Each company is the sum of its processes. Processes have two dimensions: organisational and formal. The organisational dimension involves procedures, decisions and information flow. The formal dimension is created by e-mails, documents and forms in systems. When the circulation of documents in an organisation doesn’t take place according to pre-established standards, it becomes increasingly inefficient, and each of the formal process elements loses its value.
We’d like to encourage you to continue reading to learn the reasons and solutions to problems that such a seemingly simple process as electronic document circulation can bring to your company.
Document workflow – challenges
One of the key forms of the formal aspect of companies is paper, and sometimes even an excess. It appears in organisations for two main reasons.
The first reason is the external requirement: legal regulations (or lack thereof) regarding methods of documenting processes or decisions that don’t allow paper documents to be eliminated from the process. The second is often an outdated process in which the circulation of paper documents is used due to habit or a lack of regular optimisation of work in a company. The functioning document is, therefore, an internal document that isn’t required from the perspective of regulations or possible evidence processes.
In both cases, digitisation is a natural developmental step. If it’s necessary to keep a paper version of a document, measures should be aimed at shortening the path taken by the document and putting a scan into electronic circulation. If a paper document is not formally required, it should be replaced by information sent electronically. This doesn’t involve e-mails, but forms in IT systems in which information flow can be reported effectively.
How does the digitisation process work in both cases?
– Paper document circulation
If a paper document can’t be completely eliminated from circulation, you must first define the path it currently takes within the company. You can start the analysis by determining all entry points for the circulation of documents, irrespective of their type. Often, a company will have mixed circulation, where some documents appear electronically while others do so on paper – invoices are a good example). The key aspect of this analysis is the determination of all entry points, such as devices (post, courier, mail, scanner, applications, systems) and locations (branches, mobile employees, representatives, agencies). The only way to have a chance to structure document flow throughout the organisation is by analysing it as a whole. The second step in analysing the entire document flow is to optimise the paper document entry points. This is to be a process that transforms a paper document into an electronic one. This is the most time-consuming stage of document processing, as it requires scanning and describing each letter, invoice, etc.
Optimisation options will depend on the type and size of the organisation, mainly due to the number of locations it has. In each case, there are three things to focus on:
shortening the path of paper document circulation before scanning
enabling easy physical archiving and subsequent tracking of the original document after scanning
reducing the number of employees involved in the circulation of paper documents to the necessary minimum
– Document circulation before scanning
One of the most important elements that should be ensured in the process of digitising a document is combining its physical form with an electronic form. Probably the simplest and at the same time the most effective way is the common barcoding of every incoming document. In most cases, you can use purchased rolls with pre-printed codes. The cost of one barcode, in this case, is approximately PLN 0.01.
The use of barcodes will have a positive impact on two basic issues:
First, it allows you to improve the way you archive physical documents. In companies where document circulation focuses on invoices, documents can be stored by barcode index instead of, for example, by contractors. This facilitates finding such a document if you ever need to refer to the original.
In companies managing a large amount of diverse documentation in which files must be linked, and the physical archive is a separately managed space, one of the basic details describing the document is its physical location. In this case, the barcode is used during the document storage process. The appointed person scans the barcode just before placing the document in the archive and then marks its physical location. This solution makes managing even a large physical archive simple.
When the circulation of most paper documents in a company is one-way (from the secretary’s office to the archive), and access to the original is required only sporadically, managing them isn’t a big challenge. Problems arise when the documentation is borrowed frequently, or when documents appear in circulation first in an electronic version, and only later in the form of a paper document.
In this case, the use of barcodes allows the document to be located in the organisation by marking each time the document is passed on by scanning the barcode. In this way, a uniform history of the document’s circulation is created, taking into account different company locations and building a single digital correspondence logbook.
Replacing documents with forms
For data to circulate as efficiently and smoothly as possible, companies should strive to achieve a stable electronic structure. In such a system, the circulation of paper documents can be replaced by electronic information flow.
