In today’s business climate, things are moving faster than ever. Organizations are now tasked with managing and protecting more information, and speed and efficiency have taken over as two of the top priorities that enable organizations to keep up with the pace of business.
However, many businesses still rely on the legacy approaches to managing that influx of information, such as the multistep process of mailing, waiting and responding before a contract can be finalized. Organizations today should instead consider solutions that enable them to increase productivity, improve efficiency and deliver significant business impact. One way in which organizations can achieve these goals is by incorporating automation into their existing workflows.
Workflow automation automates everyday work tasks according to predetermined business rules to increase consistency, improve efficiency and achieve faster throughput. It helps make real-world processes simpler to follow and more repeatable. Workflow automation rarely makes a process fully automated, but the streamlining and elimination of mechanical steps, and the guidance it provides, can have a meaningful impact on the bottom line.
For example, here are a few of the benefits that can be expected from workflow automation:
Automating specific tasks around client information can help reduce some of the mundane, time-consuming tasks that often lead to unnecessary cycles. Through workflow automation, employees are instead guided through the process automatically, so they don’t have to physically remember what comes next or spend countless minutes searching for that long-lost document.
When an employee starts a new client project, for example, workflow automation can automatically provide the background context, as well as pre-fill templates for project deliverables. Similarly, when the deliverables are being finalized, workflow automation can ensure all the required reviews and approvals are completed before sharing the final outcome.
Feeling Of Safety With workflow automation, existing processes can be set up to be intuitively followed so that work is done on time and information is proactively delivered to the right destination. The correct workflows, security controls, records management and approvals are applied to information automatically, helping to ensure that employees no longer need to be fearful of making mistakes.
Strong Compliance Standards
Managing information is a critical part of achieving compliance, especially in highly regulated industries.
Workflow automation can automatically ensure policies are enforced, documents are secured and files are created, stored, used and retained in ways that comply with regulatory requirements. Workflow automation can help make sure projects move through all required steps appropriately and all rules are followed to meet compliance requirements, which can help ensure only the right people have access to sensitive information.
Improved Audit Trail
Workflow automation can also enable organizations to track information version history and immediately view an audit trail. Every step is documented automatically with a date and time stamp. Organizations gain instant audit trail visibility across all documents to ease control oversight and show evidence of compliance.
The traceable records provided by automated workflows provide proof that a required process is being followed, such as access only being granted to specific individuals, which is valuable to meet stringent external audit requirements. For example, an ISO-compliant company that has implemented workflows in a quality management system (QMS) can prove that they are processing corrective and preventative actions properly.
How To Get Started With Workflow Automation
As companies continue to add additional tools to their technology stack—from ERP (enterprise resource planning) to CRM (customer relationship management) and HR (human resources) systems—it’s important to ensure efforts aren’t being duplicated across multiple systems. Workflow automation can help be the practical tool that glues everything together.
To begin your workflow automation journey, it’s important to remember it’s OK to start small and grow. Begin with a process that won’t be overly complex to automate and use that as a means for validating the solution, easing change management and learning how to best implement automation in your organization.
Think of a process that isn’t mission critical, so if there are problems or delays with the implementation, the effects are minimal. A process that is limited in scope with respect to the organization (i.e., a department-specific process, rather than companywide) is often a good starting point. Starting with a process limited in scope can also enable more efficient testing and iterating within a smaller group to gain the most actionable feedback.
Once automating noncritical processes have been mastered, it’s easier to build on that by automating additional and more complex solutions. Starting small enables you to better understand and define your goals for implementing an automated solution so that you can ensure the automation is improving processes over time and providing the desired value.
When incorporating workflow automation, the biggest hurdle is typically the fact that people are so used to manually approving and moving information, that they’ve turned this into a key part of their job versus truly understanding it’s simply busy work. Having the discussions with employees to help them understand how workflow automation can help them focus on higher value work, instead of spending endless cycles on unnecessary manual labor, is a key part of a successful workflow automation strategy. Humans remain the biggest hindrance of success if they don’t understand the potential value from the onset.
With the massive increase in the amount of data that organizations generate, process and collect from myriad data sources, workflow automation can enable businesses to keep pace with constantly changing environments. By starting small and communicating the benefits with employees upfront, workflow automation can increase efficiency, productivity and compliance efforts—but only if approached in a well-planned manner.
