Workflow Automation Software

Active vs Final – Revisited

Via Flickr - Martin HostThe good thing about this blog is that I don’t really need to have answers.  That is especially good since I am re-visiting the discussion about working documents versus final documents.  It comes up in most every discussion about effective document management – how do I have one system that provides the functionality that I need for both working documents and final documents.

Recall from our earlier post about how creators of working documents tend to like fast and simple – a system where the user can create any collection of folders and subfolders to suit their needs and drag and drop files at will.  A user of final documents requires structure and certainty because having quick access to the right documents gets the job done.  However, at some point the documents in that web of active folders become the source of final documents.  So, is the method of transition from one status to the other the answer, are document police the answer or should there just be two systems?

If you have a system that permits unstructured data to be worked on in a folder hierarchy of your own creation and it provides for some type of batch tagging or indexing so that when finalized the files can be easily migrated over, you might have a winner.  But someone will still need to determine that the documents are final and which documents need to be retained.  The user will also then need to migrate the documents to a final status and at that time, make the proper associations so that other users can find the documents.  Work still needs to be done.

This could be where the document police come in.  they might be responsible for knowing when a deal or project is considered complete and then they spring to action.  The police make sure that the documents are tagged and indexed and migrated to the final status.  The problem with this is that not all situations are large batches of files like when there is a merger or acquisition or deal of some type.  In many cases it’s just a situation where the user is creating a new versions of a legal contract or PowerPoint presentation.  The document police are not going to be able to keep up on all of these daily users and their working files.

Two systems is the bane of the organization and the IT department.  Two systems means that there are two places to find information.  Two applications to manage security.  Two places to back up.  Two places that may actually have the same documents.  But, if the two systems can talk or share some information, even just a little information, maybe a transition method could exist.  Free and Open system just needs to pull one or two pieces of information from Final system at the beginning.  Then, when Free and Open system is finished, it passes those one or two bits of information to the Final system and it jump starts the identification process.

There is no right answer to this issue because every organization will function at its maximum efficiency in its own learned way.  You will know that you need to change the approach only when the efficiency level is deteriorating and users start to complain or make mistakes.  We are always looking at ways to help make our clients more efficient and this is one area that is constantly under discussion.  We will get there and when we do, we will let you all know.

Millennia Group is a document management and workflow solution provider.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577 x122

The Next Big Thing

Via Flickr - Christian SchnettelkerI participated in a webinar recently sponsored by Realcomm, an organization devoted to the advancement of technology for the commercial real estate industry.  It was about the future and hype verses reality.  My contribution was squarely on the reality side as I described how our real estate clients gain efficiency by using workflow to automate document oriented business processes. 

You might think, “do we still have documents?”  The answer in my world and the foreseeable world of our Fortune 5000 clients is, Yes.  Documents may not be in paper form any longer, but documents of some type (spreadsheet, PDF contract, etc.), are the support for data and todays decisions.  But to see the future, the next big thing, you need to believe in the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR).

There is no doubt that all of these big ideas are actually in use today and most likely touch our lives.  Buildings you work in might have elevators, chillers or pumps that are constantly communicating maintenance information that is reviewed and proactively managed.  Your phone can answer your questions via AI.  You may buy a house with only a virtual walk-through.  And doctors are receiving surgical training using VR.

What I found interesting about these big ideas was how they can and probably will transform our daily lives.  Artificial intelligence will lead us to roadways full of driverless cars.  Consequently, your local mall will have a spot for you to stop and exit your car, and then your car will drive itself to a parking lot a mile away until you are ready to have it come pick you up.  You will be able to virtually place a piece of furniture into your own virtual home to see how it fits before you purchase it. 

It is a benefit to all of us that there are people thinking far enough ahead on these issues.   Investment decisions, infrastructure projects and ideas that effect our daily lives need advanced planning and vetting.  Making todays reality more efficient also takes planning and vetting and the payoff period is probably long as big ideas always need big lead times.

