Who will change old lamps for new?

Would a modern day Aladdin be more interested in documents than lamps? In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to enable people to easily locate and share documents. The humble document pervades much, if not all of our work and this very familiarity may explain why its importance is so easy to overlook. The new Electronic Communications (Jersey) Law 2000 makes now a good time to benchmark the potential to gain business advantage from document management - even if an organisation already has systems in place.

Documents

Documents act as the repository for many of the intangible assets of an organisation, provide an effective environment for work and make tangible the result of that effort - documents provide an implement for thinking, capturing and signifying value. From this vantage point notions of the paperless office can be recognised as simply misguided because they did not appreciate the way people work. Neither has the thirty-year history of IT yet measured up to its promise - partly due to the scant attention given to the way people work and the way knowledge is created and used. The genie unleashed by Berners-Lee is beginning to work its magic but these are still early days.

If an organisation sets out to provide its people with the information that they need, at the time they need it, in the (document and other) format that they require - reliably, simply and cost effectively where might this lead? A full answer to this question would need to consider all the information resources of the organisation and the way these interplay with the business strategy. However, bearing this caveat in mind, documents are a good place to start.

Technologies

Interestingly, the underlying technologies that can be employed to manage documents, in one form or another, are mostly already in use in even the smallest organisations - fax, photocopier, printer, microfiche, the ubiquitous PC, word-processing, database management systems and, more recently, email, intranets and browsers. Hitherto these technologies have typically been used in isolation, often just to mimic the way we would work in a manual environment. Thus, document management can be thought of as integrating necessary infrastructure and working practices to achieve a better return on investment - an example of working smarter not harder.

Technologies include systems for scanning or importing documents, storage, retrieval and manipulation, workflow, and importantly, capabilities to integrate with existing financial and operational systems (so, for example, an administrator can immediately call up a document from a screen displaying basic client data). These are generally well established, robust and reliable, costs are no longer a barrier and increasingly systems come with intuitive user interfaces. IT services businesses offer the skills and strategic partnerships to implement and support the technologies. Outsourced services, especially archiving, are readily available.

Benefits

The benefits that a business can gain will preferably be identified in the context of its goals and priorities. However, useful cues can be taken from characteristic benefits that can be broadly grouped into:

  • Efficiency,
  • Effectiveness,
  • Strategic, and
  • Business Continuity.
A benchmark comparison of the significance of these benefits can be taken against estimates made by a cross-section of directors, managers and administrators in offshore financial services. Many organisations that work with knowledge will find parallels that make this comparison worthwhile. Benefits can relate to internal documents (e.g. correspondence and reports) or all documents (e.g. incoming mail, faxes, invoices and statements).

Efficiency

The potential for increasing efficiency is easy to relate to experience, time spent searching for a document or filing it will be familiar to most of us. Estimates of the savings that could be achieved in benchmark research averaged 3.7 days per year per person (1.8 for internal documents) suggesting that this is a significant but currently hidden cost for organisations. /p>

Other hidden efficiency savings to consider include those gained from eliminating duplication, less filing, distribution effort and floor space required, lower transport costs where documents are used in more than one location and reduced errors. Particularly in situations where high volumes are processed, productivity may improve though better management of the workflow. Less obviously, the spur to eliminate obsolete activities that no longer add value can also be significant and the automation of some manual processes may also be possible.

Effectiveness

The potential for document management to improve effectiveness may take the form of a reduction in the time required to deliver a service, allowing steps to be performed in parallel rather than sequentially, reducing the vulnerability to errors arising from lost documents, incorrect data or out of date data. One Jersey organisation took stock of its critical client information and discovered that the same data was duplicated in 26 separate places - raising alarming questions about the hidden scale of wasted efforts and vulnerabilities to errors.

In the benchmark study estimates of the overall benefit averaged ?2,200 per person per annum. (?1,400 for internal documents only):

Strategic

Whilst efficiency and effectiveness improvements are frequently strategic drivers in their own right, other possibilities can be equally significant. These will be specific to each organisation and often commercially sensitive. For example, a role may be identified in deepening client relationships, enhancing service, reducing vulnerability to loss of key staff, development of skills, use of knowledge resources contained in documents to create new value for other clients, co-ordination of work across locations, creation of new information that has value for clients or through which the organisation can be better managed, or improved regulation and control. Benchmark estimates averaged ?1,300 (internal ?850) per person per year:

Business Continuity

Business continuity is a complex field in its own right. Whilst attention is usually paid to the resumption of systems and availability of alternative office accommodation, many businesses will want to ask what impact the loss of paper records will have. The benchmark results gave an expected value of the order of ?130 per person per year.

Bringing these benefits together, a multifaceted case for document management emerges:

Shareholder Value

Against these benefits, the up front implementation and lifetime costs will need to be weighed (together with the attendant risks) to come to a clear view of the bottom line impact. A sound business case will give attention to the avoidable costs of existing document management processes. For example, an organisation may already be incurring the cost of scanning every document - but perhaps doing so at a point near the end of its economic life rather than at the beginning. It may be storing an electronic copy of every internal document - but not in a form that is easy for a user to locate on demand.

Pitfalls

The examples cited here are taken from real world situations but will vary significantly from case to case. Even if there is a compelling business case for your organisation, whilst the technologies are available to do these things well, unless the implementation pays careful attention to the way people work it may end up adding more duplication and wasted effort to an already stretched business. Worse still, a poorly handled project may result in widespread disaffection or complete rejection. The sobering experience of the US Inland Revenue Service sounds a clear warning - processes were simplified “but workers considered their jobs to have worsened markedly. Instead of socialising with co-workers as they discussed or sought taxpayer case files, they worked heads down at terminals...collections agents resigned in large numbers". Such a disastrous outcome would miss a rare opportunity to simultaneously improve working environments and business performance in Islands that needs to come up with win-win solutions.

Tomorrow

This article has looked at the possibilities for today. An infrastructure being implemented now should leave open the door to future developments. An example of trends worth keeping in view is the emergence of XML standards that promise to facilitate document based data exchange / reporting and partial integration of documents with transaction processing applications. Another interesting example of a trend to watch for is the evolution of "on the fly" hyper link generation (being pioneered by Autonomy) that may lead to a step improvement in management of information resources.

Echoing Mark Twain, we can confidently advise that the report of the death of the document was an exaggeration