I’ve been reminded lately – courtesy of the range of clients we work with – of the disparity in uptake of digital management of records and documents in organisations. At one client, information is captured on paper forms and then transferred to a green-screen mainframe by staff working at blinding speed without even looking. At another, data has already been captured on an eForm and the discretionary effort is applied to decision-making rather than data entry. The difference is amazing.
Some organisations have embraced digitisation whilst others seem to operate in a technology and process backwater which may have been considered modern in the 1980’s.
My observations are reinforced by a Forbes survey of 200 business and information technology executives (Managing Information in the Enterprise: Perspectives for Business Leaders, 2010) at leading global companies. The results of the survey indicate that whilst 85% believe that information is regarded as a strategic asset in their organisation, and 90% agree that information access and integrity is critical for strategic decisions, less than 25% of line of business executives have any idea of what projects are being or should be undertaken in their organisation to improve their ability to manage information.
This is despite those same organisations believing that information and data related problems cost an average of $5M annually with more than 20% of organisations reporting costs in excess of $20M annually.
The key issue for those organisations was ‘lack of access to critical information’.
I understand why organisations reliant on a combination of legacy mainframe and paper processes are reluctant to cross the digital divide. It is expensive and it is easy to get it wrong. There is so much comfort too, in doing what they have always been doing. And quite often there is much to be gained from improving processes without going digital.
However, it is my observation that organisations wed to their mainframe and hardcopy ways are also unconsciously unaware of the possibilities that come with entering the digital age. This was brought home to me by the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a client who developed proof-of-concept workshops with a potential vendor before developing a statement of requirements. The major purpose of the workshops was for user representatives to see what was possible and not have their view of the world restricted to simply an extension of what was currently possible with their green and black screen processes. It was the only way that he could get line-of-business representatives to think broadly enough to ensure the solution sought would avoid spending a lot of money replacing the old system with only minor improvements in productivity, quality and risk reduction.
What is digitisation?
It is appropriate for me at this stage to define what I mean by digitisation. In the context of this article, I mean digitisation being the projects and processes required to increasingly manage information in digital form, whether that information was born digital (e.g. email, Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, eForms) or was converted from hardcopy (e.g. scanned documents).
Tactical advantages of digitisation
The key tactical benefit of digitisation is to improve the efficiency of core business processes – a benefit that comes through exploiting the tactical advantages offered by digitisation. Capturing documents and data at the point of origin or receipt into an organisation allows for many tactical advantages including but not limited to:
- Eliminating transcription errors
- Implementing electronic workflow processes
- Creating audit trails
- Implementing security protocols
- Creating one source of truth for each document/item of data
- Improving accessibility to information
- Integrating business systems
The source of these advantages include the following digitisation initiatives, processes, and activities:
- Document capture through scanning
- Digital capture of information through use of eForms
- Capture of metadata from both eForms and scanned documents to obviate the need for transcription and duplicate entry
- Optical character recognition to obviate the need for entry of data into systems
- Using workflow functionality to automate authorisation processes and create audit trails
- Version control
- Eliminating security issues with emailed attachments by instead sending links to a single source of truth in a database
- Making it easy to access all documents relevant to a business process by creating a relationship to other digitised records
- Improving searching of documents by completing content as well as title and metadata searches
To a person without records and information management experience, these advantages may not seem to be truly relevant to a business. They may not seem to deliver real benefits – financial benefits. However, that could not be further from the truth.
Tactical benefits of digitisation
The advantages of digitisation can be made to deliver clear, unequivocal financial benefits. Simple examples I have seen include:
- A university that reversed its enrolment declines by speeding up the processing time for new students by capturing application data via an eForm and using workflow functionality to automate the process. They additionally reduced the cost of managing the enrolment process by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- A utility company automated data capture for new connections, eliminating errors and elapsed time taken for data entry. This reduced the time taken for clients to achieve a connection by several days.
- An insurance company automated and simplified application and underwriting processes by using workflow and image capture.
- A large company simplified and their process of assessment for worker’s compensation self-insurance by using a single source of truth document repository which related all records pertaining to their self-insurance. This saved tens of thousands of dollars in compliance costs and ensured their million dollar self-insurance premium savings were not at risk.