When analysing the steps that need to be taken to implement such a structure, we recommend starting with defining the objectives and benefits that you want your business to achieve using it. The main purpose of implementing electronic information flow is the ability to report on the current status of tasks, implementation, workload and efficiency at every stage of the information circulation. This means that the transmitted data must have a structured form encoded in the database. All information should be comparable to others of the same type. For this to happen, you need an appropriate IT system. However, before you start the process of transforming document circulation in a company into the circulation of forms, you should consider several key issues.
What should you consider before implementing an electronic document flow?
The first issue is the people. From a technical perspective, changing the form of information flow from analogue to digital isn’t a complicated procedure. However, the entire process has a huge impact on employees, who in recent years have been functioning in specific processes, building habits, solving problems and striving for efficiency using specific tools. The change you want to implement will, therefore, require not so much a “mental leap” (as managers sometimes call it), but rather the development of a new form of work organisation. What we provide by digitising the process is simply tools that can be used in a better or worse way. That’s why you should be aware of the second very important issue. The effectiveness of processes is often hidden in the above-mentioned habits acquired during the development of the company. Often, the managers of the organisation aren’t aware of most of them. That’s why it’s important, right from the analysis stage, to wisely and predictably involve the people who deal with the process daily.
You should be fully aware that a poorly executed digitisation of a process such as a document circulation can reduce the effectiveness of teamwork, despite the best technology. The inertia that can be felt in an organisation when designing digital processes should be treated as an expected part of the implementation. It’s usually a valid part because it protects the company from changes that are too rapid.
Where should you start making changes?
As with any organisational change process, the first step is analysis. But where should you start? Can you determine the starting state, looking for process inefficiencies, to replace them with new solutions? Or should you reject the current form and design a new “ideal”, specifying in the next steps the changes that should be made to achieve such a form? Unfortunately, the answer to this question depends on many factors, and each organisation must answer this question individually.
However, before this happens, take a step back and answer the question “why?” There can be several reasons for implementing electronic document circulation. Although the company will benefit from it on many levels, defining the main argument is extremely important. It’ll affect both the final outcome of the implemented process and the design process itself. So what could be the reasons for changing the form in which document circulation takes place? There are many possibilities, but they focus on three main issues.
Work efficiency/process capacity
– Cost reduction
If the main reason for implementation indicated by the people managing the organisation is cost reduction, you should first specify what costs you’re talking about. The costs in the document circulation process are spread over several areas. When discussing costs, in this case, you rarely mean the cost of paper or printing. This element alone can justify the implementation of the system only in major organisations.
Much higher costs are hidden in the document processing itself. What’s more, they don’t apply to lower-level employees, so the reduction of time at this level refers rather to the second point referred to below. In this case, real cost reduction takes place at the level of people managing and controlling processes. Incoming documents that require approval pile up either on the desk or in the inbox of the person responsible for approving them. This accumulation slows down the approval process and then takes up a significant chunk of time of the board member, whose time is expensive for the organisation. Besides, the excess of documents reduces the precision of control, which brings the entire approval process into question, generating costs due to errors or incorrect decisions.
Accumulated documents directly affect the quality and working time of board members, and slow down the circulation of this document. Also, they take up a significant chunk of time of the board member, whose time is expensive for the organisation, and reduce the precision of control, which brings the entire approval process into question, generating costs due to errors or incorrect decisions.
– Work efficiency/process capacity
As regards the reduction of working time of lower-level employees mentioned in the previous point, we’re not usually talking about cost reduction. Reducing work time spent on document processing won’t reduce the cost of full-time positions. It will, however, increase the number of documents and information that an employee can process at the same time. This means that the organisation can increase the number of projects being processed without needing to increase employment levels, and thus without increasing costs in this regard.
One of the more frequently mentioned goals of replacing traditional document flow with a system for the electronic circulation of internal correspondence is to increase process control and, consequently, to decrease the number of errors. Mistakes arising as a result of an inefficient process can be much more serious than unintended costs – complaints, loss of clients, tax consequences, or even loss of a licence or concession. The possibility of catching an error in the early stages is often not to be overestimated in organisations of all sizes and from various industries.
