Workflow and Document Management

Workflow and its related technologies promised us paperless offices, but has failed to deliver. NME took another look at workflow to see where the real value is.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  July 5, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Many years ago, advances in imaging, document management and workflow systems promised the demise of paper in business environments. Dead trees, we were told, would no more be the foundation of our daily information flow.

Today, there's as much if not more paper moving across desks, despite the voluminous increase in digital data.

So what went wrong? Is workflow and document management a dead end, or is there still potential for the market, and revenue for the vendors?

Document management is concerned with the storage and retrieval of documents. In a large organisation there will usually be many different types of document. Some may exist on paper only and others may be stored in an electronically readable format. Unifying the various sources of information requires the paper documents to be converted to electronic format, then indexed and stored in a way that is at the very least as accessible as the original.

Workflow applies to a similar problem from the other direction; looking at the business processes that created the paper in the first place, and migrating them to electronic services. The goal is not to reduce the paper - that's just a side effect - the idea is to improve efficiency and consistency.

Put the two together, and you also get the foundations of a pretty solid knowledge management solution, buzzwords which have taken over from "the paperless office", with good reason - taking away the paper is not something that gets businessmen excited. Show them a way to turn their corporate knowledge resources into a bottom-line contributor, and they whip out the chequebooks.

Along the way, vendors have cottoned on to the fact that document management is a niche market, but KM is big business.

Haider Salloum, product marketing manager of Microsoft Gulf & Eastern Mediterranean, that "according the latest numbers, it's expected that the size of the [document management] market in the whole world will be around US$4-5 billion. And if you compare that to knowledge management in general, you find that KM will reach this year something like $12bn."

Clearly, he says, knowledge management is a more lucrative field, but that doesn't mean people have forgotten about the more basic approaches. "It's a small segment of the market but there's a lot of players out there. Especially in our part of the world - you find a lot of companies that focus on document management, which is fine, which is healthy."
||**||Core processes|~||~||~|
Document management is particular well suited to businesses whose core processes revolve around specific paper forms. Good examples of this include legal offices, logistics houses and delivery organisations. Organisations such as these will generally have hefty paper archives, and constant paper traffic through the company. Adding an electronic archival system is an easy migratory step without disturbing the flow - documents can be scanned, converted to text and indexed, then stored centrally with both the image and the text version. This immediately provides benefits in terms of information accessibility, and is easily accomplished with solutions from high-end imaging companies such as Ricoh and Canon, although there are many smaller players who have good offerings.

From here, it is easy to move on to the next step, putting the electronic documents directly into the workflow. This was the revolution that was supposed to give us the paperless office, but Salloum says the market wanted to evolve gently, starting small and gradually expanding the projects as the business adjusts.

"It's not an all or nothing thing, the problem with such solutions is that they change all the time because your business changes," he says. "And if you take a project that spans two years and you say 'I want to do everything online and everything digital and everything on workflow', you're moving in to a high-risk project that will take you a long time and by the time you finish it your business requirements have changed. So a lot of the companies can start to realise the powers of the workflow by implementing a basic solutions in the beginning and then adding or changing them as their need grows."

"Workflow has also received some changes," Salloum says. "People were looking first at basic workflow to automate basic functions and forms within their company. That's still the case, there's a lot of companies are also looking for a full solution that will be built customised on their company's logic, the full corporate perspective rather than a departmental small solutions."

Because suddenly moving the flow from a physical form to an electronic one can be jarring and require adjustment, Salloum says it is common to encounter resistance from the users.

"Any change is difficult to do. Technologically it's not a big deal - you can implement the systems, especially document management, it's mainly a very low risk kind of solution to implement, but the problem is making the users get used to using such solution, so there's a lot of problems related to the personnel themselves," he says. "Knowledge is power, so why would an employee want to share it? So that's why a lot of the companies implement it step by step so that users get used to using it, and not in one big jump." Also, he says, companies look for ways to motivate the users, providing incentives to make the adoption of the system less arduous.
||**||Local success|~||~||~|
If document management and workflow methodologies have taken time to woo US and European markets, one might expect there to be a hefty lag in local deployment. Not so, says Salloum, who says the vast majority of big businesses here are deploying knowledge-based solutions.

