The need to process documents, collect data, collaborate, store, find, and name documents is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to manage manually. Document automation is one part of this complex system to manage documents and the associated processes surrounding their utilization. Although Document Automation Systems (DAS) goes by many names; DAS, Document Processing Software, and Intelligent Document Processing, they are all part of a large ecosystem known as Document Management. Every industry faces challenges while trying to manage large sets of data and documents, and according to a recent article in "Finances Online," some of the biggest challenges for organizations include:

  • Employee Productivity Loss (21%)
  • Staff Document Approval (65%)
  • Employee Difficulty finding documents (86%)
  • Workers spending 18 minutes or more searching
  • Employees inability to electronically sign documents (74%)
  • Employees state time consumption and challenges to finding documents (46%)
  • Difficulty finding documents with mobile devices (64%)

Beyond challenges with employee-related document management, there are many other issues, especially when bringing in the need for collaborating with outside resources. Some of these challenges include (but are not limited to):

  • 45% of companies take a week or more to turn around a contract (waiting for signatures)
  • Adding e-Signatures can provide up to an 83% enhancement in productivity and an 86% savings in documentation expenses
  • As many as 75% of large organizations do not have PDF Editors

So how does an organization begin the process of putting together one of these systems and taking advantage of the benefits like:

  • Remote file access
  • file versioning
  • e-Signatures
  • Document consistency
  • Significant Cost reduction, typical companies spend an average of $20 to file and store paper documents
  • Scalability
  • Better customer experience
  • Easier integration to 3rd party systems

Finally, one last consideration as the demographics of the workforce change, a greater demand for online/paperless documentation and workflow will become more prevalent as previous, less tech-savvy generations age out of the workplace. Also, younger, more savvy consumer-based users are becoming the mainstream of consumer-facing technology. They are demanding quicker access to important documents like legal documents, invoices, or bills of sale (to name a few).

Try GrapeCity Documents today

Download the latest version of GrapeCity Documents

Download now!

The "build" approach - How to coordinate the process of putting DAS to work for an organization

As with all software projects, there is a myriad of ways to plan and execute projects. The below example illustrates only one way of thinking related to how best to pull together a plan for a DAS. I'm certain there could be debates about the best ways to plan, build and execute something like this, so in no way is this article proposing this is "THE" way to get this done. The first decision is honestly the simplest yet most difficult for most companies to work through; build it or buy it? Because document automation and document management have been around for a while, there are many options for the "buy it" methodology. However, it is a rare feat to have a single vendor provide all the necessary moving parts of a full-blown document management solution. This is where APIs can bring tremendous value to tie disparate vendor solutions together in one cohesive flow, ultimately bringing tremendous value to all the systems by providing the glue that brings them all together.

Once this hurdle has been overcome, the decision tree changes dramatically based on whichever direction a company chooses. For this article, we are going to discuss building a DAS from scratch.

Understanding Industry

First, it's important to understand the industry. Confidently, I can say that every industry that utilizes paper forms now can benefit from some level of document automation. Here are some examples:

  • Law - Throughout the history of the legal profession, lawyers and their assistants have spent countless hours creating, writing, and re-writing legal forms for many clients. Because of the heavy lifting involved with this, it has always been an expensive part of working with a law firm for anyone who has needed to do this. Over the past decades, this has changed somewhat with technological advances such as word processors, editors, and templates. The most obvious of businesses that have leveraged this would be organizations such as Legalzoom, zenbusiness, or RocketLawyer (to name a few). And please note, I have no vested interest in any of these organizations, nor do I in any way endorse them implicitly or explicitly for their services. This is simply an example of how an industry has changed because of document automation. Some typical documents which may be automated in this industry are:

    • Contracts
    • Leases
    • Filling out court forms
    • Trust & Estate planning/documentation
  • Finance - Finance goes well beyond banking these days. In particular, many services offer financial advice (advisement) for a fee. These firms (as well as banks and other financial institutions) have a plethora of paperwork required for many reasons. Need to open a bank account? A set of documents needs to be filled out. Planning for retirement? There are sets of documents for this too, which aid in the analysis of needs and investment strategies. Simply the amount of backend reporting requirements for this heavily regulated industry has been a source of headaches and serious time consumption over the years. Not only are there particular governmental forms (at all levels, Federal, State, Local) that must be filed consistently, but also these forms must be checked for accuracy. Equally as important, checked for correct data in each of the areas of the report. These are very time-consuming exercises and, if not already automated, are great candidates for automation. Some examples of documents that could be automated:

    • Account Opening Forms
    • Government Reporting forms
    • Compliance forms
    • Investment Performace Reports
  • Real Estate - Another industry rife with documentation requirements. If you've ever had to take out a mortgage on a house, you know the piles of paperwork that are required to borrow money. Not only at the closing but also before the closing, there are many required documents from the lender, the borrower, and several other entities involved in the transaction, such as lawyers and government officials. Documents in this industry that are perfect candidates for automation are:

