the number of steps is doubled or tripled.

The next step involves analyzing the process to understand what the actual goal of the process is and how it impacts the business and possibly other processes.  With all of this information gathered, it’s time to engage the software partner or your technology team to match the goals and process with the digital solution.  They are the ones best equipped to connect what needs to get done with how technology can get it done.

Technology will allow you to eliminate steps or enhance a process.  For instance, you might be able to eliminate a verification step by using technology to do a comparison – ensure the required documents are attached before approval can be given.  Let technology automatically create a new workflow based on conditions in another workflow – like when one new capital improvement project results in three new vendors.  That’s four workflows.

Workflows can be all data inputs or a package of documents and data.  Workflows can be sequential where a process is one step at a time or parallel so you can do multiple steps simultaneously.  To make work flow, accurately define the process and have someone look at the process through a technology googles.  The end result will be a vastly better process that will have you looking for other areas where you can have some fun.

Millennia Group has been providing workflow and document management solutions since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577.

Blockchain vs Digital Signatures

via Flickr, Jon PhillipsBitcoin continues to make news and inroads into the world of finance.  Two of the basic technologies that drive Bitcoin include blockchain and peer to peer computing.  These two concepts are relatively understandable.  Blockchain uses a distributed ledger, which is essentially a list that is shared across many computers (peer to peer).  Because many computers contain a time-stamped replica of the data, it is very difficult, and expensive to hack or change the data in a fraudulent way – and its encrypted.

These concepts are moving into other areas such as smart contracts.  However, these contracts are not documents as that term is generally understood.  The smart contract is essentially a perfectly known set of conditions and data, that when met, results in a payment or action.  The contract is essentially data points; house address, meter number and usage, bank account or Bitcoin account, electricity rate, dates.  All immutable data that can be kept in a ledger. 

As an example of a smart contract, the distributed ledger could record exactly how much electricity your house is using and it can be scripted to automatically send the electric utility money based on the set rates and dates.  However, this is not much different than the current situation of a smart electric meter and autopay.  The smart contract method may never involve a bank or fiat currency as we know it.  It involves bitcoin or “ether”, the digital currency of Ethereum, a smart contract platform.

The concept of smart contracts can strike fear into lawyers and document management specialists because on the surface it sounds like an end to documents, digital or paper.  But the reality is that the world is not comprised of a perfect set of conditions that can be scripted and that is why contracts and lawyers exist now and will for a long time.  Maybe smart transaction is a better description and digital signatures should be associated with smart contracts.

A clue to the potential adoption time frame of smart contracts would be digital signatures.  Digital signatures have been around since approximately 2003 and are still used predominantly in applications such as vendor contracts, apartment and car rentals because the contracts are standardized.  Digital signatures still affix to a digital document and have a secure private ledger to ensure authenticity.  More efficient than paper and easy to do.

These new technologies that are based on blockchain and peer to peer have the potential to radically change some back office parts of the current financial infrastructure, but not necessarily the way business gets done.  So for the time being, we need to focus on how to efficiently create, store, protect and share our documents, with digital signatures or not, to keep business running smoothly.

Since 1996 Millennia Group, LLC has been providing workflow and document management solutions.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577

Digital War Rooms – Avoid Casualties

Via Flickr - Gustav von RosenhelmFor the past 15 years or so the standard process for transaction due diligence is to upload information and documentation into cloud based digital war rooms.  These secure, online document management systems have been beneficial to buyers and sellers and especially lawyers and financial analysts.  Reduced travel and less time spent in windowless rooms reviewing and copying documents by the thousands are just two of the many benefits.

The information that is uploaded is driven to satisfy the seller’s requirement of disclosure but not optimized for the buyers post deal operations.  If the buyer leaves the information in the native structure, there will always be user frustration when searching.  Multiply one dis-organized silo by many transactions and now you have a whole lot of user frustration.  Here are some suggestions for tackling the transition so that operations is able to perform at peak levels.

First, if at all possible get an inventory of the war room contents, preferably in a spreadsheet format.  Built in Excel functionality will let you separate the data into columns by folder level.  This will usually provide a good method of sorting and analyzing the information to see how it can be incorporated into the acquiring company’s hierarchy or filing structure.  Focus on folder naming and how to match folder names to a source list like department, customers, vendors or contracts. 

Second, look at the files themselves, especially PDFs or scanned documents.  Very frequently for purposes of populating the war room, documents are scanned by folder or binder.  That is the easiest and lowest cost way to do it, but the least friendly when trying to locate a specific document later.  Will these “compound PDFs” need to be split up to make them user friendly? 

Lastly, consider whether there will be a need for de-duplication or any other type of file clean up before uploading to your system.  You may want to immediately archive some information as it may only have been useful for transaction purposes.  Are the file names cryptic and will they suffice as a document title in your system or does each file need to be renamed?

Once this analysis is completed, then you can work with your IT team to assist with the download, mapping to the desired structure, clean up and the holy grail – a batch upload into your system.  A batch upload is far and away more efficient than trying to upload one document at a time.  Don’t let your users be the casualties of a digital war room, transition the information into your organized and efficient structure.

Millennia Group has been providing document management and workflow solutions since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577

To Purge or Not to Purge

via Flickr, Liz WestBased on my observation the world consists of two types of people, purge people and non-purge people.  We all know which category we fall into, but as a reminder:  Purge people frequently empty out desk drawers, closets and the garage of useless documents, old clothes and stuff. Non-Purge people don’t.  And yet, we all co-exist.

