Implementing Electronic Document Distribution

Document Management
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Let's start with a definition: Electronic document distribution (EDD) refers to an enterprise-level strategy that uses any combination of print, fax, or email to automatically deliver internally designed digital documents to recipients and automatically route incoming digital documents to specific users or departments. EDD also integrates into archiving/imaging systems, allowing documents to be automatically indexed and archived without user intervention or scanning.

If you're reading this article, then you don't need much convincing when it comes to EDD. You know that you'll save significant time and money by creating and delivering electronic documents. Now, you just need to research the best way to make EDD actually happen at your company.

Easier said than done. Try searching the archives of most iSeries publications and you'll see numerous articles about the reasons for buying EDD. You'll also find lots of material about the specific pieces of document management: electronic forms, fax, and email. What's lacking is a plan for implementing an EDD solution. Here at Quadrant Software, we've been engineering, installing, and servicing EDD solutions for over 14 years at thousands of iSeries-operating companies. We've seen plenty over the years, and we've got a pretty good handle on successful EDD implementation planning.

So we'll assume that you're sold on the concept of EDD. Now, you're interested in what happens after making a purchase. Let's take a scenic stroll through implementing an integrated document management solution. We'll show you how to approach this project and how to avoid common pitfalls.

Surveying the Document Landscape

All successful projects start with a clear, realistic battle plan. Putting EDD in place is no different. A good EDD implementation plan consists of the following components:

Step 1: On Your Mark!--Installation and Training
Step 2: Evolution vs. Revolution--Timelines and Choosing Your First Form
Step 3: Where, Oh Where, Are My Forms Created?--A New Way to Print and Design Forms
Step 4: Delivering on a Promise--Changing the Fundamentals of Document Delivery
Step 4.5: Leveraging an Investment--MICR Check Printing
Step 5: Image and Archiving--The Final Step

EDD is just like any IT project in that it requires careful planning. The good news is that EDD is also very different from many IT projects because it's highly modular. EDD can be implemented in the same way that you bring your car up to the speed limit: by pressing the accelerator at a rate that suits you. You can move slowly, make progress, and gradually work your way toward full speed. Or, if you have the resources, you can floor it and hit Grand Prix speeds in no time at all. It's up to you.

There's no cutover date when operations or systems go "live." EDD can be implemented a little at a time, keeping your business processes in place while you convert a few documents at a time. Let's see how.

Step 1: On Your Mark!--Installation and Training

We'll assume that your goal is a full-blown EDD solution: electronic forms as well as incoming/outgoing fax and email delivery. Storage and retrieval (archiving/imaging) also plays a role in EDD but has a very distinct implementation process that deserves its own article to do it justice. In this article, we'll touch on archiving/imaging to let you know where it fits, but we'll cover forms, fax, and email in more detail.

Let's assume that you've picked the perfect EDD solution. What next? Installation, right? While that's not a bad answer, it overlooks a very important part of changing something as wide-ranging as document management: training. If you don't have deep knowledge of the product you purchased, then you shouldn't expect to achieve the optimum results as quickly as you might expect.

Talk to your chosen vendor about training and support for users and administrators. When budgeting a project, training is often the first line item that gets reduced or cut completely. That's because you can't quantify the benefits of good training until someone makes a big mistake because of bad (or nonexistent) training. Consequently, training is also the first line item the project manager eventually wishes the company had increased.

After installation and training, you have to change the core business process surrounding document management. Take a deep breath. That's sounds scarier than it really is. Remember that you will accomplish your goals gradually without disrupting anything, while still showing benefits and ROI.

Step 2: Evolution vs. Revolution--Timelines and Choosing Your First Form

Most IT projects are like little revolutions: massive, sudden shifts in one area that result in unpredictable and often damaging instabilities in other areas. Meanwhile, EDD is evolutionary: You target a goal and adapt gradually to reach it. When you're setting up your timeline, remember that if you encounter some major or minor challenge, you can easily adjust the process without creating instability in other processes.

In this step, you will pick a single mission-critical document and convert it from its current pre-printed format to a paperless, electronic format.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to picking your first form. Many companies target their most widely used and process-intensive documents (invoices or purchase orders) while others choose less pervasive documents (statements). There's no set rule here because of the numerous variables from company to company. That said, there are a couple of things you need to think about:

Pre-printed Form Inventory

Take an inventory of all your pre-printed forms, and then estimate when you will need to order another batch and how much that will cost. For example, at first you may consider starting with an obscure form, but then (based on your inventory) decide to tackle invoices instead to save a big chunk of money.

Design from Scratch vs. Overlays

It's best to choose a forms design solution that lets you create documents either from scans of pre-printed documents (a.k.a. overlays) or from scratch using WYSIWYG design tools. While overlays offer less flexibility, they also let you reap the benefits of EDD very quickly. If time is big factor in picking your first form, overlays can cut production time sharply.

