Don’t Just Pave the Cowpaths With ECM – Evolve the Process

I was visiting a customer recently, looking over their deployment and helping them architect for the next business process they are going to optimize.  It was a lot of checking things off, because all the geeky details of the IT deployment were well-managed, robustly designed, and expertly administered.

While the deployment was going smoothly, some things about the way that the business process was working bothered me. These problems are something that I see all too often. “Self,” I thought. “These mistakes are being made far too often. You should write about it so that you can see more new ones.”

What I’m talking about here is transactional content management (TCM), or using an ECM solution as a system of record for transaction- and case-driven business processes. Massive returns on investment are right there, and days can be saved in business processes when business processes are optimized with TCM. But, to achieve the best returns, it’s not just new software that has to be installed – it’s new thinking, too.

Seeing Beyond the Limitations of Paper

The customer started with the electronic replacement of a large volume, complex paper-based billing process. In billing, time to process has a direct and well-known cost, so saving time spent on processing was a primary goal.

The original paper process involved a worker receiving a folder containing a batch of work items representing a specific business unit and time period. When the work items in the folder were completed, the folder would be transferred to the next step. A worker owned the folder for a period of time, and then gave it to someone else.

An ECM system removes constraints like this. Having the right metadata and the right metadata indexes means that content can be grouped in any number of dimensions, and made accessible to everyone using the system, however they want to access it, simultaneously.

Typically, when a new ECM system is put in place, the focus is on how great it is that paper isn’t lost, left on someone’s desk, the wrong version – you get the idea. There are real savings to eliminating the limitations of locating and sharing. That’s no place to stop, though.

Transform the Process

When a new ECM system is designed, processes are already in place that are well-understood and familiar. These processes were designed to accommodate limitations imposed by the nature of paper handling, or sometimes a legacy electronic system. The reality is that these limitations probably don’t exist in the new system, so why transfer the limitations imposed by the old way of doing things to the new system?

Opportunity is lost when doing something seemingly reasonable: take the existing process, duplicate it in the new system, and then look for refinements later after people get comfortable with the new system. Remember the folders of work items I described earlier? At one point, this was the most efficient way to keep paper together, which was a requirement at the handoff points in the old process. These folders were recreated in the new system as batches of work items, because this is what the users were accustomed to.

Here’s why this is a problem for my customer: considerable time is spent monitoring batches to identify the small percentage of work items holding up the other items, known as “stragglers.” A few work items are holding back other work items from being completed, delaying billing for most items.

The other problem inherited from paper-era thinking is that the process still takes place in a siloed, sequential fashion. Work items flow from point to point to point – even though the steps in the process have very little overlap. Using ECM to handle this process means that these work transactions could be touched by more than one worker at a time, completing more than one step of the activity at a time. This would shorten completion to a just a little longer than the time spent in the slowest work queue, as opposed to completion being the sum of all of the time spent in every work queue.

Continuous Improvement

The first draft of software, a process, or even this blog post won’t be the best possible result. The second draft probably isn’t either. Using knowledge and feedback gathered from previous attempts to make improvements is good practice – it’s how we get better at anything.

The customer missed a transformation opportunity when they chose to just “pave cow paths.” The business stakeholders are now not willing to risk the level of productivity they jumped to because they retired paper, nor are they willing to provide resources to design and test changes to processes. Maybe there are bigger savings to be realized by getting rid of the other paper processes, or maybe other initiatives simply take higher priority. Whatever the reason, they are leaving savings on the table.

The world is constantly changing, with business constraints turning on a dime. If you’re just using technology – ECM, ERP, CRM, whatever – to replicate old ways of doing things, you’re letting your competition get ahead.

Eric Proegler

Ever been at a casual gathering and wanted to talk disaster recovery, virtualization or scalability, but no one else did? You should have called Eric Proegler. He’s on the R&D... read more about: Eric Proegler