Millennia Group, LLC provides workflow and document management solutions.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com or (630) 279-0577

Keeping it simple is not always the answer

via FlickrRecently we helped a client convert a small amount of paper documents related to a one time transaction into PDFs.  The PDFs would simply be in a folder and viewed or emailed as needed.  To keep it simple the files could be named in a structured format, ie. “ABCCo-Contract-060116-Brazil-Engine-D-JF.pdf”.  Most of that short hand is clear except the “D” is for diesel engines and that the Sales Rep was John Franklin?  Seemed simple enough and so we proceeded based on the clients requirements. 

In this case, the volume of documents was small, but the documents had a significant amount of descriptive information that could be captured. Each piece of information could be captured in a document management system database and ready for user searches. For example, find all contracts for Brazil or all diesel engine contracts.  So here is the issue – do you capture all of the rich information when converting the documents or do you keep it simple because sometimes simple is better?

In general, the answer probably has to do with the quantity of documents and the fact that this is a one time event.  If there are only 100 or 200 documents, the downside risk of using shortcuts is minimal.  A user could easily scroll the list of documents and with relatively good abbreviations, would find what they were looking for.  And if there ever was a need to pull these documents into a fully searchable document management system, it is not a gargantuan effort to go back and capture each piece of information. 

The decision would and should change if there were 10,000 or 100,000 documents involved.  First of all, there will generally be a need for automation to efficiently convert such a large quantity of documents to digital format.  That automation will include the use of a database and batch processing, which will make it easier to capture the full descriptive information.  Batch up all contracts for Brazil and scan them all at once and therefore, each document in the batch will automatically be associated with Brazil.

Secondly, it is also more reliable in a process involving that many documents and multiple data entry people to capture actual descriptions rather than rely on each person to always abbreviate in the exactly the same way.  The sales rep could be referred to as JF or JohnF or JFranklin.  Better yet, it should be a selection from the drop down list of known sales reps.

Besides quantity, the most important consideration though, concerns the next user that might need to find the document or documents.  We have all moved at least once in our lives and so we are all familiar with trying to find something that is still packed in a box.  A room with boxes is not so bad.  A garage and basement full of boxes with little to no description is not fun.  The more information written on the box the faster you will find that treasure you were looking for.  It’s just that simple.

Make my day – delete those records

via Jay Gorman from FlickrRecords retention and records management are very important principles in dealing with corporate information.  Records management being the overall guide book for employees on to how to store and classify information.  It is also about proper management of that information including legal holds (don’t destroy if litigation is in process), access to information and records retention.

Records retention is basically an information destruction plan based on business or legal requirements.  A business doesn’t necessarily want the burden of securing confidential, but outdated information for ever – ie. former patient records.  Creating a records management policy and records retention schedule requires a lot of effort and yet the actual deletion of records is a very difficult step to take. Here are some thoughts on how to feel better about pulling the trigger.

First, you need to get comfortable that you can properly identify and segregate information.  For instance, you need to have confidence that you can tell the difference between a current customer and a former customer.  Once you have the list of former customers, you need to understand how many years it has been since the last activity with that customer.  Now that you know and feel good about the subset of information that qualifies for destruction, the actual destruction is much easier.

Also, think through the reality of older information.  It is quite possible that 10 years ago you may not have been tracking as much information about the customer and their activities.  For instance, you may not have been tracking the country of origin of the source materials in their products that you purchase.  The older the information is, the less relevance it has to how you run your business today.  Provided the legal requirements to maintain those records has passed, fire up the shredder.

In regards to destroying paper documents that you have in digital form, the same prior comments apply, AND you have a digital copy.  We definitely have witnessed a growing willingness to destroy the paper copy after a review of the scanned version.  Some executed legal documents like contracts and certainly deeds and bank notes are retained in hard copy even-though the documents were scanned.  That makes sense.  But if you have a scanned version and you have taken steps to ensure that it is not tampered with, you really don’t need a paper copy of most documents.  It is called the Best Evidence Rule and it applies in most if not all states and at the Federal level.  Confirm your particular requirements.