"If we look at the middle east market, it's fair to segment the market. On one hand you've got the top high-end enterprises, the large companies, with 500 PCs and above.

"These are fairly large organisations that have IT departments and they have a good budget that they can work with. A lot of them are implementing some sort of knowledge solution. They have email and a portal and an intranet, a basic document management here, an internal application over there and so on. Although now the approach we see is rather than having a [point solutions] people are starting to look for a wide look at the enterprise - to find the steps and go over them step by step rather than buying individual pieces on their own."

One step down the ladder, things are less advanced, Salloum says. "On the other hand there are medium companies who have only [taken] basic steps [to] any knowledge management solution. They just implemented email, they have an intranet, they might have a portal system - nothing more. And on the lower end you've got people who are still don't have corporate email. They're still using [dialup] ISP internet, and Hotmail or Yahoo as their email and so on. These people are at the lowest end of the scale, the small to the entry-level medium companies here in the Middle East."

The positive slant here is that the market is developing, Salloum says, and with it coming a steady interest in workflow and information management. "A key is to have Internet connectivity that's cheap and affordable. And although we see this going very fast in a country like UAE, in other countries around the region it's still a very high cost to actually go ahead for a permanent connection to the internet. So there are some obstacles with the infrastructure, with the skills, that need to be tackled first before we see more companies moving into the building blocks. However for the large companies - a lot of them have a lot of knowledge management systems up there on the net, in their intranets, within their corporate networks, wherever. And they have a lot of components. However, we see them going to look at the holistic view of the enterprise and how can they have one plan with multiple steps that goes around reaching a high level of knowledge management."
||**||Knowledge management?|~||~||~|
Although knowledge management often sounds like the ultimate goal for any such project, that's not necessarily true. KM and document management are very different fields, and although naturally complementary, aren't required to operate in tandem. It's perfectly possible to deploy KM solutions without any real document management - Salloum points out that Microsoft is a company with a market capitalisation in the region of $250-300 billion, it has physical assets of more like $25-40 billion. A lot, but a small percentage. Although the company does have a heavy investment in workflow and electronic forms and so on, it's contributing to a fairly small chunk of the total worth, which is comprised of intellectual assets.

In reverse, the same is true. Document management and imaging can be used as very effective document archival, with huge benefits to organisations such as government bodies, legal firms and so on, without adding the additional complexity of a KM layer.

It's important to understand your business, what you want to streamline and what the end goal is, before considering any of these solutions.

"I hate the people in the industry that specify 'if you want to do this you have to do 1...2...3...4." Salloum declares. "It seriously depends on the customer and what the customer needs. And a lot of the time the customer does not need to pay so much to get benefits, a lot of the customers can start with one step. A huge step to start with is just email. Another way to reduce the paper is also to have a portal - a shared portal - where you share the knowledge, where teams of people can work collaboratively on one project." This can easily be extended to partners as an extranet, of course.

Start small, Salloum reaffirms. ""A lot of the people nowadays, they say 'OK we have these four or five basic forms that we want to automate, like a leave form, an expense form - any company would have something like this. And we see a lot of the companies that implemented in the past only an email solution, now they're going ahead and implementing a lot of the workflow components. [I know a company that has] 80 forms and they decided to make all of these workflow based and email based, and even web-based so their employees can access them from any web client. A lot of the companies in this region are going ahead with getting email and getting workflow on top of it, having some sort of an intranet. We see it gradually moving. Especially the workflow component, we see a lot of demand on workflow nowadays, at least for the basic workflow."

Even if the paperless office remains an elusive dream, that doesn't mean document management and workflow solutions aren't worth a second look.

"I think people realised that reaching 100% paperless office is very difficult," Salloum concludes. "So a lot of them have started [small]. They have some document management in-house, they have some basic workflow, and they know that they have reached a higher levels of productivity with these kinds of tools. But I don't think the paper is going to go away completely from the offices as it was positioned and promoted before."

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