Electronic Forms and Documents

Your users will want to be able to easily and quickly find the relevant information for their work and there a several ways they will do this. Many method are similar to those they would deploy if they were still working with paper.  Often your staff will be working on a project and will want to open an existing document; we will call this document retrieval.   Often your staff will work as a team on a project and will work on a single or multiple documents collaboratively. And the third way is that they are part of a process within your organisation and will have documents sent to them.  We will address these three methods separately.

Document Retrieval

The first document management systems where introduced back in the ‘80s and they were developed primarily for the storage of scanned paper, they went under such names as Document Image Processing and Electronic Document Management.  In those days special technology had to be built to handle files that were considered very large.  Technology has  moved on very quickly and what was considered large then is now considered quite small.  A rough calculation was that a single page scanned would take up about 50k bytes of storage.  Today that is nothing, only slightly larger than this e-mail you are reading and about an eighth of the size of a single page of a typical PowerPoint presentation.  So if you see a document management system whose primary purpose is to store scanned images, avoid it.  It is probably 20 years old and way passed its sell by date.  Another feature of these old systems was to have a filing system based on the way paper was stored, i.e. Cabinet, Drawer, Folder.  This is because these systems were developed before Microsoft released Windows 95.  With Windows 95 came Explorer.  The explorer filing system was more flexible in that it gave you infinite levels of folders, and like a lot of Microsoft releases quickly became the industry standard.  So, as you are transitioning your users from paper to electronic it may appear to make sense to use a filing system they are used to (Cabinet, Drawer, Folder).  But all you are doing is making it harder for users who are already used to Windows and harder for your users to use other more modern systems.  So for simple retrieval of electronic documents look for a system that has an Explorer like filing system (nested folders that can have any name) and a system that was designed from inception to manage all document types.


We are all human and forget where we put things, we need various ways to find what we are looking for.    For the first of these I want you to think about three of the features we have discussed previously.

The system should know your role and the department you work in.
All actions are recorded and logged by the system
In the life cycle of a document there are periods of activity and sharing.

Imagine a typical scenario in your office, you are working on a project that requires a report to be completed and so you have a word document that needs to be worked on.  You have completed your section, your assistant has added their part and it is currently with your technical expert to add their section.  Mid way through you have to leave the office for a series of meetings.  You return to the project two days later and cannot remember where it is.  Because of the features above it is now possible to have a list that shows all the documents that have been worked on by you and your department over the last week or month and have them prioritised by the level of activity (called the click count).  It is also possible to set up “Favourites”, the documents you use often and be able to subscribe to documents where you are informed when there is any activity on a particular document.

It is also possible to perform a general search for information, there are two sorts, the first is the fastest and this is to search within the Meta Data.  The Meta Data is information that is added to a document by the system or user and includes information such as key words, expiry date, owner etc.  So it is easy to ask the system, “find me all the customer contracts that expire this year” or “find me all the documents relating to customer Acme Co.”
The second sort of searching is called “content search” (used to be called “words in text” in the old days).  This is a technology that has gone through a revolution over the last few years, due mainly to Google.  Older system will have a proprietary search engine that only will search the document management system.  Today you should be looking to employ an enterprise search engine that will search your managed documents as well as any other information you have in your organisation.


The term workflow is one of the most abused terms in the industry, with products that will simply move a document from one person to another being called workflow.  These products cover the “flow” part of the title but do not address the “work” part.  This is why many suppliers with true workflow are now tending to use the term Business Process Management (BPM).
Most BPM products only address one type of working environment, most will fall into one of the following categories;

Production Workflow, the high volume, high transaction rate products.
Administrative Workflow, used for office and low volume processes, expense claims, holiday requests etc.
Collaborative and Ad-hoc Workflow, the products that will a varied set of business rules often changed by the end user.
Case Working, when the actual contents of the item being managed by the workflow (Work Item) are varied and often have different rules applied to different sections, (a bit like that manila folder you have to manage your customer records.)

What this means is that if you want to implement workflow across your entire enterprise you would have to use several very different products.

But now FINALLY there are SINGLE products available that can be configured for ALL these types of work.
What I want to discuss next is how these different categories relate to the way you staff currently work with paper and how they will work in your new less paper office.

Most systems have an electronic Inbox to replicate the paper in tray they are currently using.  The Inbox will list all the work they need to perform and the user will easily be able to see what work is outstanding, the priority and any work that is overdue.  As many people work in a team, a piece of work may appear in all the inbox’s of staff with the same Role.  Then when one of the users picks up one of these items it will be removed from the inbox of all other users. For more information see the section on Information Portal

The document in their inbox will normally be attached an electronic form, the form will contain the information to help the employee work on the document, it will also provide the “positive action” required for authorisation as we discussed in the security section.  This action would be tick a box marked “approved” or “rejected.  Most of the time the employee will complete their work and send the document and form off to the next step in the process.  However life is rarely that simple, and often they may need help completing the task or to ask advice from another member of staff.    If the work is urgent the first step may me to discover who is available today.  So the user would look at all the users who are online, see if their department and role meets the criteria of the question.  The sender can attach notes and additional documents if necessary.  Because you do not want to have that difficult case being bounced around the office, the number of times the work can be referred is limited.