Background

Business documents such as Invoices, Purchase Orders and many others generated by ERPs, CRMs and BPMs that are exchanged with Vendors or Customers are frequently viewed, approved, rejected, forwarded and archived by company personnel.

Once these documents are correctly produced they cannot be changed, however complementary steps, such as adding a digital signature or an email address, may be required to fully qualify them before distribution. Additional processes including properties completion and approvals may be required for incoming documents, whether received by Fax, email or FTP.

The purpose of a Business Document Workflow system is to ensure that all steps associated with incoming and outgoing documents execute smoothly, quickly and efficiently while also securing document integrity.

This white paper details how a Business Document Workflow system easily integrates with existing applications and extensively benefits the Enterprise.

A Sales & Distribution administration paperless configuration is detailed as an example at the end of this document.

Enterprise Document Workflow positioning

“Application Workflow” focuses on business document creation, whereas “Document Workflow” completes, controls and qualifies outgoing and incoming business documents working seamlessly with the specific communication technologies involved.

Connecting to heterogeneous sources and processing varied formats

Business documents are produced by applications like SAP, MS Dynamics, JDEdwards, iSeries command based and other legacy menu-driven programs. Others use technologies that may be phased out in the not so distant future like fax machines. These documents are rendered in many formats (i.e. PDF, TXT, Image files). A business document workflow must be able to receive and handle these documents along with the information they carry in such a way that it can be shared across platforms (person to person, person to machine, machine to machine).

For instance, the receipt of a Purchase Order in fax format typically implies the receipt of an image that only a human being can decipher and requires a specific process to be efficiently passed onto an ERP. Faxes are generally in TIFF format converted into a PDF, so they must be OCR’d to identify keywords required for proper recording of the order. A software capturing variables will populate PDF properties accordingly, and then trigger input into the ERP. No matter how accurate the OCR, a visual check of the document is strongly recommended to avoid missteps. By using a business document workflow for incoming documents, the Fax Order will be routed through successive steps such as a visual check, and completion of properties (ID Card), then forwarded to the appropriate department, and turned into a certified and secured PDF.

High adaptability to read and recognize documents received by Fax, Email, Scan, FTP, etc. is a crucial qualifier for a flexible Business Document Workflow system:

Schema of document workflow for incoming business documents:

Similar procedures must be invoked for outgoing documents produced by internal systems such as an electronic invoicing application. For example, missing email addresses in the original content of a document meant to be sent to customers such as a PDF invoice can’t be successfully delivered. Forwarding the business document into a Business document workflow and requesting users to manually enter missing addresses keeps the process smooth and timely.

A Business Document Workflow handling advanced processing for ERP generated documents, whether in Spool format, TXT, PDF, OTF or RDI format helps secure and handle exceptions reducing reprocessing cost and delays.

Schema of document workflow for outgoing business documents:

Qualifying features of a Business Document Workflow System

Ability to sort out documents and select eligible documents only
All documents generated don’t necessarily need to go through a visual check. Automated system checks are preferred to manual ones.

To properly select eligible documents, the business document workflow system must have document properties (metadata) reading capability. Such properties may be associated properties in an XML attachment, or PDF properties.

The ability to read and analyze document content is a powerful feature as well. It allows for tests on a field such as an Order Total Amount, or a Country of destination for foreign goods. Such test can also reveal data exceptions such as out of range values.

Using these features Information Technology teams set up the document workflows to handle exceptions only, and allow automated processes to handle all standard business documents.

Ability to move corrected documents back into automatic processes

Once documents have been verified or corrections have been applied, the document is moved back into the normal flow. To facilitate this, the system has to be capable of communicating with existing Enterprise processes and applications.

Ability to complete document properties

When a document is processed by the business document workflow, it will be electronically tagged with important tracking information. The properties are attached to the PDF document itself, and will be used during the lifecycle of the document for traceability and auditing purposes.

System properties such as date, user-id or content properties selected in the document itself through variables become part of the ID Card of the document.

Built-in properties such as digital signature, timestamp, and username, complemented with workflow properties such as ‘Comments’ are useful for document search flexibility or additional processing.

A Business Document Workflow defines, at each step, which properties determine the completion of the cycle, making a business document not just an isolated anonymous PDF, but a document with value added including an ID Card and necessary approvals.

A system that includes a side by side view and that allows copy/paste of document text into field properties makes user revision a quicker and more reliable process.

External system for more flexibility

There are several reasons to opt for a Business Document Workflow that is external to existing ERP, CRM or BPM systems.

Many Business Document Workflow users are not allowed to access all IT application modules as it is common for IT to limit access due to cost and security issues. They don’t have a registered logon or are not trained, therefore it’s preferable to offer them an easy and independent way to achieve their document control and corrections.

The simplest way to do this is for the Business Document Workflow environment to allow interaction via web browser. This allows for swift access to the enhanced output documents created by the Business Document Workflow as well as those fed directly from the ERP. The same system with a similar interface is often the best choice for a document archive as well. Since common business practices include the use of Microsoft Active Directory Security, the Business Document Workflow system should allow the integration of those security policies without needing to recreate them.

An independent setup such as this allows companies to change and improve document workflow without making corresponding changes to their ERP, BPM or CRM. As new technologies for document handling become available, or vendor and customer document needs change, the company can react without disturbing other business processes. Similarly changes that are made to the company’s core ERP systems such as upgrades most often do not change the document output types thus do not require subsequent changes to the business document workflow.

Universal and practical example: Turn Sales & Distribution Administration paperless

From an ERP point of view, all Sales & Distribution tasks are well handled by registered users. However, communication and document exchange between departments are often handled manually. Here is an illustration of 3 business processes related to Sales & Distribution that benefit from secure automation with a business document workflow: The following diagrams depict typical business processes configured in a Business Document Workflow to handle the steps after specific documents are generated by the ERP or received from the customer.

1. All Purchase Orders received by fax or email are processed automatically before recording steps in ERP

2. All Terms and Conditions approved by customers are automatically signed and secured by Sales Managers

3. Weekly accounting Customer Statements are passed on to Account Managers for review and augmentation before being sent to appropriate customers

Conclusion

Business document processing is improving by taking advantage of the newest technologies and often requires various people and systems to work with the documents in various formats. However many documents involved don’t easily integrate with existing internal information systems because those systems lack document control and don’t allow for checks and corrections.

A business document workflow system augments existing IT processes by completing missing information allowing for accurate automatic processing or by directing the document to the right person or program for corrections or approval.

Companies using this approach will reap the benefits of decreased labor costs, improved customer service, better audit preparedness and increased flexibility to take advantage of new technologies and adapt to changing business requirements.

About the author

Fernando Jimenez, former technical consultant for Symtrax Corporation now turned Technical Manager has headed Output Management projects since the early 2000s all across North and South America. Along with his degree in Computer Information Systems, he possesses the knowledge derived from direct interaction with customers that has in turn given him the experience necessary to design and implement external complimentary electronic document systems that are efficient and, more importantly, affordable.

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