The concept and advantages of a paperless office were first introduced in 1975 , and since that time, the quest to achieve the pure paperless workplace has been ongoing. Despite advances in technology, many of our business processes still include passing paper from person to person.
Tasks such as purchase requests, hiring provisioning, and order tracking are some examples of paper forms that historically require manual handling. These forms that are passed from person to person risk being misplaced, delayed in the depths of a cluttered desk, or even destroyed accidentally. All too often, these are single-copy instances that are not backed up electronically or stored in a central location where it is easily retrievable. There are many theories as to why we haven’t made the change to be paperless, such as the concept of affordances; it appears that paper will be around for awhile longer.
By combining the use of paper-based forms and electronic forms with automated workflows, we can create more efficient offices.
Identifying and Understanding Business Processes for Automation
Your first step will be to identify systems that can eliminate or reduce the need for paper. Once you have identified likely candidates, you will need to be able to define and understand the business process and goals. Don’t forget to take into account such things as compliance and retention requirements in determining whether or not paper can be reduced or eliminated.
The next step in converting to a paperless workflow is to recognize the cost savings and gains in efficiency and effectively communicate those savings to the stakeholders of the business process. Without the right incentive, you will encounter reluctance to change.
Workflow is defined as the process that defines and controls the completion of one or more tasks to bring about the realization of an identified goal.
Choose the Technology
You will need to identify the right technology in your environment for your user input forms and workflow engine. There are many options for turning your paper-based forms into electronic forms. If your process requires a print-ready form, then technologies such as Adobe’s PDF or Microsoft’s InfoPath may be worth investigating. If you need to collect data and save it without regard to a presentation format, a simple Web browser–based form and a database may be all you need.
Whichever technology you select for the user input, make sure that it is compatible with the workflow engine that you are going to use. Workflow engine technology has come a long way in just a few years. Companies like Microsoft and K2 have enterprise-class workflow, and several Java-based products are available as well. Go to your favorite search page and search for “workflow engines,” and you will find a plethora of results.
Creating the Workflow
After the technologies have been selected, you will need to document the workflow logic. This step will help you build the requirements of an automated solution. It will also help you understand where potential problems with an automated process may occur.
Armed with the workflow logic, you are now ready to begin creating your workflow. If you took the time to really define and understand the business process as well as document the workflow logic, then this step shouldn’t be difficult since you will be applying these findings to code. Two pieces of advice: avoid infinite loops in the workflow, and make sure that your code can handle exceptions whenever there is an unknown variable in the logic. For example, if the workflow involves an approval process and the approver is on vacation, what happens? Perhaps the approver can delegate the task to someone else or maybe, after a predetermined time has elapsed, the uncompleted task is automatically assigned to another person in a similar role. These are details that should be discussed during the building of the workflow logic stage.
When implemented correctly, automated workflows and electronic form solutions can make an office run more efficiently while reducing overall costs. I have seen manual processes that historically took three or more days reduced to a 20-minute process using an electronic form and an automated workflow.
- “The Office of the Future.” Business Week. 30 June 1975
- Sellen, Abigail J., Harper, Richard H. R. (2001). “The Myth of the Paperless Office.” Cambridge, MA, USA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0 262 19464 3