There is a business practice that you may be familiar with called Legal Hold.  If a company is aware of or suspects litigation, that company should place all records and information related to the litigation on legal hold – don’t let the purge people get to it.  Of course, nobody is happy when there is litigation, but how is it possible to lock down (or not over accumulate [non-purge people]) information in this day and age?

This is the balancing act that all companies have to deal with.  Digital information is duplicated and stored in many places; email, the cloud, local computer drives, network drives and the company document management system.  Paper documents, yes they still exist, are in off-site storage, desk drawers, filing cabinets and boxes in the basement. 

A non-purge person puts the company at risk because nothing is ever destroyed, even if the information is past its legal requirement for retention.  The purge person puts the company at risk because something may have been destroyed when it was on hold or before its legal retention requirement expired. Document management systems and records management systems to the rescue.

Records management systems are primarily geared towards paper records and document management systems are for digital documents.  Both types of system can designate records as being on “Legal Hold”.  A search of the systems is conducted for information related to the litigation, for instance a product or customer name, and then all of those records are flagged.  A notice is also sent to all employees with the same information.

Because paper records are separate from the records management database, accidental destruction can more easily occur – keep a close eye on the purge people.  Digital records are easier to lock down because a document management system can dis-able the “Delete” function for users for some or all records.  This still doesn’t solve the issue of duplicate records that are outside the company system – keep a close eye on the non-purge people to make sure they aren’t saving files all over the cloud as a safety net.

It’s a complicated task to deal with a legal hold.  Having a records management system and a document management system will help control the process but make sure you know your purge and non-purge people and keep an eye on them.

Millennia Group is a document management solution provider serving a national client base since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577

I need a little wiggle room to be productive

via FlickrThe security of the information that our clients have entrusted us to host in our document management system is paramount.  Clients demand that their information remain private and confidential and we absolutely understand and abide by that.  The SEC, auditors and sound business practices demand it too.

Our clients concern certainly includes stopping bad actors, but it also includes the people that they set up as valid users – they should only see and share what they are allowed to see and share.  However, as far as sharing goes, some flexibility is needed so that users can be productive.  Here are some thoughts on why wiggle room is needed and how sharing information can be protected.

Generally, people don’t work in a vacuum, they need to communicate and work with others, both inside and outside the organization.  The two most popular ways that people communicate and share information remain email and cloud based file sharing sites.  We use email when the quantity of documents is few or we upload to the cloud if there are many.

The easiest way to share information is via email, just attach and send.  That makes email so efficient.  However, a user that is emailing a few documents outside the company doesn’t know how many times that email was forwarded on nor who the potential recipients were.  You want the users to have the flexibility that email provides, but you want some controls in place. 

For instance, if the files being emailed are PDF’s, you could watermark them as “Confidential”.  You could limit the number of files that can be emailed at one time or per day.  Your system might email links to the files and the links expire after a set number of days.  If your company doesn’t have a document management system, these suggestions may not be feasible.

Bulk file transfers are a different story.  More files potentially means more trouble and therefore more caution is needed.  Users frequently need to provide large collections of files to outside parties for audits, transactions or other special projects.  Typically, much more control is required for these purposes.

You could have a requirement that bulk downloads and sharing of files must be requested through the IT department.  You should restrict which users have the right to download in bulk.  You should also track all bulk downloads and ideally, if the system is capable of cloud or war room type sharing, the system should track all activity in the shared files.  Restrictions on the guest list is also recommended.

There are more extreme methods for locking down files from inappropriate sharing.  There are also plenty of systems and companies that have very limited protections and instead rely on the integrity of the users to maintain control.  Look to find solutions that provide the right amount of protection but still allow the flexibility to keep your users efficient and productive. 

Millennia Group has been providing workflow and document management solutions since 1996.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577

My PDFs are Dazed and Confused

One of the core principles that Millennia Group advocates and adheres to is that the official copy of a digital document should be a singular unit.  What this means is that the digital version, a PDF in most cases, should contain only one document.  What our users encounter, and sometimes want, is a different story.

A user may receive a single PDF from an external party that contains many documents.  The other situation is where the user receives multiple PDFs that together comprise a single document.  In one case the file needs to be split and in the other case, the files need to be merged.  Here are some examples of why this principle of a singular unit makes sense when your PDFs are dazed and confused.    

Many users will receive a single, giant PDF that contains upwards of 1,000 pages and 50 documents for a transaction closing.  Search is complicated because a user either needs to know the document exists in the PDF or they need to use the full text search capabilities to find it.  And then try sharing just one of those 50 documents with another user, it’s quite an effort to split the one document out of the whole PDF.

The other frequently encountered situation is that a document is so large that it could not all be scanned as one document.  We see that the document is then scanned as Part 1 and Part 2 or the main document as one PDF and each exhibit as PDFs.  It is not efficient to work with and have to open multiple documents to get the whole picture.  It is also imperative to keep all parts together so a user doesn’t mistakenly believe they have the whole story when they don’t.

On the flip side, we understand that the users of our document management system want to make it easy to send information to others.  Users want to gather up the documents they want and merge them into a single PDF that they can email out.  Or the users want to (gasp!) print out multiple documents all at once.

It’s all about making life easier for the users and giving them the flexibility that they want.  Of course, that means that your document management solution needs to have these split and merge functions.  Or the users need to be trained how to use the functionality in Adobe Acrobat so they can manage these tasks outside of the document management system.  Either way, the requirement is flexibility and the end result is optimal efficiency.

Millennia Group provides flexible workflow and document management solutions to optimize your users efficiency.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577