We continue to rely on paper-based information in many of our day-to-day activities. Form filling is a regular feature in our private and business lives, making paper an important and popular medium for communication despite the growing trend to online processes.
This means that businesses have to be able to deal effectively with all types of communication, whether electronic or paper-based.
This is where business process automation comes into the fray and many companies are finding that these initiatives are transforming their business by optimising efficiencies, reducing costs, and increasing shareholder value.
Businesses can realise significant cost reductions and efficiencies by automating business process flows, eliminating non-value-adding human interventions, and allowing enterprise applications to communicate intelligently and seamlessly share information.
Taking the financial example
When we think of particularly paper-intensive businesses, it's likely that banks and insurance companies spring to mind. These organisations, along with many others, are traditionally paper based, which means that the processes that drive their businesses begin, and sometimes end, with manually completed forms.
From a customer perspective, setting up a new account or initiating a claim can be needlessly complex and involve reams of paperwork. This is not favourable in terms of customer service and for the business itself, this can prove cumbersome, inefficient and costly to process.
After all, once the form has been completed it then has to be checked and the data input to the company's systems. This is where human error can have a huge impact for all concerned.
In fact, the effect of these errors has contributed to the cost of invoices within all types of companies averaging between £10 and £30 each. Duplicate payments, misplaced invoices, lack of visibility across systems and high cost of errors all impact significantly on issues relating to manually entered critical information into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
A means of streamlining this process is necessary to lower the costs and to reduce the instance of companies seriously frustrating their customers, lowering potential customer satisfaction and, ultimately, risking in loss of business. The solution need not be full of complexity.
Putting the processes in place
The true challenge is translating the idea of improved processes to a reality that works within the day-to-day operations of a company.
In automating business processes, organisations need to do more than put forms online. There needs to be a thorough examination of the existing processes and a focus on developing an intuitive system for users.
By capturing transaction information - structured and unstructured - in an electronic format, managing it through a completely digital workflow, and archiving it in dedicated content management systems, organisational efficiencies can be achieved.
Together these complementary technologies enable business processes that integrate people, systems and data to form a platform for capturing, linking, routing and managing information as it moves through a business process.
Of course, documents come in all shapes and sizes and many different formats. The ability to capture the information that is stored in these forms is quite complex. After all, a form might be anything from a magazine coupon to a complex examination paper.
It might include multiple choice tick boxes or perhaps a number of handwritten sections that enable convenient entry of information in a semi-structured format.
These forms work on one level because as a consumer we are very familiar with their layout and content. However, for the company required to process the information the task is really quite significant.
When processing high volumes of forms containing various handwriting styles, the need for efficiency is greater than ever, especially if quick responses need to be created and sent based on the content.
Regardless of how neat and tidy each form is, high cost, delays and probability of errors are all issues related to manually entering this valuable information into your systems.
Tackling the mail room
Even though companies now communicate a great deal via email and mobile phone, the postman still calls each day with a wad of paper-based post that requires attention.
Post contains important and irrelevant information alike, yet both demand valuable resources to process and get it where it needs to be. The cost of handling is estimated to be up to 40 times greater than the cost of an automated transaction, but extracting the value in its content is difficult to realise and almost impossible to protect.
The speed of electronic communication has changed the expectations of customer response time and the handling of incoming information, especially if it demands a response, creates big demands for an organisations resources.
Modern technology enables employees to be more mobile and efficient in their day to day roles and yet their white mail, which remains incompatible with their current technology, is either waiting for them at their office or delivered via traditional post services.
It is not acceptable to assume that humans will abandon paper. On the contrary, the paperless office has been a myth for over 20 years and yet paper continues to be the preferred medium for communications in many instances.
The emergence of other media's such as email, mobile and fax has compounded the complexity of information management and organisations can only achieve efficiencies, cost reduction and regulatory compliance if their solution addresses all these issues.
Reaping the rewards
Organisations that have committed to business process automation have been able to achieve significant and meaningful business benefits including increased efficiency in processing transactions across business systems.
The Carphone Warehouse is a prime example. Here, the company has implemented a document processing system to handle its inbound invoices more efficiently. The new approach has reduced a 30 day process for cash back coupons to 15 days and The Carphone Warehouse hopes to further reduce this cycle to just ten days over the course of time.
The impact of this and the other implementations is a dramatic improvement in customer satisfaction, which further impacts on the financial viability of the company.
The Carphone Warehouse estimates a significant saving on the redemptions side of the business as a result of the implementation of around £400,000 over three years, primarily due to lower contact rates from customers driven by a shorter turnaround time.
The new systems have also improved the company's ability to react to changes in the market whether instigated from inside or externally.
This agility means that despite the size of the organisation, The Carphone Warehouse is able to implement and support new offers in an incredibly short time. And, with greater automation comes improved scalability which is essential in a company where accelerated growth is a matter of course.
Nick Willcox, group director of shared services, comments, 'Now, despite the size of our company we are able to respond to our customers as though we were still an SME. In this competitive market that is a real coup!'
When faced with growing competition, companies will look for ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs. The most significant efficiencies and cost reductions are gained by automating forms processing.
A single point of entry for multiple information (paper, email, mobile, fax) types entering the organisation is the first step to success. This will enable a company to streamline and automate the entire process of handling incoming paper based information.
No matter what the format of the information it must be captured as it enters the company, identified, processed and routed based on the workflow rules that apply to its media and content. With full traceability from entry to completion, every action for each transaction forms part of a comprehensive audit trail.
By automating business processes in this way companies can reduce costs, cycle time, user frustration, and input errors, while at the same time increasing speed of transactions, productivity, information integrity and access to relevant information.
Within automated business processes, information flows seamlessly through the company, minimising the number of steps needed to complete a transaction and the amount of time spent manually entering, correction, and searching for data.
Presenting and receiving process information in an intelligent, user-friendly manner ensures that information is captured right the first time, decisions are made correctly and the process integrity is maintained from start to finish, across the business and externally to customers, partners and other parties. The result is an efficient, productive, smart and competitive business.