Strategic context for digitisation
Whilst each of the tactical benefits of digitisation are important, the context for discussing digitisation in the C-suite should be strategic.
Digitisation offers many strategic benefits, one or more of which may accelerate the implementation of a corporate strategy or increase the depth of returns that implementing the corporate strategy brings.
The issue which gets the headlines and the money invested in it for now is the concept of big data. In 2012, Gartner (Laney, 2014) defined big data as: “Big data is high volume, high velocity, and/or high variety information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision making, insight discovery and process optimization.”
Big data tends to steal the limelight of the strategic benefits of digitisation and for many organisations provides a clear strategic benefit. For example, imagine a large food retailer being able to mine their data on people’s grocery buying habits to form a view of the risks associated with providing the same people life insurance and differentiating the insurance risk by their buying habits.
Not all organisations have the volume of relevant data that enables them to gain the particular benefits of big data. The strategic benefits of digitisation, however, are much more accessible to organisations than big data.
Governance and risk reduction
Digitisation enables more transparent governance arrangements for all activities within an organisation. This is possible because digitisation allows organisations to have:
- a single source of truth;
- workflow with audit trails;
- security protocols applied at the document, folder, person, position, or workgroup level; and
- automated measures of the success (or otherwise) of processes.
Through digitisation is it easier for members of the executive and the board to have a clear line of sight over the execution of strategy, the measurement of its level of attainment, and the degree of compliance with policy.
Having a measured line of sight allows the executive to embark on continuous improvement, thereby reducing the risk of failures due to process breakdown or non-compliance.
Digital transformation of organisations which are geographically dispersed allows transparent sharing of cross-organisational information. In turn, this allows for governance at a regional and transnational level rather than a local level, which is the level to which the organisations using a hybrid of paper and IT systems are often restricted. The restrictions are caused by much of the information required for governance being available only in hardcopy, locally. Digitisation makes it easier to form centres of expertise without geographic barriers.
Examples of internal integration possible though digitisation include but are not limited to sectors such as:
- Health care
- Aged care
- Government services at all three levels (local, state, and federal)
And functions such as:
- Supply chain
- Human resource management
- Project management
As integration levels rise, organisations find that they can embark on continuous improvement programmes which not only have a positive influence internally but also externally with clients and with vendors.
Digital integration with clients allows them to self-select options and self-enter data and thereby take responsibility for their relationship with the organisation. Using web-based interfaces, we can allow clients to take responsibility for managing their own data whilst retaining control over the structure of the data and the form of the data, increasing both the efficiency and the transparency of the relationship between the client and the organisation. Mobile devices now make it possible to integrate not only client-sourced data, but also audio and image files, reducing further the probability of transcription errors.
On the other side of the coin, integration with vendors is almost mandatory to enable efficient relationships to develop with suppliers of engineering and construction services. The days of relying on the correct versions of paper plans being held in a drawing office onsite and drawing office at head office of both the organisation and the vendor are on their last legs. Organisations in those industry sectors are moving towards digital solutions as the technology to hold a single source of truth in one database and access it via an internet-connected mobile device.
As discussed before, digitisation makes it easier for organisations to create centres of expertise. This applies equally well when that expertise is sourced from an external supplier.
The future of digitisation
Organisations need to include digitisation in their evaluation of the alternatives to develop their organisational strategy.
Every CEO must consider what disruptive technologies may affect their value chain and develop contingencies to react to them or determine if they should lead the industry in utilising them.
They must also consider whether there are pockets of new value being created in the industry through digitisation, or even in other industries which they could transplant into their organisation.
Lastly they must consider what capability and capacity they have and need to meet the external threats and opportunities of digitisation.
They could do worse than taking time to get their Records and Information Manager to work with their CIO to inform them of the real opportunities and benefits of digitisation.
Laney, D. (2014, October 13). The Importance of ‘Big Data’: A Definition. Retrieved from Gartner.
Managing Information in the Enterprise: Perspectives for Business Leaders. (2010, April). Retrieved from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/enterpriseinformation/