While it’s absolutely true that a lot of your business processes are important, they also expose your organization to a wide range of potential issues that you may not even realize.
Every manual process performed by one of your actual human employees leaves open the possibility for productivity bottlenecks. Things are getting done, but they’re just not getting done as quickly as they should. It also creates the potential for miscommunications — two people involved in the same process just weren’t on the same page and now they’ve suffered a major setback because of it. The mishandling of information, low employee morale, you name it — these are the hidden costs of those tedious manual processes.
But the good news is that it is possible to make sure that all of this work gets done in a way that allows you to avoid every one of the issues outlined above. It’s called workflow automation and if your organization hasn’t already begun to explore its wide range of benefits, now would be an excellent time to start.
What is Workflow Automation? An Overview
At its core, workflow automation involves both the digitization and automation of business processes, all in an effort to reduce the amount of manual labor required by your employees as much as possible.
All told, there are a wide range of different types of workflows that are prime candidates for automation. These include but are certainly not limited to ones like:
Filing or making changes to documents with a consistent structure.
Reviewing and approving changes that have been made to documents.
Notifying people (like team leaders) when a change to a document has been made by an employee.
Processing accounts payable or similar administrative functions.
The management of records retention and document storage.
Executing process management reports.
And much, much more.
With an intelligent document management solution like M-Files, for example, you can make sure that documents are always routed to the correct person when they’re created or when certain status changes have been made. If you have a single document that needs to be approved by 10 team leaders before it can make its way to a client, for example, the employee who created that document shouldn’t have to spend time chasing down every single one of them to keep things moving. With workflow automation, each of those team leaders can be instantly notified that there is a document that needs to be signed off on and once they do, it continues to move further and further down the line.
Likewise, many workflow automation solutions allow you to monitor, report on and even analyze your current business processes — all to help capitalize on opportunities for improvement on an ongoing basis. Many provide reporting dashboards, for example, that allow process managers to view each step of a particular business workflow in fine detail. This puts them in a better position to eliminate the types of performance bottlenecks that cost time and money, thus improving those processes in meaningful ways.
They even offer the ability to show users a full history of all business process steps, confirming beyond the shadow of a doubt that automation software is getting the job done in a way far more efficient than humans could on their own.
In a larger sense, workflow automation also makes it easier for employees to communicate with one another — which itself is a great way to empower their ability to collaborate. A lot of the workflow automation solutions you would be using include built-in communication tools that make sharing documents and other important project-related data easier than ever. When you make it easier for your employees to work together, you increase the chances that they do — thus improving employee morale and improving the quality of work that they’re able to do in the first place.
In the end, workflow automation is more than just another IT trend or passing fad. It’s an opportunity to optimize processes across all departments in a way that eliminates human error, gets rid of performance bottlenecks and that improves the quality of work you’re able to do with your clients. It improves the speed at which your organization can move because it frees up the valuable time of your human employees so that they can focus on those matters that truly need them.
It’s also a way to save valuable resources while improving both internal and external transparency, which for many businesses may very well be the most important benefit of all.
At its core, the concept behind the Four Eyes principle is a simple one — it’s simply a matter of getting two different people to approve some type of action before it can be taken. You’ve no doubt heard the old saying of “two heads are better than one.” This is simply the same concept, applied to the larger world of business.
The Four Eyes principle is something that you see play out in a wide range of industries. In the legal profession, for example, many documents require two signatures for verification instead of one. In a retail environment, there may be a requirement to have at least two people unloading a truck or stocking shelves at the same time in an effort to reduce the risk of injury or theft. Even some data management systems require two people to approve updates to documents before those changes are committed to the data.
Regardless, what you’re really trying to do is increase accountability across the board. A second person might catch an error or other type of issue with a document that the first one missed.
Of course, in some environments, this is a lot easier said than done — particularly in those where data is spread out in a lot of different repositories and leaders may lack basic visibility into what is being stored where, when, and how. If you’re not actually sure where the most recent version of a document exists, it’s hard to get one person to sign off on it or review it — let alone two.
Thankfully, there is a solution that can allow you to leverage the full benefits of the Four Eyes principle to your advantage. A simple workflow process in an information management system like M-Files can not only make this easier than ever, but simple and efficient at the exact same time.
