Paper Forms: Only the Tip of the Iceberg

I recently had occasion to visit someone in the hospital. I was impressed by the array of digital equipment being used to gather patient statistics. I was surprised, however, to see that even though hospital technicians used sophisticated digital tools to take measurements, analyze blood, and scan barcodes in the patient’s room, they still wrote the results on a paper form. At first I thought this would be a good opportunity to make that paper form an electronic form and save the data directly to the patient database. Upon further investigation, I found out that the paper form goes to the nurse––who uses the readings to determine if the patient’s medication needs to be adjusted––before going to a data-entry person. The division of labor between the technician, nurse, and data-entry worker, combined with the inability to route electronic documents, created a workflow that was dependent on a paper form. Simply substituting the paper form with an electronic form would cause a breakdown in the workflow. Paper forms are not only needed to record information, but they are an important part of the workflow.

Similarly, an accounts payable department that is trying to automate the receipt and processing of vendor invoices may find that simply scanning, indexing, and storing the paper is not a complete solution. If the workflow includes an approval process, then there must be a way to route the electronic image of the invoice to the appropriate approver. Here again, the paper document serves as a vehicle for moving the data and initiating an action.

If you’re thinking of replacing your paper forms with electronic forms, make sure you examine the business process. Replacing paper with electronic forms is not always the solution for complex business processes. What is needed is a document management system. This should include features like document routing, electronic work queues, multi-level approvals, transaction logs, and alert notifications. The term used today is enterprise content management (ECM).

The title of one online article proclaims, “ECM is a better marketing term than a technology strategy.” This is because a complete document management strategy includes both policies and technologies. These policies include the rules and regulations that govern the use of documents in your organization. Before embarking on a project for creating an ECM system for your organization/business unit, consider the following factors:

1. Your business goals in deploying an ECM system: reducing expenses, increased productivity, compliance requirements, etc.

2. The metrics needed to measure the success of the project and a way to capture them

3. Process and workflow management

4. Interoperability and integration issues with existing systems or databases

5. Retention and disposition of electronic content

6. Security and access to digital document repositories

There a still many technical factors that go into the final selection and implementation of an ECM system. These first steps will help you determine if you only need to convert paper to digital forms or if an ECM system is the right direction for your organization.

Author: Thomas Veneroso

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