The IT industry has been playing whack-a-mole since its inception. We've been applying sophisticated technology to our biggest business problems not once but repeatedly, as each new generation of technology offers and delivers order-of-magnitude improvements to our business processes. In some cases, we're on our fourth or fifth iteration of solutions.
For instance, about 25 years ago most business processes were manual. Customer interactions often involved paper documents. Document management systems came along at the end of the last century to automate documents by storing them for quick retrieval. The improvements saved businesses millions of dollars in overhead, and the problem was deemed solved.
However, automating a document (a very good idea) is not the same as automating the process that the document participates in. For many businesses, modern document storage and retrieval supports manual business processes. Those businesses still spend a lot on printing documents and manually or semi-manually routing them around the building or throughout the customer base.
A Different Problem
Today, businesses looking to tackle business process automation are investigating ways to keep documents from being printed even as they circulate.
That's a different problem from the earlier one defined by storage. It wasn't even visible when document automation was thought to be the key need. If you manage business processes that still use lots of paper and printing, welcome to your personal edition of whack-a-mole.
Today's edition of the problem comes with an especially menacing complication. Many CIOs would love the chance to streamline their document dependent processes and the ROI for most of them is readily apparent in avoiding the costs of paper, printing and better customer engagement. However, with upwards of 80 percent of their budgets, on average, dedicated to keeping the lights on, it's hard to grab even the low-hanging fruit if it means a purchase.
You can find the lowest of the low-hanging fruit not in some exotic business processes but in the every day customer administration that organizations spend so much time in. From professional services to healthcare to finance, opportunity is easy to spot in any business that produces a custom or semi-custom product or service directly to customers.
Advancing regulation also plays a role increasing the amount of paper documents involved even in routine processes. So the problem is not getting better, and whack-a-mole is really just a feeble attempt to keep it from getting worse.
The solution to this dilemma may be as simple as changing software vendors. The original document automation vendors may not have an incentive to change their business models or their products to address the new reality. They've defined solutions to "document management problems," but in an era that needs business process solutions, their models and technologies may be a bad fit.
What to Do
If any of this feels familiar, there's a lot you can do. First, look for process solutions that avoid putting documents back on paper, for example, to capture a signature. Signature capture is one of the easiest processes to automate with modern software.
Also, consider what's in your documents. Are people still reading them on multiple occasions to understand what promises and commitments your company made that need to be implemented? Or are there customer commitments buried in physical documents that indicate future purchases? Paying people to read documents is expensive and unnecessary.
Business process solutions, unlike document management solutions, can capture data from documents and feed it to analytics engines. The resulting information might drive an ROI many times greater than the cost savings from simply automating the storage and retrieval of documents.
My Two Cents
As good as document automation solutions were 20 years ago, the business need has changed, and many vintage systems show their age today. Automating document-based business processes can in many cases offer attractive ROIs that even budget-constrained organizations will benefit from.
The key to all of this might be in how we frame the business problem. Is it the same document problem your business fixed decades ago, or did time and circumstances change the need to something greater? A new generation of solutions based on more modern demands can provide order-of-magnitude improvements. The first step may be to evaluate the problem with fresh eyes.
Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there.