The Four Eyes Principle and M-Files: A Match Made in Heaven
Consider the Four Eyes principle within the context of a professional services firm, where two different people need to review the same document before it makes its way into the hands of a client. Here, this protocol provides a level of quality control on all client deliverables — not to mention a series of checks and balances to make sure that important items are getting out the door on-time.
Without getting too in the weeds, four-eye approval workflows can be configured however the company prefers.
Consecutive, Down-the-Line Approval. One such configuration is a consecutive approval workflow, where the document flows to the first approver and then on to the second afterward.
Concurrent, Parallel Approval. Another option has review and approval done concurrently, and after both have completed their review, the document process is complete.
The configuration is completely up to the user. Either way, this type of workflow automation is a great way to create an audit trail of advisory deliverables to track who made what changes, when, and why. If anything about the document comes into question in the future, you can always see who made which revisions and get insight into what their justifications were. This isn’t just helpful for tracking the overall status of documents as they make their way around your business — it’s also absolutely essential for compliance and even legal reasons, as well.
Generally speaking, the organizations that tend to have a difficult time successfully implementing the Four Eyes principle are ones that don’t really have control over their data in the first place. They tend to lack a way to really track the progress of documents that are in play, creating a situation where two different people may be working from different versions of a document — causing unnecessary errors along the way.
The right information management system like M-Files, on the other hand, is built to keep these types of situations from happening. M-Files can help break down those data silos so that communication and collaboration are easier than ever before. This in turn creates the most important benefit of all: a situation where the Four Eyes principle is executed quickly and seamlessly.
Automation in the workplace is when computers perform the types of tasks that would normally require human intervention, thus freeing up the valuable time of living, breathing employees so that they can focus on those matters that truly need them. These days, modern-day automation systems leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform everything from speech recognition to translation between languages to tasks that require visual perception and much, much more.
But really, the benefit here is about more than just allowing employees to work “smarter, not harder.” Workplace automation doesn’t just eliminate those manual, repetitive processes — it eliminates the error-prone ones, too. It’s not about replacing your human employees at all — it’s about supporting and empowering them in a way that allows them to do better work on a daily basis, all while getting guaranteed, repeatable results with the right workflow automation solutions by your side.
The Human Resources Impact of Automation in the Workplace
According to one recent study, it’s estimated that every time you have to replace a salaried employee, it will cost you the equivalent of between six and nine months of that salary to do so. If you’re replacing an employee who previously made $60,000 a year, for example, it will cost you between $30,000 and $45,000 to fill that position once things like recruiting and training expenses are accounted for.
It is exactly this type of pain point that workplace automation can help solve, as companies have already had a great deal of success with AI-enabled bots that have significantly improved their talent acquisition process. Not only can a bot be trained to track down high-value candidates based on certain keywords in both their resume and in the job description that they’re applying for, but they can also help schedule interviews too. All of this frees up actual human resources employees to spend more time working one-on-one with those candidates, rather than wading through massive volumes of paperwork in an effort to find them in the first place.
Better Technology, Better Customer Service
Customer service has long been one of the major competitive advantages for most businesses, as a massive 42% of consumers say that they would gladly pay more money for a friendly, welcoming experience. Another 52% say that they would pay more for a speedy, efficient customer experience, according to the same source.
This, too, is an area that can be positively impacted by automation in the workplace, as developers estimate that up to 80% of ALL interactions between a brand and a customer can be successfully handled via chatbots. Chatbots leverage the real data that your business is already creating to help customers automatically handle everything from bill payments to troubleshooting to other account issues, all without needing to pick up the phone and give someone a call. In addition to freeing up the time of human customer service agents to focus on those matters that actually require their immediate attention, but it’s also a great way to cut costs that can then be funneled into other areas of the business where they can do the most good, too.
Automation in Finance
Automation can also be a critical tool in terms of financial process management — something that is a leading cause of stress for most businesses, regardless of industry. Businesses can use financial process automation for essential tasks like accounts reconciliation, journal entries, preparing financial statements, and more — all in a way that virtually eliminates the risk of human error (and expensive accounting mistakes).