Eventually, you will want to design your forms using a WYSIWYG forms designer that lets you create and arrange elements like form fields, graphics, or signatures and then uses API commands to ensure that the correct data shows up in the correct position on your form every time. This method provides more flexibility when picking different fonts, shading, lines, colors, and other design elements that improve presentation. Several vendors also offer pre-designed, pre-mapped forms packages that include general or application-specific documents. This will cut your production time considerably.

Don't worry if you must use overlays at first. Any good forms design solution makes it easy to gradually convert from overlays to WYSIWYG design.

Step 3: Where, Oh Where, Are My Forms Created?--A New Way to Print and Design Forms

Now you've picked a form, and you know how you want to redesign it. In this step, we'll look at the "life cycle" of a typical document and how EDD will change it. We'll also look at tools that can drastically alter the effectiveness of your forms design. Consider these factors before you even open your forms design software:

Print process changes: Take a close look at the document's print process. How is the document handled, and what printer does it go to? If it prints to a pre-printed form on a line-feed printer, then you can replace all of that with an easier, cheaper plain-paper printer. Great! So now, ask yourself where that new laser printer will be located and who should have access to it.

Post-processing changes: Do all of your forms get stuffed into envelopes? While that should change once you put fax and email in place (more on that later), there's a chance that a small percentage of your vendors and customers are married to snail mail and paper. How will changing the print process affect the human resources or mechanical equipment required to fold, stuff, and mail documents?

We can't answer these questions here because there are too many variations within a company and amongst the EDD vendors you might choose. The important thing is that you ask these questions up front during the buying process and have a plan in place. Make sure you don't get surprised!

Once you have a grasp on how both pre- and post-print processes will change, you're ready to crack open your forms design solution.

Here's forms design in a nutshell: You're going to map data from a spool file to a specific position on a document design (either overlay or WYSIWYG) so that whenever you print, fax, or email that document, the correct data appears in the correct place on that form every time. Like learning any new application, this will take practice, but if you know who and what will be affected by EDD (and by how much), then designing the form should be easy.

It's not really important to delve into every mouse-click involved in forms design because different packages can vary by a little or a lot, but you should have an awareness of two technologies that make forms design both easier and much more cost- and time-effective:

Conditional logic: This tool eliminates the need to reprogram your application to make your documents look right. Conditional logic automatically determines how certain blocks of text or design elements appear, based on their location and other factors. For example, if you want contact information to appear in Arial Black, 12-point type, while the detail items in the document body should appear in Courier, 8-point type, then you can set that up using conditional logic. Here's how it works: When a design template is applied to a spool file, the API commands that specify customizations are placed directly into the data. When that spool file gets handed off to your fax/email solution, the customizations are performed and the commands are removed before transmission. Keep in mind that not all forms and fax/email solutions can accomplish this level of integration. Don't assume that all vendors provide this functionality!

Spool file pre-processors: Spool file pre-processors eliminate redundant information occurring on every spool file page (such as contact information) as well as reformat multi-line detail items into single line items. They then repaginate the new spool file into a shorter, easy-to-handle document. Pre-processors also prepare spool data for use with forms design solutions, making it easier to apply design elements that increase readability.

So, while most forms solutions require a page-for-page relationship with the unmodified spool data, the next generation of forms designers will create shorter forms from customized, non-uniform spool data.

The result: Page counts are reduced 50-75% via the pre-processor while readability is increased via the forms designer. Beyond increased readability, the benefits fall into three categories:

  • Print benefits --reduced usage of toner, paper, envelopes, and postage
  • Fax benefits--reduced transmission times and long-distance charges
  • Email benefits--smaller attachment sizes that use less disk space

As with conditional logic, not all forms designers currently work with spool data treated with a pre-processor. Be sure to ask before buying.

At the end of this step, you should have an electronic form that you can automatically create and print at a reduced cost and with great time savings. After this, you start work on the next form and follow the same process until all of your forms have been converted. All by itself, electronic forms design provides great ROI, but it's not quite EDD.

Step 4: Delivering on a Promise--Changing the Fundamentals of Document Delivery

Like forms design, document delivery using fax and email requires that you become very familiar with every step of the delivery process for each particular document before you put the solution into production.

If your recipients already get faxed documents, then switching to an enterprise fax/email solution is relatively easy. The only difference they'll notice is that your forms are cleaner and more professional. But if your documents get mailed, you will need to make your vendors and customers aware of your new delivery methods (emphasize the benefits). Then, once they agree to fax or email delivery, you need to ensure that your users can keep customer, vendor, and any other contact information updated across all of your hardware platforms.

This is not as hard as you might suspect, but second to your knowledge of the delivery process, the most critical factor in implementing this kind of delivery solution can be boiled down to one word: integration. And integration cuts two ways. First, your forms and fax/email solutions must integrate with each other to the extent that they behave like a single solution. If your forms and fax/email solutions aren't capable of fully collaborative conversations, your ROI will be reduced. Second, your delivery solution and your business application must integrate seamlessly. Everything should happen within familiar application screens to minimize user training and tech support.

