Structure to the Unstructured

Ed Althof, Deputy CIO of Enterprise Systems, County of Ventura
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The challenges of working with unstructured data in an enterprise have been a point of discussion for a long time, and there are many Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions available to address them, but what is important and where do you start?

For most organizations, it is important to reduce the amount of paper used and to streamline processes. It is important to increase visibility and status of processes and, in the public sector, increase transparency. We all strive to improve processes and workflows and enable our employees to be more productive. Enhanced customer service is a given, and establishing policies and processes that insure critical items are not lost and can be easily retrieved, using a corporate standard taxonomy, is key.

When analyzing ECM solutions, there are a number of capabilities and functions your solution should include. Solutions need to be secure and provide encryption of the data, to prevent internal departments from accessing sensitive data, as well as third party users. ECM allows collaboration within your organization, as well as with your partners, and the integrity of the system, the regulations and mandates of many industries demand a solution to be configurable to guarantee the level of security that is required.

  Start with one department or business unit and get ECM working for you 

Your solution should be flexible and provide the ability to interface with other important enterprise applications, like your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Human Resources Management and Payroll systems. A Software Development Kit (SDK) or available Application Programming Interface (API) is helpful, while working with a vendor or solution provider with prior experience with your enterprise solution portfolio. It is a great advantage for your users to be working within their familiar business applications, while behind the scene, a link to relevant documents is enabled, and providing access to otherwise unstructured content. Leveraging the database, the images and metadata can also be used in other ways as well, like reporting and analytics.

Configuring approval workflows and integration with electronic forms (eForms) for submitting various requests, like staff onboarding, reimbursement, accounts payable approvals and vacation authorizations are great efficiency tools. Creating solutions to help make your employee’s jobs easier, while maintaining consistent and standardized data for various processes is a great advantage over your competition. Customizing the use of ECM for various users and departments within the organization, leverage your investment and integration with existing applications, reducing training time and enhancing user adoption.

Any ECM solution should provide remote and mobile workers with access to workflow processes and documents, from a smartphone or tablet. The look and feel should be appealing and configurable and allow workers to synchronize their devices, especially if they are working offline and return to access your corporate network. Mobility provides access to a large amount of data that would otherwise be difficult to provide. Imagine the ability to access any proposal or contract while meeting offsite with a customer, collaborating with the home office and presenting a proposal all in a safe, secure solution.

For some, the option of a hosted software-as-a-service (SAAS) solution is attractive and many vendors now offer this option. The ability to launch a solution quickly without the usually procurement processes can be leveraged for all, or for a portion of your solution. A subscription is an operating expense as opposed to a capital expense, which can be attractive for some organizations.

Whatever your requirements may be, implementation of an ECM solution is more simple in phases. There must also be effective change management to help the users through their transition. Each industry has different drivers that lead to a solution like ECM. Take small manageable steps to automation and have the highest level of organizational support possible, so users understand participation is not optional.

Organizations have the unique opportunity to create their own definitions of documents and their important identifying indexes that will help users save and later retrieve documents and content. Often new ECM users do not understand why they need to take extra steps to index their content, but the benefits are great, and the first time a user retrieves content and when it is delivered in seconds, they develop a real appreciation for ECM.

Regarding indexing of content, keep it simple. I have been involved in a great many ECM implementations and the tendency for some users to feel each document type requires dozens of index values is strong. Clearly, no one wants to spend that much time sifting through drop down lists to select too many index values. Sometimes, the rule of five is helpful. If a user cannot find a short list of retrieved items to go through from your repository with five indexes, you may need to rethink your strategy. Usually a date range, document type, customer or employee identification, and a couple of other indexes should be sufficient. The easier to use, the better the adoption and the more useful ECM will be for your organization.

Start with one department or business unit and get ECM working for you. Then, take your success and move on to the next department or business unit. Celebrate your wins and communicate to the users and management, so everyone knows what to expect and how they can benefit from ECM. By having users participate in the design of workflows and the selection of index values, adoption will be quicker, and you will be providing structure and order to a majority of your previously unstructured data.

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