But automation can also be used to automatically send out invoices to customers after work has been performed, and to periodically check in with those customers to make sure they pay as soon as they’re able to. Every minute that an employee doesn’t have to spend hunting down an invoice is a minute they can focus on more forward-thinking jobs for your business. Likewise, this is also a great way to make sure those invoices are actually paid — thus putting more money in your pocket at the exact same time.
M-Files automatically monitors every step of the business process. The version history of each file tracks all workflow steps. Organizations can audit-proof their business while achieving full visibility into important business processes.
The Long-Term Impact of the Automation Revolution
All told, it’s estimated that a massive 45% of ALL activities performed by human employees on a daily basis can actually be automated using technologies that are already readily available. To put that into perspective, that means potentially saving up to $2 trillion in annual wages in the United States alone.
But again — the reason why automation in the workplace can help every type of business isn’t that it will replace your human employees with robots. Instead, it’s about making sure that those human employees have access to the tools they need to do their jobs more effectively than ever before.
By using technology to support your workers, they’re free to do better work and create stronger relationships on a daily basis. The savvy brands that understand this and embrace automation in the workplace soon will be the ones that create a foundation of success that will last them a decade or more moving forward. The ones that don’t — who still think workplace automation is a trend — will soon find themselves left behind by their savvier competitors.
What is a document management system? Put simply, a document management system is an automated business software solution used to organize, secure, store, capture, digitize, and tag business files.
Many document management systems extend beyond basic functionality to include document-related workflows. There are a ton of other add-ons, features and capabilities touted by some document management systems — which has led to other names and designations like enterprise content management (ECM), enterprise information management (EIM) and intelligent information management (IIM).
The term document management often refers to an overarching strategy for how a company stores, manages and tracks its electronic documents.
Document Management Systems Should Serve as a Central Repository
A basic function of a document management system is to serve as the hub — the central repository — for company files. Many basic DMS require a massive migration project to move all business-critical documents into the system. More advanced intelligent information management solutions like M-Files connect to existing repositories — applying metadata and relationships to documents stored in other systems. With integrations, there’s no need for migration and the environments of other systems can remain undisturbed.
One storage consideration should be information security. A central storage location helps protect enterprise information from malicious actors. With advanced dynamic permissions, organizations can control who has access to certain documents or classes of documents.
Document Management Systems Should Facilitate Document Search and Retrieval
Description of services rendered, or products purchased
With all of that information attached to the document’s metadata, searches yield better results and users can retrieve documents faster and simpler. In M-Files, documents can be found using a Google-like search, which returns the most relevant files first.
What are Document Management Systems Used for?
A document management system is used to automatically organize, secure, digitize and classify company documents, making them easy to access, edit and share. Originally, document management systems were borne as companies sought to shift operations away from a paper-based office — with manila folders and filing cabinets. Since then, document management has taken on a more central role in the enterprise tech stack, facilitating workflows and bridging disparate repositories into a central hub.
What Types of Document Management System are There?
There are a few different types of document management system — depending on how they are classified.
Cloud vs. On-Premises Document Management System
What does your preferred IT environment look like — cloud-based, on-premises or hybrid?
Cloud-based document management systems store your files in the cloud, making them accessible anywhere there’s an internet connection.
Some companies may require on-premises document management, where files are stored on a local server. This may be necessary when certain regulations mandate local storage or when certain countries require data sovereignty, for example.
A hybrid DMS allows for a combination of both options.
Folder-Based vs. Folderless Document Management System
Version control: Version control features ensure access to the latest version of a document. Version control and tracking make it easy to see what has changed, who did it and when the change was made.
Regulatory compliance support: If you operate in a regulated industry, a document management system can help reduce the risk of non-compliance. Users can automate audit trails and manage information and related workflows in accordance with compliance regulations.
Scalability: When selecting a document management system, a company should pay attention to the scalability of that system. Looking beyond current needs, find a DMS that has advanced features that accommodate busines growth or change.
Security: A DMS should provide robust security features like access permission and control features, audit trails, federated authentication, enterprise file encryption in transit and at rest, intrusion detection, data loss prevention, high availability and more.
Usability: Since a DMS becomes core technology for the business, it’s important that the user experience is a great one — with easy accessibility, little to no downtime and simple-to-use features. Employees should be able to easily access, manage and navigate files.
Collaboration: A DMS should make it simple for users to share and collaborate on documents — with features like project document management, task tracking, workflows, co-authoring and easy sharing of documents between users.