In most cases, the motivation to implement solutions that digitise document circulation will be based on a combination of all three points. However, establishing their importance at the initial stage of pre-implementation analysis will allow for a precise definition of a further action plan.
Electronic circulation of documents and information – analysis
Once you define the main goals that you want to achieve by implementing the e-circulation system, in the next step you should choose the project path that you’ll follow. Here, as outlined earlier, everything will depend on the nature of the organisation.
What should you do for a medium-sized enterprise? Or in a company where process digitisation is preparation for increasing the number of orders, expanding the team, launching a new product or expanding? It would be best to start with designing a target information flow process that’ll replace the current document flow. In the next step, you’ll specify the path to reach the desired form.
What should you do in the case of a larger company that has a large number of employees in the analysed process, and that has the above-mentioned inertia?
A model solution would be to reproduce the processes in their current state, and then search for optimisation at each step of these processes, insofar as possible separating subsequent being optimised. Of course, as we’ve already mentioned, many factors affect the selection of the right path, and each decision should be made individually. For very complex processes, it may be necessary to split them into smaller parts and adopt the appropriate methodology for each of them separately.
Automation and the risk of making a mistake
Irrespective of the shape and size of the organisation, the most important aspect of digitising the document flow process is automation. This involves transferring the responsibility for performing specific actions or making decisions in the process to the system that is to handle the electronic circulation of documents. Although it seems risky (due to the lack of intervention by a real person), it’s paradoxically a risk-reducing element. Decisions made based on hard data using algorithms or rules remain unchanged. The same decisions made by a person are subject to additional factors, such as distraction. Statistics show that the most common mistakes in company processes aren’t due to a lack of competence, but a lack of concentration or simple mistakes.
What tasks can be entrusted to the program fore-circulation?
Any that are data-based and don’t require human reflection. This particularly includes those that rely on the transfer or copying of data, such as:
Creating repetitive documents
Attaching scans of documents to forms
Attaching/enriching data with data from other processes or systems
Data transfer between applications/systems
Document circulation between systems
In this way, we’ve reached a key point. The following information is particularly important when you’ve had already decided to undertake the process of analysing the circulation of documents in a company or any other organisation.
The point that initiates considerations about the implementation of a system and the digitalisation of document circulation is usually the desire to address a specific process in the organisation. This sometimes even applies to a specific type of document, such as contracts, invoices, orders, complaints, etc. However, it isn’t possible to isolate a given process in a company without affecting the others. Each element of document circulation is only a part of the main process and is based on data that are also processed in other company operations. What’s more, these elements affect activities in parts of the organisation that aren’t directly involved in the given flow. That’s why it’s important to take a holistic look at the company before starting the analysis and choose the right system to be implemented.
Which system should you choose?
The right choice of a system that meets your expectations isn’t just a document circulation program, but a system that covers all processes in the organisation – a workflow system. A workflow system, also known as a digitisation platform, gives the opportunity to automate not only the internal correspondence circulation in the company but any process occurring in the organisation (not necessarily based on any document). The system gives the possibility of acquiring data occurring in other organisational processes without the need for intervention by an actual person.
The best system is one that supports document workflow and can be extended with additional functions at any time, for example, as soon as the company decides to move to the next levels of automation. Thanks to this, you eliminate the need to train employees in operating new programs. Besides, the workflow is extremely efficient in eliminating errors and saving time. This is the result of using more-advanced algorithms and wider possibilities of integration with other systems than standard programs created only to support document circulation. Analysing the possibilities of solutions available on the market and considering the future of most developing organisations, it’s reasonable to reach for an advanced system right from the outset of the automation.
Thanks to many years of experience, the e-MSI team can include even the most complex processes in the workflow system. This is evidenced by the constantly growing group of satisfied clients about which you can read in our portfolio. Irrespective of the industry in which your company specialises, we’re happy to face even the biggest business automation challenges.