So, make sure you have a retention policy that provides clear guidelines on when information types or classifications can be destroyed for business and legal purposes.  Make sure you can clearly identify and segregate the information on that basis and remember that old information is really not that useful anyway, then pull the trigger.

Millennia Group has been providing document management solutions since 1996. www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com

Clutter of a different kind

Via Sean MacEntee on FlickrThe existence of duplicate documents and files is commonplace in companies of all sizes.  There is the email with a document attachment that was sent to five people, each of whom downloaded the file.  There is a file on someone’s desktop that they copied from the network.  There is a copy in the cloud.  You get the picture and you probably live this picture daily.

What can prevent this from happening?  Does it really even matter?  Companies seem to be surviving just fine, so what would be the cost benefit for an actual solution?  Unless your company is a company of one, you will likely not find a perfect solution, but a combination of tactics will lower the frustration.  And yes, it does matter and it will be worth it.

Companies can use de-duplication tools, send out corporate dictums, use team sites and many other potential options to decrease the level of file duplication and user frustration.  The issue is an actual drain on company resources as users try to determine which file is the final file – opening two, three or more copies just to make sure.  A big, time waster.

De-duplication is a software process that can help determine if two or more files are the same.  At a basic level, these tools will use the windows file data to make a determination; file name, file size, time stamp, file type.  More sophisticated tools will actually look at the content within files to make that determination, but that is usually limited to Word, Excel and email files and not scanned documents.  No matter where the files are found on the network, this process can eliminate duplicates.

Having a document management system in place and management that encourages its use, will help keep duplicates to a minimum since file additions can be intelligently controlled and versions effectively managed.  One possibility is to show a list of similar or related documents to a user when the user is trying to upload a new file.  For instance, uploading a file for a client and job number will highlight all of the other files already loaded with that same information.

Team sites in your document management environment will encourage users to share documents with the others via that site and not via email.  That will definitely cut down on duplicates.  And team sites also have the version control functions built in, so creating duplicates should be less of a problem – at least for those that don’t love to use V1, V2, V3, etc.

Cutting down on file sharing via email, using team sites with version control, having management build a culture of organizational efficiency and the occasional de-duplication effort can really help create a clean file system.  Start with de-duplication and then adopt the other ideas and explore even more options and you and your users will be happy with the results.

Think Smaller, Deeper and Wider

Via Ed Uthman at Flickr.comThese words, Better, Faster, Cheaper, are heard often during many corporate sales efforts – “our product will help you do that Better, Faster and Cheaper.”  Everyone especially likes to purchase software that makes a process, Better, Faster and Cheaper.  The key to achieving that promised success is know what the process is – really know and understand it.

There are plenty of examples where very complex software solutions were created that replicated an existing paper or manual process.  The problem was that the process wasn’t fully understood and not very efficient in the first place so you have an application that may not be Faster, Better or Cheaper.  You need to change the way you think when designing a workflow.

Breaking down a process step by step and understanding the rationale for each step is important, but so is a high-level view.  Getting the true understanding of what the process is, and needs to be, will be much easier to design and build as a digital workflow.  Always ask the question “why is that task necessary?”.  If the answer is that it has always been done that way, take a deeper look.

It is very helpful to document or flowchart the existing process to make sure that all steps are known.  And it is critical to be very detailed about the descriptions of each step.  Users get so familiar with a process that when describing it for the first time they leave out the details that are ingrained.  What is it that always require special handling or takes you out of the normal process – identify those things. 

Once all of the details are known, that is when you can really look at the process and determine if all of those steps are necessary.  You will also be able to analyze each step to see what technology can do to improve a step.  For instance, if a step required that some other system or data needs to be reviewed, see if that data can be integrated and available to the user within the same interface.

Don’t just have the people that are involved in the actual process participate in the design.  Have others in the company who use or rely on the results also provide feedback on what they really need out of that process.  They may have been dealing with the data as is and not realizing that it could be much better data.

At the end of the day, it is not possible to get the best results with incomplete or inaccurate information.  To achieve Faster, Better, Cheaper you have to think Smaller, Deeper and Wider.

