In the context of documents, workflow means moving the documents. Goods Delivery Notes accompany merchandise and come back to the seller duly acknowledged by the buyer; Invoices have to be sent to the buyers; Checks have to be sent to suppliers; Letters have to be sent to many persons and organizations; and so on.
In addition to the external communications illustrated above, there are internal movements of documents. Time cards have to be sent to the payroll clerk; Pay sheets have to move to accounting and treasury departments; Memos have to move from person to person.
Unless the flow of documents is controlled through carefully developed policies and procedures, results are chaotic. Goods Received Notes acknowledged by customers can be misplaced leading to disputes about invoices. Intended recipients of official memos might dispute ever having received the document. Employees might not get paid correctly or on time.
The issues of confidentiality and business interests might also be compromised unless the flow of documents is controlled properly. Legal regulations require you to keep several kinds of data confidential. Business interests might require that you keep certain sensitive data accessible only to a restricted few. If you have inadequate control over the document flow, confidential and sensitive data can easily fall into the wrong hands.
Before exploring how document workflow is controlled, take a quick look at the kinds of documents that arise in a business organization.
- Text Documents: Letters, Reports, Statements, Contracts
- Drawings: Blueprints, Organization Charts, Workflow Charts
- Images: Photographs
- Printed Materials: News articles, Reference materials
- Forms: Invoices, Orders, Attendance cards, Bin cards
Almost every one of these documents involves some kind of workflow. Information has to be gathered from other documents for preparing a letter or report. Contracts have to be reviewed before signing. Information from other documents, collected from other persons or departments, have to be summarized for preparing statements like a sales analysis.
Policies and procedures, carefully developed and properly implemented, are the key to document workflow management. Implementation also involves adequate training to personnel who handle the documents.
The policies seek to identify opportunities for saving costs while meeting different requirements. In the absence of such policies, it’s quite easy to incur unnecessary costs. For example, documents can be kept for unduly long periods, or in perpetuity, because no one knows when a document can be destroyed, or how to destroy it.
Procedures implement the policies on the ground. Documents will be routed efficiently to all concerned persons. Access to sensitive documents will be controlled through such means as passwords and permissions. Needed actions will be flagged as they become due.
The basic functions are summarized by three words: Capture, Manage, and Distribute.
Data has to be captured at the best point considering convenience and cost. The captured data has to be managed effectively to serve intended purposes while keeping the data safe. Data and documents need to be distributed to concerned persons in a manner that ensures their safety and minimizes the cost involved.
And the basic workflow pattern is summarized by: Creation, Updating, Review, and Approval.
When data is captured, a record or document is typically created. The creation process must be designed for ease and error-free operation.
Created records and documents typically need to be updated, changed, worked on further, or deleted. This must also be an easy and error-minimizing process.
A single person rarely has complete control over a document or record. Proper authentication and prevention of errors and frauds typically requires that one or more persons, not involved in the creation or updating, review the created/updated documents.
Another typical practice is that while the creation or updating is done by operations personnel, it has to be approved by a supervisor or manager before it’s put to intended use. Thus, approval is usually the last process before the workflow moves to the next stage.
If you observe the operations in an office, you would typically find the following processes taking place:
- Writing or typing
- Making copies
- Getting written or printed originals or copies
- Moving these documents to another person, either inside or outside the organization. (This might involve some preparations like putting a document in an envelope or other protective packing)
- Monetary transactions based on documentary authorizations
- Storing documents away, safely and in an organized manner
During earlier times, all documents involved paper (including carbon paper) and paperboards (for folders and tags).
Document management systems have undergone a radical change since the appearance of computers and Internet. So has workflow.
In a modern computerized and connected office, workflow typically involves:
- Creation of digital records on computer disks
- Sending records to other persons using digital means
- Getting printouts at the points needed (instead of sending printed documents by hand to various places)
- Scanning to convert printed materials into digital format
- Using OCR technologies to make the scanned documents editable
- Making copies as needed instead of preparing the maximum number of copies at the stage of document creation itself
- Using fax and e-mail for mailing documents
With the change in the practices came new tools.
- Fax machines
- Desktop printers
- Internet connectivity
The modern workflow consists of typing at computer terminals or scanning printed materials, printing needed documents at your desktop or a central printer, and e-mailing or faxing the documents to concerned persons
The appearance of digital signature protocols is eliminating the need for paper documents even further.
And content management systems, where many people access a central database and work collaboratively on documents, have made the document workflow and its management far more productive.