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Years ago, I learned this saying from a friend in the yachting world, “Everything is possible but nothing is easy.” This is also true in the context of managing critical information. Last month, we reviewed the checklist for embarking on an electronic document management (EDM) solution. So, at this point, we already know a lot about users, roles, file cabinets, metadata fields, profiles, rights, and even the workflows we have to deal with—or do we?

We talk a lot about flows, and some of them are pretty obvious, such as an invoice approval flow. Other flows may be hidden or, at least, not so obvious, such as the delivery notes of raw goods in manufacturing plants. Discovering these flows is also a great time to make them simpler. It is unbelievable how a simple flow can get so complicated after a while. There is a nuance between “complex” and “complicated.” A “complex” flow is one that has a lot of turns and bends but everything is clear and understood. A “complicated” flow is one that includes tasks, actions, and turns that no one can really explain why they are there, other than the standard response of, “It has always been done like this."

Once a flow is fully brought to the surface, do we understand how it works and why it works like that? For this, we need to know the details—yes, the details yet again.
  • Are we sure that a particular task may be executed by any member of a particular role? No? There's someone in that role that can't actually execute the task. Well then, we must create another role.
  • What about the time needed to execute each task? What is reasonable? Two hours? Half a day? One week? Whatever we decide, what happens if the task isn't finished at the end of the allotted timeframe? Do the members of that role get an email notification? Or is the notification sent to the role above them?
  • Does this flow need to send or receive information from another application or database? What are the transfer methods? Do we need to call a web service in the other application? If yes, do we know the format of data to send? Do we have an active username and password? Or are we only to send the data to an intermediate table of a database? Again, do we have access to the table?
Pay attention, because what some might call a "simple invoice approval flow" may quickly turn into a detail nightmare. For example, some invoices arrive in paper format, while others arrive by email as attachments. Some of these attachments might not be in PDF form but in a JPEG format, along with the company logos that are sent with the email, which means that we may well have logos automatically sent down the approval flow. Then, these invoices must be data captured down to the line level and compared with the enterprise resource planning's (ERP’s) purchase orders before being sent on through the flow. Of course, the paper invoices must first be scanned and so on. Some might say that all this “modern stuff” brings more problems than it solves. Well, this is just a lack of knowledge.

As we realize now, flows are a very broad concept filled with zillions of details where the exceptions must also be dealt with, because if the exceptions are manually taken care of, we may find ourselves short-handed very soon. Careful, no one likes to be asked about details: For one, there are many managers that don’t know them and others that are afraid the details they master are way out of date.

The most difficult areas described above does not have to do with technology but with human attitudes. Find out what is necessary, change what needs to be changed, and get solutions for the things that are way above our control.

Joao Penha-Lopes specializes in document management since 1998. He holds two postgraduate degrees in document management from the University Lusofona (Lisbon) and a PhD from Universidad de Alcala de Henares (Madrid) in 2013, with a thesis studying the economic benefits of electronic document management (EDM). He is an ARMA collaborator for publications and professionally acts as an advisor on critical information flows mostly for private corporations. Follow him on Twitter @JoaoPL1000.

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