Collaboration – Group Chat vs Workflow

By Ron Mader via FlickrThe past five or so years have been filled with plenty of talk about and some success in the area of collaboration.  Collaboration being defined as multiple people fully engaged and involved in a single work effort.  The end goal of any collaboration is that the combined effort produces superior results, ie. a better decision, a better product, a better presentation.

Much of the success in the field of collaboration has come in the area of communication, such as messaging applications like Slack or AIM.  These applications improve the communication and are instant and flexible including group chats.  Other areas of collaboration, like co-creating documents, such as a live spreadsheet or text document, have not been adopted as quickly.  But this form of collaboration has historically been linear, passing from person to person.  So can the non-linear form of collaboration (live group editing) be a better approach for working with documents?

Here are two examples of situations that require collaboration on a document; creating a PowerPoint presentation and negotiating a contract.  In the case of the PowerPoint presentation, it is very conceivable that one or many users could benefit from having the slides up and each user making minor modifications in real time for all to see.  Communication would be verbal in this situation. As long as all participants felt like their voice was heard, it can be an effective method to generate a good end product.

For the negotiation of a legal contract, most likely including users outside of the company, it is much less likely and almost inconceivable that both lawyers would have the document up and making live changes towards a final document.  There may be live discussion, but not likely live edits.  Negotiating a contract seems to fit the linear workflow model.  The collaboration tool needs to accommodate the use of comments or notes and notifications and provide time for private contemplation and discussion. 

Assisting with all forms of collaboration is the concept of version control where the document management system ensures all versions are saved and only the most recent version of a document is visible.  Many users can make modifications provided the document is not “locked” by another user that is editing it.  This form of collaboration seems to benefit the linear model the most.

Workflow can also be a great collaboration tool and it is predominantly linear.  Linear workflow utilizes the concept of versions and also includes messaging.  The steps in the process are generally known so the process of collaborating is preconfigured or controlled.  User 1 creates the document and sends it to User 2 for review.  User 2 either approves that document or makes changes and sends it back for review.  Eventually the document goes to User 3 who takes action on it such as sends it to the customer or pays the bill. 

Which method is best is dependent on the need and circumstances.  A non-linear, group solution to the look and feel of a marketing piece may very well be accomplished best in a group session.  Whereas the drafting and negotiating of a legal document may require private consideration and consultation, so more of a linear approach.  There is also the need to understand the current and future staff and their willingness to change to either a workflow method of collaboration or the non-linear, real-time collaboration.  Either way, you should have a collaboration solution that can match the needs of your process and staff to get the best end result.

How to prevent that sinking feeling

via Flickr - Judith E BellIn an old paper based world, notification of new information meant extra copies of the document were placed on the desks of teammates.  Otherwise, it required a hunch and a trip to the file cabinet or the random perusing of co-worker’s desks.  In fact, it was probably not known that something new was available until it was a surprise – learned from a customer or worse yet, from the boss who somehow knew the facts.

Today, documents are digital and some might think that has solved all the problems.  Not exactly, not even close.  The only problem that has been solved is now there are less paper copies distributed.  Information, including documents, can still go undetected and unknown.  Surprises still happen and decisions based on incomplete information are still made, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some great places for information to hide include the email inbox, local computer drives and even shared network drives.  None of these typical information stores will alert other vested interests that a new document or new information is available.  The cloud based folder sharing applications will alert users that a new document has arrived.  But there is no meaningful information about the file or what to do with it.

In order to get information to the right users at the right time, a document management system or workflow is needed.  Taking it one step further, what is really needed is the “right” information to get to the Right users at the Right time.  There is a solution.  Document management systems can be configured to send out notifications based on user defined criteria, typically called Subscriptions or Notifications.

Notifications via email and a link on the application home page will help ensure that users are aware of critical new information, who it came from, when it was uploaded and what it pertains to.  Smart companies are using workflow to make sure that the information gets to the user with instructions on the next steps based on the information.  If it is an invoice, review the transaction.  If it is a contract, review the terms.  If it is a marketing piece, review the content.