Content intelligence: Some advanced document management systems employ artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence can help classify documents by populating metadata fields, scan files for certain data and separate business-critical data from clutter.
Remote Work: A cloud-based DMS allows users to access files from anywhere and often from any device — enabling remote work anywhere: at the office, home, airport, hotel, coffee shop… anywhere.
What are the Benefits of Using a Document Management System?
A DMS should make work easier, more productive, and more efficient, saving staff hours of tedious tasks and the exasperation of not finding the documents they need quickly. Main benefits include the following:
When workers spend less time searching for documents or tending to manual, repetitive tasks, they have more time to dedicate to value-adding work.
Compliance requirements for many business documents can be complicated and challenging. A DMS helps organizations avoid fines, revoked licenses or even criminal liability by automating key documents to meet regulatory requirements.
Fast and Easy Document Search
Workers spend an average of 18 minutes searching for a document, according to Forrester. A metadata-based DMS makes it quick and easy to find just the right document.
A DMS makes sharing information and collaborating easy, allowing documents from different sources to be accessible from multiple locations. Users can share documents, monitor workflows, co-author documents, and more.
As one observer noted, even large disasters like Chernobyl didn’t completely stem from a lack of documentation. This crisis caused so much damage because people failed to follow the planned and documented processes in time. While it’s important to document processes, no flowcharts or instructions will help businesses run more efficiently or overcome unexpected unusual obstacles if nobody follows them.
How Business Process Management Protects Businesses
To illustrate failures in process management in an even simpler and more common way, you can consider a process failure to causing a car accident by running a stop sign. Licensed drivers should know the process for safely crossing an intersection. They even know they can suffer such consequences as getting a ticket or damaging their vehicle by violating the rules. Still, lapses happen with manual processes, and these are every day and everywhere occurrences. Meanwhile, it doesn’t really matter who caused the collision; everybody involved stands to lose time and money and maybe even suffer injuries.
In the future, maybe technology will find a way to stop cars at the intersection until the road has cleared, as happens with self-driving cars. While a business cannot drive itself, companies do have an opportunity to test and enforce their business processes in a rather remarkable and automated way with the right systems in place.
Business process management statistics from a survey by BPTrends paint a grim picture of the state of even documenting the business process:
Overall, 96% of businesses reported having at least some business processes documented, which of course, is a good first step.
Only 11% of the respondents said they never documented processes, but only 23% reported frequently doing so.
Only 2% of the companies surveyed said they always documented business processes.
For some specific examples, only 1% mentioned always documenting standard processes, the types of things they most often do. Slightly higher but still one-digit percentages of businesses always documented process improvement, the way they used data, manager training, or even major processes. In any case, this survey uncovered that businesses aren’t even consistently documenting processes, much less tracking or enforcing them. You can imagine how many more drivers would run stop signs if they thought the red hexagon was just a suggestion and not a rule.
Why Businesses Invest in Business Process Management
Companies with process change projects underway: 37%
Most of the survey respondents said their company focused on incremental process improvements and not a company-wide change in culture. In addition, they said the biggest obstacle they faced was simply selling the idea of documenting, tracking, and improving processes to senior managers. Some mentioned that they believed their leadership became confused because many departments had all presented their own projects, so this made it tough to get attention. This idea brings up the excellent point that business process management improvement could gain more traction with top-down leadership and as part of an enterprise-wide effort.
How M-Files Makes Business Process Management a Seamless Part of Efficient Workflow
The M-Files intelligent information management platform doesn’t just organize, maintain, and track your documents. It also automates the process of keeping your workflow on track and helps improve quality control through each step of the process. You won’t have to struggle with documents getting lost in the SPAM folder of the next responsible person’s email. Instead, that individual will get an alert that they need to attend to that document and one simple interface to use to perform their task. Such features as automatic approval notifications are already included in the system.
After that employee has completed their work, the process continues by moving on to the next person in the chain. Meanwhile, your valuable information and businesses processes will get protected by certified security, version control, recovery features, and an automated system. You can also integrate M-Files with such other enterprise-scale software as your CRM to make the transition seamless. M-Files also makes it easy to turn your workplace into a paperless office and to give employees remote access, so they can work where they need to.