Document workflow systems are a fairly wide family of IT solutions. This category includes all solutions which enable the flow of information, model this flow, and control it. There are quite a few of these solutions on the market and they differ according to functionality, philosophy, and their level of sophistication.
Currently, many companies have yet to decide to implement a workflow solution. Despite this, e-mail has spontaneously emerged as the most popular and the most widely used document workflow system. Most often e-mail is supplemented with a form definition tool, e.g. MS Excel. It is important to note that this is a de facto ‘solution’ that has wide market penetration and has arisen directly from user needs. Of course, the use of Excel with email is more a prosthesis than a solution, but in many companies it is used because it has several advantages: Simplicity, Freedom, Flexibility.
- Simplicity – everyone knows how to use it.
- Freedom – information can be sent to anyone for any reason.
- Flexibility – it is very easy for individual users to modify forms (e.g. MS Excel) without formal training.
People used what they had, e.g. e-mail and Excel, to do as much as they could. As a result an ad hoc system with fundamentally important design principles emerged naturally; why? The answer is simple: people want to complete their own tasks. From the perspective of users this makes perfect sense, so why would you want to change anything? Again, the answer is simple: organizations want groups of people to complete complex tasks. The design principles are good, even ideal, so it is the approach that must be changed, the ‘how’. The ad hoc solutions that exist in most companies today have numerous obvious disadvantages once you consider things from the perspective of the ‘why’ of your organization.
- Difficulty finding where the latest version of a document is and who has it. e.g. A contract with outdated or unfavorable clauses. (The convenience of the ad hoc ‘solution’ means that documents could be anywhere.)
- No control over information flow – it is difficult (and often impossible) to determine the factual situation about your documents: what was sent, to whom, when, or even why! Who has copies of your client database? Are you in massive violation of GDPR regulations? (The freedom of the ad hoc ‘solution’ means that your information can go everywhere.)
- No permission control – you cannot limit access to emails or to some fields in Excel files. You don’t have any method to revoke access to a document for someone who has already received it (The convenience and freedom of the ad hoc ‘solution’ combine to make you powerless.)
- Automatic reporting is next to impossible – Imagine making a summary from Excel files that have been even slightly modified by various users. (The flexibility of the ad hoc ‘solution’ encourages customization to the point of incompatibility.)
- Inability to automatically set deadlines, reminders, and notifications. (The simplicity of the ad hoc ‘solution’ means that assigning tasks is essentially a manual task.)
- Difficulties in determining liability if a deadline is missed or if mistakes are made. (Many factor combine to create an inability to do analysis, assess risk, or correct mistakes. )
- No standardization of process support / No institutional knowledge – everyone provides support according to their own knowledge. (Institutional knowledge is in some ways the opposite of ‘flexible’, ‘convenient’, and ‘simple’. In fact it represents one of the core assets of any business or institution so, in general, it shouldn’t be ‘free’.)
- Management of an ad hoc system requires people who developed expertise in ‘how things work here’. This is bad for 3 main reasons:
- If the situation changes, the employee’s expertise is useless.
- If the employee wants to change their position, their expertise is useless.
- If the organization looses too many experts, the organization is useless.
(The simplicity, flexibility, freedom of an ad hoc solution combine to create a situation which is potentially disastrous for everyone.)
Just to be clear, simplicity, flexibility, freedom are not the problems, these are great design goals. Users aren’t the problem either, it is perfectly understandable why they created this ad hoc solution: people want to complete their own tasks.
What is missing from this picture is why your organization probably needs something different: organizations want groups of people to complete complex tasks.
As we go forward we will see that the needs of individual users (or even individual departments) are not always in perfect alignment with the organization as a whole.
The disadvantages listed above should be sufficient reasons to implement something better than Email + Excel. However, many companies refrain from doing so due to misconceptions about document workflow systems, i.e. myths.
Myth 1 – We don’t need that
To begin talking about document workflow systems at all, it is worth considering why they are implemented. To understand the need for such a solution, it’s worth looking at the results of research carried out by Konica-Minolta:
- Office employees devote nearly 20% of their time to looking for documents.
- In over 60% of medium-sized companies, paper documents still the dominate most workflows.
- Two out of three medium sized companies use document workflow systems, but less than 10% of these fully utilize the functionality.
The first direct conclusion of this is that on average 20% of salary costs are wasted. Let’s assume that it would only be possible to reduce these losses by half, i.e. to recover 10% of salary costs. Without even considering any other advantages, and with a very conservative estimate of the savings, you can make a quick calculation to determine your ROI period. Alternatively, if the software is obtained on a subscription basis, you can see how it fits in your budget.
Can you remember the era when computers were not used everywhere in companies and everything was done on paper? Recent graduates from university, and young new hires at your company can’t.
