The human body consists of a series of systems (e.g. respiratory, circulatory, digestive, nervous, etc.) that all play a role in ensuring an individual is healthy and productive. Similarly, most business processes can be broken down into sets of independent systems that all have an impact on the eventual outcome. Recent advancements in ECM (enterprise content management) and storage technologies now provide your organization with the tools necessary to maximize efficiencies by automating many of its business processes. However, in order to successfully automate a process end to end, you must realize that multiple technologies will be involved to address individual steps. Furthermore, a significant level of convergence between these component technologies will be necessary in order to ensure the process is truly automated. This article is aimed to provide you with an overview of some of the basic building blocks for an optimal BPA solution.
EXTEND DOCUMENT CAPTURE TO THE KNOWLEDGE WORKER
The first critical components of a BPA solution are image and data capture technologies. Content must be able to be captured in a variety of formats (e.g. paper, fax, computer-generated documents, and e-mail) and from multiple source devices. A large portion of the efficiencies gained from automating a business process comes from identifying and eliminating the points of failure often involved with managing critical documents in paper form. Therefore, it is typically a best practice for organizations to integrate paper-based documents into the automated business process as early in the cycle as possible. This practice is leading to the emergence of some new business trends in regard to document capture.
“Document capture used to be a very centralized, batch-oriented process, but the desire for organizations to image documents earlier in a business process is moving the application out to the knowledge workers in the front office,” says Andrew Pery, VP of marketing for Kofax. “Knowledge workers are typically not technically trained and demand tools that make it intuitive for them to capture, analyze, classify, categorize, and process the information contained in paper documents.”
This trend is a primary driver for the proliferation of workgroup/desktop scanners and MFP (multifunction peripheral) devices being utilized in distributed imaging environments. Dedicated document scanners and MFPs are largely being used in harmony to meet specific corporate capture requirements. For example, workgroup scanners place a dedicated, low-cost document capture device at the immediate disposal of the knowledge workers primarily responsible for initially injecting documents into a business process. Many of today’s workgroup scanners provide an interface where documents can be electronically captured with the touch of a single button, eliminating much of the scanner setup and adjustment that was formerly necessary to capture a clean image.
MFPs, on the other hand, are being used mainly as networked ad hoc capture devices. They provide a central office location where numerous employees can inject documents into a business process when the need arises. These devices typically aren’t utilized to image high volumes of documents from a single employee, but instead provide a familiar copy machine interface where multiple knowledge workers can intuitively capture the occasional documents they encounter that may be critical to a business process.
TRANSFORM UNSTRUCTURED CONTENT INTO USEABLE DATA
In addition to creating a scanning environment that allows you to capture documents as early in the process as possible, a sound BPA solution also requires all critical data to be extracted from these images and leveraged by other applications in the business process. The data capture software used in a BPA solution should move beyond simply capturing structured data (i.e. data that can be consistently located in the same designated areas on a document) and have the ability to capture valuable unstructured content as well. It is estimated that more than 80% of the information that companies generate is unstructured, and the ability to properly capture and manage this information is instrumental in automating many key business processes.
“A successful BPA solution largely relies on your ability to not only capture unstructured data, but transform it into useable information that can be consumed by other applications,” says Pery. “The data capture software you use in your BPA solution should be able to extract and classify appropriate content and metadata and integrate that information into a back end application that can trigger automated workflows that can improve validation, reconciliation, or customer response processes.”
SEEK WEB SERVICES TO EASE INTEGRATION
Sharing the data captured from paper documents with other technology applications and back end systems was formerly a proposition that required a great deal of customized programming. However, with the emergence of SOA (service-oriented architecture) and Web services, integrating multiple applications can be a much easier, quicker, and cheaper undertaking for knowledge workers.
To maximize the success of your BPA deployment, it may be in your best interest to seek out front end capture and back end content management software packages whose architectures are designed to expose individual features and applications as consumable Web services. For example, when the workflow functionality of an ECM software package is available as a Web service, other applications can access it with little hard-line programming, allowing organizations to share information between systems with little technical roadblocks.
Scanning server hardware also exists that provides a thin-client approach for integrating scanning applications into back end business processes through Web services. This allows documents imaged at a scanning device to directly interface with the Web service components of other technology applications in an SOA.
UNIVERSAL DATABASES PROVIDE A PLATFORM FOR ECM
Once images are captured and metadata is used to automatically populate fields in other line-of-business applications or trigger automated document workflows, the content ultimately needs a place to reside. Several independent ECM software packages exist on the market that provide a repository and intuitive interface to manage this data. The one requirement of the ECM system you choose is that it must be able to easily integrate and share data with other line-of-business applications such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, CRM (customer relationship management) systems, account management systems, and patient management systems. These integrations should allow images stored in the ECM repository to be accessed and displayed directly from the line-of-business application screen. This process can be facilitated through the use of Web services, but many independent ECM software packages also have customized integration programs predesigned for key line-of-business applications.
An emerging opportunity for larger enterprises is to use a common, universal database as a single, integrated repository for capturing, classifying, and retaining content based on enterprise policies. This approach can provide an enterprise with a platform for the life cycle management of electronic records, so organizations can fulfill regulatory compliance mandates in an accurate and repeatable way. A universal content database can also help make a BPA implementation easier on knowledge workers.
“A content database allows an enterprise to manage both structured and unstructured content in a cohesive way,” says Rich Buchheim, senior director of enterprise content management strategy for Oracle. “This includes not just transactional and analytical data, but also document images, PDF files, e-mail messages, HTML files, URLs, spreadsheets, and much more. Users don’t need to know anything about databases or do any special archiving, retrieval, or record keeping to manage content. The database handles the logistics under the covers, while the users see a familiar environment of files and folders.”
START WITH THE PROCESS, NOT THE TECHNOLOGY
While a sound BPA solution can dramatically enhance your business efficiency, if you approach the project strictly from a technology perspective, the project may be doomed before it begins. “Technology in and of itself will not solve your business process problems,” says Pery. “You need to identify and aim to correct points of failure in your existing manual processes first. Only then should you begin to evaluate the technologies that may be suitable in automating these processes. If you simply throw technology at the problem, you will only be automating a broken process.”
Once you begin the technology evaluation process, it may also be in your best interest to secure the services of a systems integrator or solutions provider that can effectively integrate the various components of a BPA technology solution. You may also want to look for vendors that have preexisting partnerships in place with other manufacturers to minimize the level of customization that may be ultimately involved in building the BPA solution. In particular, out-of-the-box integrations with common back end applications, such as SAP and Oracle, can be beneficial for your business to consider.