Once you're armed with knowledge of your own document delivery processes plus highly integrated solutions, the next step is installation and implementation. Depending on the size and complexity of your IT environment, this can be challenging. Complex inbound routing conditions, multiple iSeries installations, quantity of users, document volume, and many other factors come into play.

Get a clear idea from your chosen vendor about how big the project will be and ask yourself if you have the resources to get the job done. If the answer is "no," ask about professional services and tech support. Some vendors offer limited professional services, while others will travel onsite to install and test everything in addition to providing user/administrator training. Some vendors provide 24x7 tech support for all platforms, while others support their product only during business hours.

Once you get going, though, you'll be amazed at how quickly you learn. These days, EDD solutions are vastly easier to implement than they were even a couple of years ago.

Ideally, you should be able to send any document (in batch or interactively) and feel confident that the delivery solution will know which recipients want documents delivered as fax, email, or print. If needed, it should also attach the appropriate cover sheet with a customized or pre-written message. And if it's delivering documents by email, it should know which recipients prefer certain attachment formats (TIF, PDF, etc.) and do the conversion without any user intervention. And, most important, it should do all of these things automatically.

It sounds like a tall order, but it really isn't. All of this magic happens when you set up user profiles and your address book database. A lot of flexibility and security lives in the user profiles and address books. Not only do you control all of the functionality mentioned in the previous paragraph, you also determine who can access what documents, who can send faxes using certain signatures, and so forth.

It is also preferable that you have the ability to update user profiles and databases on one platform and then see that information updated automatically to all other platforms. Manual updating isn't uncommon, but it does leave a door open to human error and security risks.

Once you're comfortable with user profiles and such, there's not a lot standing between you and full EDD. Your users shouldn't need a lot of training to send, receive, or manage faxes if the solution is integrated into their application. As far as recipients go, you will have to let them know that they can receive documents by email, by fax, or in print form. Then, gather those preferences and enter them into your address books.

EDD Is a Two-Way Street

We've talked a lot about EDD in terms of outgoing documents, but EDD provides just as many benefits when documents are delivered to your company:

  • Incoming documents in paper format can be scanned and input into an image/archiving solutions for easy retrieval and use by your EDD system.

  • Documents arriving by email are already in digital format and are easily received and routed electronically.
  • Faxed documents are also already digital and are routed to users via telephone technologies like Direct Inward Dialing (DID), Dialed Number Identification Service (DNIS), and Automatic Number Identification (ANI).

These inbound routing methods represent a giant step toward the paperless office and provide several important benefits:

  • Speed and efficiency--Documents get into the right hands faster to reduce business cycles.
  • Reduced costs--EDD eliminates the overhead associated with manually handling documents (including the elimination of fax machines).
  • Privacy--Because documents are handled electronically, they can be secured against unauthorized access.

 

Step 4.5: Leveraging an Investment--MICR Check Printing

Now that you've conquered the pesky purchase order and the immense invoice, what next? Well, why not leverage your EDD investment even further by printing MICR checks? They're really just a specialized form, not unlike your other business documents.

MICR checks are relatively easy to design, and they provide quick ROI. If you're already printing checks, then a good WYSIWYG check design solution lets you jettison risky pre-printed/signed checks in exchange for cheaper, safer blank check stock that helps prevent fraud.

Implementing MICR checks is easy but requires specialized plain paper printers and toner to print the MICR fonts that bank check processors can "read." While guidelines for placement of the MICR font on the blank check are strict, those guidelines are straightforward and rarely challenging.

Step 5: Image and Archiving--The Final Step

At this point, we're close to the end of a document's life cycle. Archiving/imaging systems represent an efficient way to store mission-critical documents. Basically, you convert documents into a compatible digital format, and then you index them with search criteria for easy retrieval. Minus EDD, much or all of this work is done manually.

Or you can integrate an EDD solution and the document imaging system to allow documents to be automatically routed both to the recipients and directly into the archive without any manual indexing or scanning. Documents are already coming and going in a digital format. They also already have "indexable" information (customer name, phone/fax numbers, etc.) associated with them.

So, once you integrate the two systems, you benefit not just because you're saving time on manual scanning and indexing, but also because you're reducing the potential for human error.

Trust Me. It's Easy.

If you use a step-by-step process, EDD implementation is easier than you think. We've found that over 95% of the time, the customer can't believe how easy it is to implement the kind of EDD solutions described in this article. Even better, they're thrilled by how quickly the benefits roll in. We typically see our customers achieve ROI in about six months or less.

Gradually changing your operations allows your organization to become comfortable with the reality of a paperless office and gives you the breathing room to keep challenges from turning into crises.

Gary Langton is the co-founder and president of Quadrant Software, a leading technology company specializing in Electronic Document Distribution (EDD) solutions for the iSeries 400 enterprise. An IBM Business Partner since opening its doors in 1990, Gary and his partner, CEO Peter DePierro, have built Quadrant Software into a successful venture with worldwide presence that has won every major iSeries industry award for product and service excellence.

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