Boost Efficiency in the Real World with Electronic Forms and Documents

Document Management
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The key to efficient management is the coordinated capture, storage, use, distribution, and retention of documents.

 

What do a Las Vegas resort, an international consumer products manufacturer, a rust-belt industrial conglomerate, a public utility, and a distribution company have in common? Fundamentally, they share an abiding need for documents with which to do business and a system of records to keep track of them.

 

This article looks at how diverse business enterprises are employing electronic forms and documents to streamline and simplify processes unique to their missions as well as processes that are common to business-at-large.

 

•  Resort guest registration

•  Acceleration of procurement processing

•  Consolidation of financial/operating records

•  Integration of document output and management

•  Presentation of online utility bills

•  Distribution of discrete sales reports

•  And more

Electronic Forms: The Starting Point

The key to efficient management is the coordinated capture, storage, use, distribution, and retention of documents. Removal of paper from the equation both accelerates processes and reduces their cost. Data are the raw material of corporate information, but forms--standardized documents--are the media that companies use to do business.

 

While it may seem old hat to many companies, it is worth recalling that most business documents typically involve a business form. Paper forms involve design, printing, inventory, and discards, altogether an expensive, clumsy, and often wasteful process.

 

While companies continue to use paper forms to some degree, larger enterprises would prefer not to. Small companies, retailers, etc. are also moving away as they can. Technology-aware companies have the opportunity to create electronic forms, using form-design software systems that can reside either on their mainframe/midrange systems or on PCs.

 

Electronic forms confer a variety of benefits. Foremost among these is usually cost. Factors such as convenience, ease of use, and ease of distribution convey additional benefits beyond the obvious physical expense items: printing, storage, and waste. Moreover, by remaining in an electronic state, the formatted data that comprises a "document" becomes infinitely easier to store, manage, use, and distribute.

Streamlining Processes at a Vegas Resort

Behind the scenes at a leading Las Vegas resort, heavy usage in running a set of 20-odd business forms on a constant basis, along with more than 5,600 payroll and hundreds of accounts payable checks each week, had caused the resort to hit the technological wall. Laser printers were wearing out, and replacement was difficult because the software in use output only to specific printers.

 

Management opted for solutions that enabled the resort to replace preprinted check and document forms with stored electronic templates. When a document is needed, data is merged with its template and either spooled out to a laser printer for production of hard copy documents or to an electronic delivery option that bypasses the printing stage altogether. Payments are generated in a similar manner with check production on MICR laser printers or distribution of funds directly to recipient accounts via the banking industry's ACH network.

 

The resort's IT staff designed its documents with an interactive PC-resident design tool. First up was the front-desk registration form. From that beginning, the programming staff designed and put into service the "folio" form, the hotel industry term for the checkout statement. Next came the W2G form used to report jackpots to the IRS and the 1042S form used to report jackpot wins by foreigners to governments where treaty agreements regarding taxation are in place.

 

More followed, and the open-ended process continues, with bidirectional exchange between the PC and the midrange system making updates and modifications quick and easy. The new system is transparent to the users, who now perform their tasks more easily and quickly. And the company realizes the benefits of less expense and a stable electronic environment.

From Purchasing to Payment at a Midwestern Manufacturer

If you don't know where you're going, it's hard to get there, so one of the first orders of business in building efficiency in office processes is to define the destination. Despite that the ultimate objective may be a fully integrated back office, many companies prefer to focus on a single task, implement it and refine it, prove it, and expand out to other tasks incrementally.

 

Purchasing is one example. A Midwestern manufacturer realized that by exploiting the power of its electronic document archiving solution and the company intranet, it could speed and simplify the procurement process. The archive module stores completed documents in electronic format and makes them available for viewing and/or delivery on demand, either electronically or in print.

 

The IT director determined that instead of the conventional process, in which the computer generated purchase requisitions on a preprinted form that then had to be circulated in company mail, it could all be accomplished without ever leaving the electronic environment.

 

Now, the document is generated on the System i, archived and routed over the intranet, and routed through the review and approval cycle. Reviewers are automatically notified by email, and once the requisition has been approved, it is forwarded electronically to a buyer, who sends a purchase order on to the appropriate vendor--often via fax or email--right from the computer. Delays caused by approver availability became a thing of the past.

 

The requisitions and the ensuing documentation can all be indexed and associated within the automated document management solution. The incoming invoice referencing the purchase order is routed for approval electronically and placed in queue for payment by the electronic payment solution. Accounting department questions are easily resolved, since all of the relevant documents are electronically filed and/or cross-referenced. Electronic payments or checks are issued along with the vendors' choice of electronic or paper notification. Inventory can be monitored on the fly, updated as it is used, and then automatically flagged for reorder.