    • Application for Mortgage
    • Title & deed search documents (legal)
    • Explanation of mortgage payment plan
    • Closing Documents for Mortgage
  • Human Resources - With employee onboarding, payroll, and annual reviews, there are many available options ready to be automated in the HR industry. Many have already been automated, however; because many of the required forms are governmental in nature; sometimes they are a bit behind the times depending on the HR professionals involved and the industry. However, likely forms to be automated include forms like:

    • W2/W4 Forms for payroll
    • Background Check forms
    • Training documentation
    • Annual Reviews
    • Retirement Savings documents (crosses over with Financial Industry)
  • Healthcare - Healthcare has been and continues to be an industry that struggles to automate and computerize much of its infrastructure. It is certainly a complex problem, and there are no easy answers. However, given the government mandates to computerize health records and the like over the past decade or more, there is much room here to assist with document automation. In fact, because of the complexity and error-prone issues within the industry, document automation has become more of a "need" than a "nice to have" in healthcare. Simple typographical errors in this industry can literally cost lives, so having automation pull data and put appropriate data into specific locations is very important. Some of the areas where this could be useful are:

    • Lab Reports
    • Doctors Orders for Labs or services
    • Nursing documentation
    • Radiology Reports
    • Appointment Reminders
    • Intake Forms
  • Sales & Marketing - Sales and Marketing crosses over into every industry and really to every department within every industry. Without these departments, many companies would languish and ultimately lose employees, revenue, and possibly the very business itself. There are already many automation options out there for sales and marketing, and within the last decade or so, there has been an even greater explosion of software options for assisting with Sales and Marketing. However, the primary focus seems to be on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Within these CRM packages are sometimes areas for templated files or reports. However, many of these systems have left the "automation" process there, and it's up to sales and marketing personnel to fill out these templates with appropriate information. With that said, there is some existing automation, but I believe there is tremendous room for improvement (having worked on and within these systems for the past 15 years, I have vast experience with these items). Specifically, the following items could be addressed to make sales, marketing, and customers lives much easier:

    • Proposals
    • Invoices
    • Renewal Proposals & Contracts
    • Contracts
    • Customized Marketing Materials

Obviously, depending on the market, there will be different standardized forms and information required to be collected. Once there is a good understanding of the market/industry, it is possible to understand the underlying data requirements.

Next - Decide what data needs to be collected from users and which data sources to utilize. Typically, data sources include relational databases, cloud-based databases, XML, or some combination of all of these. As for data collection requirements, this will be industry-specific, but normally items like names, addresses, phone numbers, emails, etc., can be considered dynamic, especially in any consumer-facing application.

Now more time-consuming and detail-oriented work is required to discover and ultimately create the duplicative data, or data that is redundant or has simple differences based on specific variables, i.e., States of Incorporation or states where a lease is being signed. Once completed, it's time to get to work on templates.

Lastly (not necessarily last in order of thought process or action), what does the larger Document Management process look like? Where does it start? What information needs to be collected or filled out? How many people need to be involved? Who needs to sign the document(s), and when do they need to sign? Is there a particular order for obtaining the signatures? What other vendors or software is involved? How can it all be connected to create a cohesive, low friction process? Other important process options include:

  • Which fields need validation (i.e., date, email, phone)?
  • Are any fields calculated? If so, what are the boundaries or limits (if any)?
  • Is there a need to check for existing data?
    • Is this customer already a client?
    • Do they already have documents in place under a different email/account?
    • Are there existing documents?
    • Do they already have documents of this type in the system? If so, how does the system handle this?
  • Are there any outside APIs required (checking credit agencies, for example)?
  • Where will the documents be stored?
  • What will the naming convention be for these documents (to improve searchability and create an easier user experience)?

One more item is necessary for a company or team seeking to provide these DAS services: business continuity or disaster recovery. Some of the necessary items to evaluate are:

  • How will the system be backed up (tape, cloud, etc.)?
  • What backup methodology will be used (Incremental, full, etc.)?
  • If onsite - what is the recovery process, and what amount of time will it take for recovery?
  • If cloud-based, which cloud provider(s) will be used (as with all business continuity plans, it is best to have multiple redundancies in place, even in a cloud-based environment)?
  • What is the process for RCA (Root Cause Analysis)? How will any failures in the system or process be documented and remediated for future use?
  • What are the processes related to any potential ransomware attacks? If successful, what is the recovery plan and path? What is the timing of this recovery?

Planning is done. Now What?

You spent hours, days, weeks, or even months planning your project. Now you need to start doing the real heavy lifting and getting all this implemented and coded. For this article, the assumptions are the following:

  • A data source has been defined/designated
  • Any networking and business continuity issues are already in place
  • The decision has been made to pull together several components/APIs to help speed up the development process.
  • Template requirements (documents) and data collection requirements have been defined

There are many alternatives out there for APIs related to documents. Still, for the remainder of this article, we will use this set of Document APIs by GrapeCity for creating Excel spreadsheets, PDF and Word documents, and Imaging. Many of the APIs available within these packages allow for easy implementation of some complex Document Automation Issues, including template creation, document conversions, and digital signatures of various types. Also, rather than go through an entire project's worth of code, I will highlight the tools and their use and provide links to full demonstrations so you can easily get up and running with these APIs in a matter of minutes. How they are pulled together for a specific DAS will depend on planning and what other resources are being consumed.