Having all the information in electronic format is one thing and that does have some benefits over the old paper based methods.  But it just isn’t enough.  Take full advantage of the technology and use a document management system or workflow to manage the information.  Put the information in the hands of the right users and the right time and watch how much better the organization runs. Nobody wants that sinking feeling or its consequences.

Please, not another username and password!

Via Flickr by Jans CanonForm Follows Function.  This is a quote from famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.  Sullivan designed buildings to be functional first and then worked on building aesthetics.  For software implementation, you might say Function Follows Security. 

For any software, especially document management software, it is extremely important to understand the capabilities of the software’s security model before you begin to work out the configuration and hierarchy of your data.  That is unless you don’t mind having users who need multiple user names and passwords to create the access they need?

While going through the analysis phase of the implementation, list out the types of information that will be managed in the system.  Then list out all the different groups of users that will need access to the system and what parts of the information or levels of access these groups might need.  Also consider what type of access such as View, Contribute, Edit and even Delete rights.  This will help to create an access matrix that will be invaluable as you lay out the structure.

It would be relatively easy if each group of users each only accessed one set of information.  In that world, most any document management system would provide the security capabilities and it should be very functional.  For instance, only users in the accounting department will need to access or contribute documents to the Accounting folder.  Only users in the marketing department will need to access marketing information. 

However, no company that I am aware of is quite that simple.  Users in the legal department probably want access to review marketing information before it is released.  The finance department most surely wants to understand the recent accounting reports.  And as we have witnessed in our customers, some users should only see accounting information related to the subsidiary they work for – it gets granular.

Security is a very complex issue in document management and in most software applications.  Gone are the days where it was easy to prevent people in the Cleveland office from accessing file folders located in the Minneapolis office.  The physical separation was pretty secure.  The digital separation of information is controlled by security and requires due consideration and planning.

So before you choose a solution, get an understanding of what your security matrix looks like and then make sure you understand the solutions capability to meet the needs.  Also, remember that the advanced security setups that are available today should not be looked at solely as a pain to configure. Instead, look at this as an opportunity to share information in the most productive way possible – ie. Not via unsecure email.

Millennia Group provides cloud based workflow, imaging and document management solutions that help companies take advantage of technology. www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, 630-279-0577.

Vision Influences the Purchase Decision

Speaking strictly from the standpoint of workflow and document management, there are factors that support a purchase and issues that can lead to a “Don’t Need it” response. via Flickr, Jase Lam Ifyou can’t determine need, then cost, as a factor, is irrelevant.  If there is need, it is clear that cost impacts the decision and the expected return must outweigh the cost.  It is a fairly simple concept but establishing need is not so simple.

How can you uncover the factors that determine need and create opportunities in the buyer’s mind?  This is where the technology really must shine.  There has to be enough Wow factor to override the fear of change, the expected implementation effort or simple doubt.  But is it really Wow that makes someone think they need a solution or is it something subtle that sparks a vision of need?

The factors that might spark the vision could be minor features like auto alerts so that a sales order doesn’t fall through the cracks.  Maybe there was a situation like that recently so it resonates.  Workflow reports that show process times and identify bottlenecks could be important to someone who is struggling with managing a changing workforce. 

There are document management features that can demonstrate how quickly a customer service rep can respond with good information and solutions.  Happy customers are always a good thing.  Maybe it is as simple as having all of the relevant documents in one central repository.  Not having to hunt down information can relieve a lot of aggravation for employees.

No business runs all processes perfectly.  All businesses have a process that can use some improvement and most employees know exactly which process it is.  Seeing some examples of workflow and document management solutions can help someone envision the solution to their own problems. 

Solutions that you didn’t think were possible or affordable might be out there.  Take a look.  Envision a different way.  You may find some very good solutions that will make your day run a lot smoother and the company a lot more money.  And these solutions might take some effort to get off the ground, but the effort will be short lived and the benefits will last a long time.

Millennia Group provides imaging, workflow and document management solutions.  www.mgdocs.com, info@mgdocs.com, (630) 279-0577