 

This example illustrates how automating a single task--in this case, archiving--can be extended creatively to facilitate functions beyond the original purpose.

Consolidating Corporate Information Assets

In corporate settings, the lion's share of documents that a company files or archives originates internally. These include, among others, sales documents, financial documents, invoices, purchase orders, engineering documents, and personnel documents. External documents derive from a host of sources and can be filed as paper documents or as electronic documents by using a scanner. Indexing is important to subsequent access, and without an automated indexing process, even electronic documents can be difficult to locate.

 

Some of these documents are extremely sensitive and might be retrieved only in unusual circumstances, such as litigation, but they must be accessible quickly if and when needed. Automating the end-to-end document cycle assures that content is safe and available without the time- and personnel-intensive, often error-prone tasks associated with conventional paper or electronic filing.

 

A major boost in efficiency was signaled a couple of decades ago with the introduction of content management solutions that offered the promise of centralizing corporate data, in effect establishing a hub around which other activities of the office could converge. The impact was perhaps less than expected. The systems were complex and costly, feasible only for enterprises that could afford million-dollar price tags and that could compete energetically for a limited reservoir of skilled talent.

 

Recently, however, many of the limits were lifted with the introduction of document management solutions built not on proprietary concepts, but on industry-standard technology that brought affordability, versatility, and ease of use into the mix. Familiar browser-based interfaces and low-cost relational databases made these systems feasible for the vast market of midsize enterprises, many of which are now enjoying the fruits of well-integrated office operations.

 

In these solutions, forms and documents can flow automatically or at least with minimal manual effort into a central repository, where they are indexed and associated, ready for access and use by any authorized person--from customer service or sales reps to design engineers, accountants, and lawyers. As electronic documents, they can be copied directly into the central repository as they are produced, with indexing attached automatically to facilitate access and use. Similarly, documents obtained from external sources can be input via scanners, again with their archival information attached in the scanning process.

 

Because the technology is standardized and readily available, costs are manageable. Technology-agnostic, browser-based operations are simple and familiar to most people today, minimizing the need for training and enabling easy bridging of incompatibilities between systems.

Corporate-wide Efficiency at a Southern California Utility Company

A Southern California utility company has parlayed three related solutions into a fully integrated document management solution that eliminates most of its paper-based forms and documents, expedites processes, and provides positive control over corporate, regulatory, and legal requirements for document retention.

 

The three solutions are an electronic document output system, including a drag-and-drop design tool; an e-payment management solution that accommodates both paper and electronic processes for disbursements and remittance advice distribution; and a browser-based electronic content/document management system that integrates directly with the productivity systems for automatic capture and storage of the documents (including payment records) that they generate. Improved document management alone is projected to save the utility more than $250,000 over five years. Stored in their native formats, documents are easy to locate and use and are protected by multilevel security down to the individual document level.

 

Together, the three solutions comprise an integrated document management solution that applies throughout the utility's four primary functional areas: finance, accounting, human resources, and engineering. While the productivity software resides on a System i platform, the document management system is on a Windows server running an SQL database.

 

Internally generated documents are captured as they are produced, automatically converted into PDF format, indexed with metadata, and dispatched to defined locations in the content management system, where they can be accessed either by their metadata or by full-text search.

Externally obtained documents are scanned into the system, with the scanning software automatically providing the search criteria. Related documents can be included in a single file, or they can be linked.

 

Documents are retrieved and viewed at the desktop via browser or directly through Windows Explorer using either metadata or full-text search. Distribution options include printed copies and the solution's integrated email and fax interfaces.

 

Security and reliability are primary document storage concerns at the district, and each of the four user departments has documents that are accessible by all employees as well as others that are held confidentially. The document management solution accommodates a variety of file types, including tiffs, PDFs, and Microsoft Office documents.

 

A finance department application has replaced its old method for creating and storing journals, which were typically prepared, printed, signature-approved, and filed in more than a dozen large binders. The journals were often checked out and subsequently misplaced or misfiled, leading to lost productivity. Now an Excel journal form has been created that can be indexed and uploaded with associated support documentation scanned and linked.

 

Accounting files now include a command line that converts accounting and billing reports to PDFs and automatically indexes each file. Each day, the accounting and billing software creates up to 200 reports that must be retained for audit purposes. Where previously these were printed on a large-format line printer and filed in ledger pin binders, they are now automatically archived as electronic files. Where previously the reports could be located only by flipping through hundreds of pages of printouts or paging through screen after screen, they are now located quickly and easily through automatically applied indexing information.

 

The finance department is exploring an end-to-end application that would link purchase orders, invoices, accounts payable checks, and backup documentation to virtually eliminate paper handling. The human resources department is working toward the imaging of all employment documents to enhance security and confidentiality. The engineering department is exploring the archiving of plans and drawings, which would not only provide convenient archiving but also facilitate both internal and external collaboration.