At that time many people claimed that computers were unnecessary for business. They were regarded as expensive toys/gadgets. After that, the same opinion was voiced about the internet. Then smart phones. Can you imagine doing business without these things now? It would be practically impossible because work efficiency and information exchange would be too low.
When someone says, “We don’t need it.”, they are often speaking from their own personal perspective of their past. What would be more accurate for them to say is, “I didn’t used to need this.”. Today, from the perspective of a whole organization, the truth is: We need this.
Myth 2 – ERP is enough for us.
Very often, when asking managers if they need a document workflow system, one of the most common replies is:
- We intend to deploy an ERP system
- We are deploying an ERP system
- We have just deployed an ERP system
Very often the manager mentions that the ERP system has something for document workflows. The fact is that many modern ERP systems do have limited built-in functionality for document workflows. However, these are insufficient because:
- These document workflows are limited to the documents present in the ERP system: e.g. invoices, orders, etc. Documents from other departments cannot be handled: e.g. contracts, acceptance reports, test results, etc.
- An ERP system is heavily customized to do one job very well, while the document workflow functionality is only an afterthought.
- Because an ERP system is built from the group up for a specific purpose the user interface is unnecessarily complex for general use. Very often support for mobile devices is impractical or nearly impossible.
- Full ERP licenses are expensive, and if you want to increase your ‘seat count’ to include your entire staff, they are prohibitively expensive. However, to obtain the transformation effects of this technology you shouldn’t create artificial barriers within your own company. If you don’t include your whole staff and all your departments you end up creating ‘information islands’ within your company.
When someone says, “ERP is enough for us.”, ‘us’ is usually only one part of your organization.
Myth 3 – We need a system designed specifically for us
Every company is different and has organized their business processes differently. As a result of these business processes your company has some competitive advantages. Progressive companies, especially large ones, develop custom software solutions from scratch. So, why shouldn’t you do the same?
Firstly, many large companies are avoiding custom software solutions when possible and using universal solutions wherever they can. Why?
Imagine making your dream car from scratch. There are a huge number of ways to build that car! Unless you are an engineer, you are going to need to hire one to do it for you. After going through that process you will have a car, but an expensive car that no one else in the world knows how to fix or modify.
Secondly, what is one of your areas of expertise? Your company. Why would you hire outside software experts to build software when what you really want is to build and modify business processes? Your company is full of the experts you need most.
Thirdly, by choosing a flexible and open platform to build your document workflows you can get up and running with standard or simple processes immediately.
Fourthly, by using the behavior of your own experienced employees as templates to define processes, your institutional knowledge is gathered. Your system gains value over time.
Finally, the get to the truth from, “We need a system designed specifically for us…”, just add, “…by us.”
Myth 4 – These types of solutions are expensive and require a long time to develop
This myth is associated with the previous one. Indeed, if you build a system for your own needs from scratch it will be expensive and time consuming. Even if you choose an existing document workflow platform it is important to choose the correct one. For example, the Windows Workflow Foundation is actually a programming library for process designers and programmers, not end users. Some solutions required a perfectly designed process before you can begin implementing it. Other solutions cannot handle exceptions or modifications very well.
Real business, just like real life, is full of exceptions to the rules. For some clients you might need to change your process to accommodate their regulatory requirements, or to accommodate different business practice standards.
An ideal solution is to allow users to dynamically modify process steps away from the standard automated path whenever necessary. The AMODIT system can observe the behavior of your experienced workers and use that as templates to generate paths. But AMODIT can help you go ‘off roading’ when you have to get off the well worn path. By using artificial intelligence to dynamically suggest possible steps you’ve got the freedom to go where you want and the security of always being able to get back on track.
Myth 5 – We don’t have a budget for that
This myth largely refers to the first myth. That is, we can’t afford to implement something we don’t think we need. It is important to remember that opportunity costs come in two types. The first are the straightforward costs of the opportunities we take. The second are the costs of opportunities we miss, i.e. from the benefits we don’t get and/or from the risks we don’t mitigate. Risks like: lost documents, missed deadlines, contractual penalties due to delays, and other risks that could have been mitigated by a system such as AMODIT. Depending on your industry and they types of contracts you sign these risks can be larger than your entire budget. There is an old story of of two woodcutters that illustrates this very well:
Two woodcutters were trying to cut a log with a dull saw and, of course, the work was going slowly and they were getting tired. A person passing by suggested that they should sharpen the saw. The woodcutters replied, “Can’t you see how hard we are working and how tired we are? We don’t have time to sharpen the saw!”
The moral of the story is clear; you have to take care of your tools if you are going to get the job done.
In our modern world where we have more and more ‘logs to cut’, it’s not enough to keep your tools sharp though. It’s time to get a chainsaw, it’s time to get AMODIT.