Streamlining a business process ensures better transparency and communication between participants along the process chain as well as with connected systems. A major portion of the business processes are document-based. We’ll discuss document workflow automation for small businesses as a way to streamline document-based processes and ensure better transparency, connectivity, and data availability from these processes. The ability to capture, access, and work with business data and documents as and when needed increases not just communication across an entire department or organization, but also lowers the costs and inefficiencies that arise from siloed data.
Small businesses have limited capital and resources to begin with. Every minute a small business spends on mundane, repetitive administrative work is a lost opportunity in terms of sales, growth, and revenues. Limited manpower lowers the scope for a small business to scale operations, not to mention reduce the efficiency and speed with which work gets done. Part of the problem is subjecting skilled staff to mundane, back-office tasks that take up a lot of time and effort. Not a whole lot of focus is put on strategic business development efforts when your business is either understaffed or preoccupied with everyday administrative duties. Another factor that limits the extent to which business progress can be made is operating costs. With limited capital reserves and a largely manually-driven office, small businesses have little scope to build funds from the revenues generated, most of which goes into settling opex and capex expenses.
One way small businesses can generate revenues or sufficient cash flows for business development would be by cutting down on opex expenditure. These are mostly running expenses that can be controlled by management for better cash inflows. Document-dependent functions like vendor invoice processing, sales order processing, mailroom operations, etc. are typical of the back-office. These are also mission critical to the overall functioning of departments and the entire organization.
For the most part, these processes or functions were considered as cost centers that drove up expenses simply due to the heavy manual paperwork that was needed. Technology has, in the past years, changed the way work in the office gets done. Intelligent automation and other advanced automation technologies are helping businesses convert their cost centers into strategic hubs for business development. Document workflow automation is fast becoming an indispensable office tool for both small and large corporations. We’ll discuss document workflow automation for small businesses, how it is impacting document-based processes and the overall business, and the transition of traditional cost centers into strategic decision-making centers due to this technology.
Document workflow automation enables automatic document processing, document routing, data cultivation, and data availability. Transaction data from unstructured or semi-structured documents like vendor invoices, customer sales orders, credit memos, receipts, etc. are always hard to capture. But this data is critical to the processing of tasks like accounts payable and accounts receivable, in order to maintain sound working capital and cash flows. Timely availability of transaction data is important for making timely payments to vendors and addressing customers in a time bound manner. Any delays in data availability from transaction or source documents can delay payments and customer service, while adding to the costs of delayed or missed service and late payment fees. Unavailability of data can dramatically reduce the chances of a company to bank on opportunities for proactive customer engagement and service. Also, missing data could delay payments to vendors, reducing a company’s chances to build trust with them and bank on early payment discounts. Timely access to transaction data can help you access opportunities at both ends of the trade spectrum — vendors and customers, enabling you to lower the costs from late payments, delayed customer service, or inefficient or error-prone document processing, and increase scope for any opex savings and cash flows.
Document workflow automation does just that — it is essentially intelligent process automation technology that accelerates document processing and data availability from transaction documents, and in the process accelerates business. Business documents are generated the moment a company interacts with its external stakeholders including vendors and customers. These documents need to be captured from the edges of an organization and brought to a central repository for processing and timely data management. For example, a vendor invoice may be received at an inventory unit or remote site office, rather than at a corporate office. Timely access and capture of this invoice is essential to make timely payments to the vendor and reduce expenses like late payment fees. Also, timely payments ensure better vendor relationships for future engagement and business. An intelligent process automation software for automating document workflows helps companies access transaction data in a time bound manner and process it for on-time service delivery and cash flows.
Documents enter a business from a myriad of incoming channels like emails, file shares, scan, fax, MFPs, post, etc. An intelligent process automation (IPA) software, designed to automate document workflows, firstly captures incoming transaction documents from these channels. Intelligent data capture technology embedded in the intelligent process automation software enables data capture at the source, reducing any chances of missing paperwork or business. Powerful intelligent data capture and process automation technology is needed to recognize different transaction document types; separate them accordingly; extract data from the documents; attach a workflow to the extracted data; implement workflow automation including data validation; route the data and documents for verification by assigned staff; and finally approve them for use in a connected business application like an ERP system or document management system.
Data Extraction: Once documents are captured at the source, they are uploaded to the intelligent process automation workflows. Machine learning and other recognition software like OCR/ICR are used to extract data from the captured documents. In the case of structured document formats like a spreadsheet or a standard vendor invoice, data extraction is easy as the intelligent process automation bots will simply apply built-in logic to search for the standard field placements and fields on these documents, and extract data from them.
Self-learning: in instances where the intelligent automation system encounters a new document type like say, an unstructured or semi-structured new invoice document for which the bots do not have built-in logic, data extraction is difficult as the bots will not know the exact fields from which to extract data. In cases where the field placements on a document are different from the standard forms like in the case of say, a new vendor invoice or a new customer sales order, 100% data extraction is not possible. If some of the fields or data on a document are missed during the extraction process, human intervention and keying is needed to enter the missed information. The intelligent process automation bots pick up the human keystrokes performed for entering data from the new document and apply that learning to extract data from a similarly formatted document the next time. This emulation of human keystrokes and learning of a document by an intelligent automation bot is called self-learning. Self-learning is a big part of advanced document workflow automation solutions as it reduces the need for human intervention with every new document type. This saves companies a lot on manpower costs.
Data Validation: extracted data must be verified to confirm its authenticity. As an example, extracted invoice details must be matched to the corresponding vendor, to find out if it is relevant, and then also be matched for correct information like the total cost of items billed, and other important considerations to avoid invoicing errors. Document workflow automation logic corrects or validates extracted data by applying vendor or database lookups, 2-way/3-way matching, arithmetic checks, etc.
Approval Routing/Verification: all validated data and documents are automatically exported to a connected document management system, ERP, or other line-of-business application. All exceptions that arise during the validation step are automatically routed to a verification manager for dispute resolution and approval.
As is evident, an intelligent process automation software with automated document workflow capabilities does a thorough job of acquiring, validating, and verifying incoming transaction documents. With a system that performs straight-through document processing, very little human intervention is needed. This saves companies a lot on manpower costs as even an understaffed company, typical of a small business will be able to easily process and scale document-dependent operations like AP/AR without any difficulty. Little to no manual process also means that companies are saved from the huge costs and inefficiencies of manual work.
Low Running Costs/Overhead: automating heavy manual, document-dependent operations in the back-office like accounts payable, accounts receivable, sales order processing, etc., will save companies a lot in running costs including staffing and operating costs.
Employee Engagement: employees can be better engaged to perform strategic, growth-oriented tasks if they are freed from the mundane, repetitive paperwork in the back-office. Better employee engagement means better productivity.
Scalability: an employee can give only so much effort and time. Compare that to an intelligent automation bot that never tires and can take on any amount of workload, and what you have is a fully functional, continuously engaged back-office that performs all operations, including new tasks, on time, and in a cost-effective manner.
Remote Operations & Digital Transformation: a major advantage of digitizing document-dependent operations is that tasks like data entry and data validation can be accomplished automatically from anywhere. This saves companies the costs of delaying approvals, customer service, or payments because of unavailability of personnel at the right time. A lot of the business operations run on data. By digitizing document-depend functions, companies can set the stage for digital transformation of individual processes, functions, departments, and an entire organization. Capturing, harnessing, and processing data to make it available as and when required for business marks the beginning of digital transformation of small businesses.