The Core Issue to Achieving Business Efficiency

The foregoing examples illustrate beyond question that the road to corporate efficiency lies in a commitment to electronic forms and document management. When in secure electronic format, documents are available for a host of individual usages:

 

•  An Indiana industrial company simplifies its reporting requirements by consolidating financial and operating files in a single archive.

•  A Mountain States utility streamlines customer billing by using artistically designed PDFs posted on its Web site as opposed to line-printed copies.

•  A subsidiary of a major rust-belt industrial company shares files with other subsidiaries' incompatible hardware/software systems through system-agnostic Web exchange.

•  A Southern California company facilitates collaboration in engineering and marketing projects, keeping originals secure, with all versions easily identifiable via version control.

•  A Midwestern distributor bursts sales reports by user-defined variables such as branch results and distributes them electronically automatically in Excel format, either directly from the productivity system or from the corporate document repository.

 

So with the commitment made, how does a company execute? By putting in place flexible productivity software and a library of electronic templates for the documents the company uses to conduct its business.

Creating Form Templates

There is an art to these templates. Ask any programmer. In the System i universe, there are two ways to go. Some traditional programmers prefer to lay out their document forms on the green-screen, positioning the various form elements--logos, corporate addresses, signatures, bar codes, sub-forms, etc.--using x-y coordinates.

 

An easier solution is to use an interactive, PC-based, graphical form-design tool. A popular method finds the designer simply scanning a paper form into the system and then dragging a form element into position, dropping it, and repeating the process until the form is complete. Designed on the PC, the templates are uploaded to the System i for use and downloaded back to the PC if modifications are required. Importantly, the templates are infinitely usable and customizable, entailing no costs for printing, inventory, or spoilage.

Green Impact

Saving the planet may not be the first thing that comes to mind when exploring business technology opportunities, but in reviewing the examples above, it is easy to see that the implementation of efficiency-driving technology has both short-range and long-range environmental implications. You quickly perceive that electronic business management solutions can provide the foundation for a corporate green initiative or at least provide the platform through which such initiatives execute. Take paper: a long train of factors play into the use of paper forms. It starts, of course with agriculture--either the harvesting of forests or the farming of trees. The wood (or other raw material) must be transported to the pulp mill or paper plant, with subsequent additional shipping to processors or warehouses. Then on to the commercial printers or corporate users, for form/document production and mailing. Documents need to be stored, managed, and, ultimately, disposed of. Every stage of the cycle from the farm or forest to the landfill requires the expenditure of energy. It adds up to megawatts.

 

Then there is the corporate environment itself. What physical resources are required to inventory, process, store, and manage paper forms? At the minimum, they require computers, printers, file cabinets, and people to operate them. When all or most paper processes can be converted to cost-saving electronic output, storage, and distribution, the efficiency gains also contribute to the "green IT" initiative. Saved steps equal saved energy, and when a single software program can accomplish multiple activities in a single production cycle, it not only enhances efficiency but also does so at lower cost and ultimately with a lower carbon footprint.

 

Enterprise content management solutions represent one of the most recent efficiency boosters now becoming widely available to the midsize enterprise market, and they stand to play a key role in green IT. They enable companies to consolidate dispersed document caches in a single, centralized corporate repository from which virtually any corporate mission can be executed, without the documents ever assuming physical form. Paper usage diminishes dramatically; power consumption falls; fewer people accomplish more, faster, with fewer resources.

Going Electronic

The impact of information technology stems not only from the amount and kinds of work that can now be accomplished, but also the way it continues to change how business itself works. Office operations can now operate not as a diverse collection of isolated activities, but as a system of interrelated functions that collectively and automatically fulfill and redefine the corporate organism.

 

It is unusual that any company will opt for a sweeping cutover to electronic forms and document management. A better solution for mid-size companies is to identify long-term objectives, starting with the implementation of electronic forms in pilot areas, such as accounting and/or purchasing.

 

In doing so, flexibility is paramount. Certain documents, for example, can be transmitted electronically--by email, fax, or EDI--with the agreement of the individual vendor. Other suppliers may insist on paper copies, for reasons of their own. The lesson, of course, is to utilize a document output system that can provide both, preferably in a single process.

 

Once a company has proven its pilot project and is comfortable with the process, it's easy to extend the electronic forms and document initiative to other areas. Extended, the electronic environment can boost productivity and efficiency for virtually any corporate function, from routine responses by customer service representatives to critical product liability research by the legal team, and everything in between.

 

The impact, particularly in the type of end-to-end electronic environment discussed above, is open-ended, limited only by the imagination of its users.

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