What is productivity? In industrial contexts, it’s relatively easy to measure. If a worker can create two widgets in one minute, he or she is more productive than someone who can produce only one widget in the same time period. With the back office, tracking productivity is more challenging. Activities like accounting, legal, customer service and human resources are subjective and irregular. There may be well-established workflows and systems of record, but significant gaps disrupt smooth, productive work. Enterprise Content Management (ECM) emerges as a solution, a technology that helps optimize the back office through better, faster organization of files and data across multiple systems.
The Gulf Between Structured and Unstructured Tasks and Data
Discussions of back office productivity suffer from confusion about the difference between structured and unstructured tasks and the data involved in each type of workflow. Structured tasks are highly regular and repetitive. Insurance claims processing offers an example. Though each claim is unique, the process of assessing the claim is extremely well-defined. In fact, the workflow itself is likely coded right into the claims processing software based on business rules.
A structured task creates structured data, which is usually stored in a database attached to a system of record. Documents and files associated with the structured tasks have a parallel process of ingestion and tagging that automatically tags them with the proper case record and so forth. For example, if someone emails a photo of a car accident to the insurance claims adjuster, he or she will invariably have a preset uploading process that marks the photo with the claim number and attaches it to the claim record.
Unstructured tasks are, well, less structured. Their workflows are unpredictable and highly variable. The writing of a sales proposal offers an example. The proposal is usually a Word document written by multiple contributors. It travels by email from person to person, and then goes before one or more approvers, who may request edits and email it back to the original writers. If there is a file naming convention, the stakeholders can track which version of the document is current. In reality, however, file naming conventions don’t work very well. People forget to use them, or they get lost in staff turnover and the rapid fire pace of the back office.
Unstructured data is the companion of unstructured tasks. Even when there is a core system that handles the workflow, e.g. a CRM system for customer service, the variability of the process leads to random documents being stored haphazardly around the back office. A customer service case may beget a dozen word files, PDFs and image files that wind up on SharePoint, network folders and shared file drives. Even a paperless environment can get messy if it’s part of an unstructured workflow.
The productivity drain occurs because workers must dig around to find the right files. Or, worse, they perform tasks on the wrong versions and then must repeat the work. Exceptions to regular processes are often the culprits. Imagine, for instance, what can happen when there is a billing dispute arising out of a customer service problem. Resolving the issue requires two people working on two separate systems — billing and CRM — using email and file drives to store related documents.
Structured task workflows are expensive to set up and change. They favor large organizations with well-defined and slow-changing business models. They don’t deal with variability and subjectivity. For most businesses, unstructured or partially structured work is the norm, along with the disorganized storage of documents.
How Enterprise Content Management (ECM) Enables Productivity
It is possible to increase the productivity of workers who deal with unstructured data in unstructured workflows. One effective approach is to apply an Enterprise Content Management solution. ECM can help organize the complete range of data associated with business processes.
ECM in this case refers to a generation of tools that transcend the traditional definition of the technology. Until recently, the concept of ECM brought to mind specific use cases like managing digital marketing assets or document repositories. ECM still does that, but to drive better productivity in the back office, it’s necessary to deploy an ECM solution with some smarts and broad connectivity — or as we like to call it intelligent information management (IIM). ECM has to see all files, wherever they’re stored, and automatically “know” where they fit into the unstructured workflow.
What might this look like? A modern IIM solution should be able to index files of all types regardless of where they’re located. It can amass file locations and metadata across file drives, SharePoint sites, cloud-based storage volumes like Box, and network folders. Using metadata collection techniques, the IIM solution can infer relevant information like case number, customer name and so forth. Without any human input, it builds a searchable database of files associated with unstructured workflows.
Thus, if the billing department needs to see a photo of a damaged product that caused the customer to demand a refund, they can find it easily in the IIM solution. There is no (or a lot less) need for emails, phone calls and so forth to connect the photo with the billing dispute. People involved can solve more problems in less time. This is an increase in productivity. It represents an optimization of the back office with IIM. It will show up as a decrease in administrative overhead as a percent of revenue.
Enterprise Content Management can now help companies automate workflows while they manage their growing stores of documents, files and information. Going further, it makes it possible for businesses to streamline regulatory and quality related documentation. IIM can be the hidden force that enables new heights of productivity, optimizing the back office through automated, smart management of digital information.