The IT industry has been playing whack-a-mole since its inception. We’ve been applying sophisticated technology to our biggest business problems not once but repeatedly as each new generation of technology offers and delivers order of magnitude improvements to our business processes. In some cases we’re on our fourth or fifth iteration of solutions.
For instance, about 25 years ago most business processes were manual. People did things for customers and often this involved paper documents. Document management systems came along at the end of the last century to modernize documents by storing them in digital format for quick retrieval. The improvements saved businesses millions of dollars in overhead and the problem was deemed solved.
However, digitizing a document (a very good idea) is not the same as automating the process that the document participates in. For many businesses modern document storage and retrieval supports manual business processes. These businesses still spend a lot on printing documents and manually or semi-manually routing them around the building or throughout the customer base. Today businesses looking to tackle business process automation are rightly investigating ways to keep documents from being printed even as they circulate.
That’s a different problem from the earlier one defined by storage. It wasn’t even visible when document digitization was thought to be the key need. If you manage business processes that still use lots of paper and printing, welcome to your personal edition of whack-a-mole.
Today’s edition of the problem comes with an especially menacing complication. Many CIO’s would love the chance to streamline their document dependent processes and the ROI for most of them is readily apparent in avoiding the costs of paper, printing, and better customer engagement. But with upwards of 80 percent of their budgets on average dedicated to keeping the lights on, it’s hard to grab even the low hanging fruit if it means a purchase.
You can find the lowest of the low hanging fruit not in some exotic business processes but in the every day customer administration that organizations spend so much time in. From professional services to healthcare to finance, opportunity is easy to spot in any business that produces a custom or semi-custom product or service directly to customers. Advancing regulation also plays a role increasing the amount of paper documents involved even in routine processes. So the problem is not getting better and whack-a-mole is really just a feeble attempt to keep it from getting worse.
The solution to this dilemma may be as simple as changing software vendors. The original digital document vendors may not have an incentive to change their business models or their products to address the new reality. They’ve defined solutions to “document management problems” but in an era that needs business process solutions, their models and technologies may be a bad fit.
If any of this feels familiar there’s a lot you can do. First look for new solutions that avoid putting documents back on paper, for example, to capture a signature. Signature capture is one of the easiest processes to digitize with modern software. Also, consider what’s in your documents. Are people still reading them on multiple occasions to understand what promises and commitments your company made that need to be implemented? Or are there customer commitments buried in physical documents that indicate future purchases? Paying people to read documents is expensive and unnecessary.
Digital documents, unlike those on paper, can feed the data they contain to analytics engines. The resulting insights might drive an ROI many times greater than the cost savings from simply automating the storage and retrieval of documents.
My two cents
As good as document digitization solutions were twenty years ago, the business need has changed and many vintage systems show their age today. Modernizing document based business processes can, in many cases, offer attractive ROIs that even budget-constrained organizations will benefit from. The key to all of this might be in how we frame the business problem. Is it the same document problem your business fixed decades ago or did time and circumstance change the need to something greater? A new generation of solutions based on more modern demands can provide order of magnitude improvements. The first step may be to evaluate the problem with fresh eyes.
(Cross-posted @ Beagle Research Group)