Step 1 - Create the document template(s)

In our example, we will leverage the real estate industry, specifically the rental industry. This provides an excellent opportunity to show how document automation works and the benefits it provides to the users and the company or organization utilizing the documents. It used to (and in some recent cases still does) take hours of work to prepare a legal document. The costs associated with this can be a lot (lawyer fees etc.), but the biggest issue can be time. Because of workloads, sometimes a document that may take an hour to produce could take days or weeks depending on the professional's queue of existing work. By using existing legal language for standardized contracts, and changing a few fields to be dynamic (like Tenant name, address, etc.), the processing can be automated thus saving time, energy, and money for clients as well as service providers such as lawyers.

The GrapeCity tools use a specific but easy-to-follow, templating language using a mustache-like syntax for the templated fields (see details here)). Below is an example of a document created using this syntax for a rental leasing application:

Image1

image2

Here is a chart describing the basic mustache syntax utilization and its meaning. Any formatting applied to this template uses standard formatting. A detailed description of this type of formatting can be found here.

image3

The final product, after merging the data with the template, would look something like this:

image4

image5

image6

Once the template is defined and the data set is known, it is as simple as bringing the dataset and the template together with a few lines of code:

Create Document from Template

using System.Data;
using GrapeCity.Documents.Word;
using GrapeCity.Documents.Word.Layout;

//...
  var doc = new GcWordDocument();
  // Load the template DOCX:
  doc.Load("House_Rental_Template.docx");

  // Bind the templates to data:
  using (var ds = new DataSet())
  {
    ds.ReadXml("GcDasSample.xml");
    // Add the data source (the loaded template expects "ds" to be the data source name):
    doc.DataTemplate.DataSources.Add("ds", ds.Tables["HouseRentalAgreement"]);
    doc.DataTemplate.Process();
  }
  // At this point doc is the document where templates have been replaced with data.

  // Save the bound document as PDF for further processing:
  using (var wl = new GcWordLayout(doc))
    wl.SaveAsPdf("House_Rental.pdf");

More details, as well as a link to the full demonstration, can be found here.

Also, details on field validation for this form can be found in this demonstration, using GcPdfViewer and JavaScript.

Step 2 - Making the document "signable"

The first step of automatically generating the document is now complete. However, the process as a whole has not been completed from a document automation perspective. This next step, though, crosses a line into document management instead of document automation, though the two work hand-in-hand. Because the process isn't finished, we want to programmatically and automatically add signature fields to our new lease document to get the lease to the tenant for signature. Again utilizing GrapeCity tools is a straightforward process involving only a few lines of code.

Make Document Signable

using System.IO;
using System.Drawing;
using GrapeCity.Documents.Pdf;
using GrapeCity.Documents.Pdf.AcroForms;

//...

  // Add AcroForm signature fields to the PDF:
  using (var fs = File.OpenRead("House_Rental.pdf"))
  {
    var pdf = new GcPdfDocument();
    pdf.Load(fs);

    // We add two signature fields (landlord and tenant) on page 3 of the PDF.
    // The coordinates for the fields are hard-wired as the geometry is known:
    var page = pdf.Pages[2];

    var signLandlord = new SignatureField() { AlternateName = "Landlord Signature" };
    signLandlord.LockedFields = new SignatureLockedFields();
    signLandlord.Widget.Rect = new RectangleF(36, 420, 200, 70);
    signLandlord.Widget.ButtonAppearance.Caption = "Click to sign";
    signLandlord.Widget.Page = page;
    pdf.AcroForm.Fields.Add(signLandlord);

    var signTenant = new SignatureField() { AlternateName = "Tenant Signature" };
    signTenant.LockedFields = new SignatureLockedFields();
    signTenant.Widget.Rect = new RectangleF(360, 420, 200, 70);
    signTenant.Widget.ButtonAppearance.Caption = "Click to sign";
    signTenant.Widget.Page = page;
    pdf.AcroForm.Fields.Add(signTenant);

    // Done, save the PDF with signature fields ready to sign:
    pdf.Save("House_Rental_2sign.pdf");
  }

There are a few other steps required, so be sure to study the demonstrations carefully. Still, with a little time and not a lot of effort, Document Automation Services are a snap to implement and integrate with the larger Document Management System and will quickly become a successful part of any organization's overall Document Management Processes.

In Summary

This single step of automating the creation of a document based on dynamic, semi-dynamic, and static data sources significantly reduces errors, speeds up the process and gets much-needed documents to end users faster, and ultimately increases revenue and the bottom line because of less need for physical storage. As stated earlier, the biggest driving factor behind a lot of this is a newer generation of users who have been brought up on digital technology, specifically mobile devices, and the demand for quick, easy access to clearly defined documents without legal or administrative intervention will be crucial to company's successes in the future.

Try GrapeCity Documents today

Download the latest version of GrapeCity Documents

Download now!

References