There’ll be few organisations in this day and age who need to be told that digital working is a superior way of maintaining control, improving efficiency and meeting compliance targets than being in the paper chase. But what does that improved state look like?
We may have a better picture of that, based on a whitepaper we produced on the topic with EASY SOFTWARE UK, which provides best practice guidance on state of the art DM processes in Accounts Payable. A few of the key themes that exercise uncovered: authorised personnel being able to call up any information at any time, in any place; invoices are less likely to go astray; supplier queries can be settled at first contact, and approvals and other workflow processes are easier to streamline.
However, what’s the best practice for making sure organisations can reap the maximum benefits out of “going digital”, in Accounts Payable when they embark on a DM project? Below is some guidance, which I hope you will find useful.
1. Set clear goals and talk to the business
Your goals will have a bearing on how ‘deep’ you decide to go. For example, do you plan to start storing only new documents (e.g. incoming invoices) electronically, or do you hope to also tackle the backlog of archived paperwork? How ‘intelligent’ do you need the new DM system to be? Do you want to be able to search for information held within documents? Will you integrate the content with other business systems to support better procurement decision-making or budget forecasting? Talk to the major stakeholders about the plan to go digital in Finance and what the practical implications will be for them, what adjustments they might have to make, but more importantly what the expected benefits will be.
Asking these kind of questions upfront can be hard – but it’s important, as by being clear about what you hope to gain you can estimate the likely benefits, and define a plan to get there based on some real tangibles.
2. Don’t neglect the time factor
Start with a pilot project to get an idea of what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t. Allow time for training and reskilling too: if people’s roles are likely to change as part of the transition to new ways of working, you’ll need to provide for that.
3. A spot of lateral thinking can often help
Once everyone has technology, the playing field levels pretty quickly. We are all doing business in a digital age, so paper-driven processes need to be challenged. Are you just automating what are poorly thought-through processes, for example? What is the scope for innovation and new ways of doing business here?
The only real limit to automating document management is organisational imagination. Often, as soon as the team experiences the convenience and power of digital invoice management, they start to understand the potential and develop a more ambitious vision. Consider all the possibilities from day one, even if some functionality is ultimately dropped or scheduled for the future.
4. Manage expectations. The project may take time
Scanning and preparing existing paper documents for electronic storage and handling can be a large task. It’s important not to underestimate this and to prepare the team for a possible long haul.
It’s equally important to be realistic about the capacity of optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which interprets the content from documents. There is no such thing as 100% perfect every time OCR. Departments need to understand that they are not going to transfer to a hands-free scenario from day one. Work with the team – and suppliers – to avoid negative blowback as the system is trained (and ideally, more digital invoices start coming in anyway).
5. Keep every process as simple as you can
Our advice is always to keep workflow simple: don’t add new steps and authorisations for the sake of it – it could take away from the streamlining you’re trying to achieve. Great internal governance, yes, especially when processes involve invoices and people’s money – but that doesn’t automatically have to equate to additional layers of approval.
6. Always look for potential integration with other systems
To maximise the benefits and ROI from a document management implementation, assess opportunities for integration. Don’t just settle for the ability to follow through a purchase invoice’s path and progress from PO to payment. Consider the bigger picture, including a broader potential for connecting up with procurement systems or your ERP. Contract management is becoming a huge area too, as contracts are increasingly treated as ‘live’ documents evolving all the time; managing them electronically supports that, as well as enabling secure, regular access by authorised personnel.
7. Is your GANTT chart reflecting the real world?
Even in the age of the cloud, business IT projects can take a while. Have you planned for that, as well as looked to see if you need external help in designing and implementing the solution? Even the most humble document management system that introduces pure scan and electronic retrieval to accounts payable can take up to eight days to deploy. That’s before any workflow has been designed and added, and that doesn’t include any training which can double the implementation time. The cost of OCR is also often a source of surprise – which is why proper auditing of the volume of paper that needs to be replaced is important. Don’t underspend here, but also don’t buy a Rolls Royce solution if a Honda is really better for you!
8. Soft benefits have equal rights
Mainstream business cases try to account for every last penny and link this to a hard saving or productivity increase with tangible metrics. DM can play a role here; DM in Accounts Payable delivers multiple hard benefits, from physical space savings freed up by pensioning off the filing cabinets or secure off-site archives and reallocated time. But the less immediately obvious benefits may be even more considerable, ranging from fulfilled employees able to focus on tasks more worthy of their skills, or improved supplier relationships and supply-chain efficiency, even savings at audit time because of transparency and document availability. These softer benefits have an impact, and deserve to be tracked and measured as much as the more obvious ones.
9. Failure Planning
Things can go wrong but don’t let that impede you. In the unlikely event of a technology failure, it can save a lot of stress and cost if there is a backup copy of electronic documents stored somewhere safe off site – ideally a resilient data centre, for example. Another option is to run systems and hold content off site using a hosted software and storage setup. This removes the responsibility and overheads of running and maintaining servers and systems internally, and offers additional assurances that data will be secured and backed up, as part of the private cloud solution. Ensure you have a disaster plan – it makes a lot of sense.
10. Take ownership
While an external implementation specialist will be able to advise on planning and design and manage the configuration, it is important that you take ultimate ownership of the project. Be involved in a hands-on way in the design and administration, in liaising and working with other teams or content owners, and in managing the data migration/importing (scanning) of existing documents and materials – it would be prohibitively expensive to ask the supplier to take care of this.
I hope you agree that going fully digital with the help of DM in the Accounts Payable can deliver huge rewards – and if you follow these simple best practice rules, those rewards can be yours.
Sales and Marketing Director
The ideas discussed above are covered in much greater depth in a new special Document Management in Accounts Payable guide, the result of research carried out by EASY SOFTWARE UK and TouchstoneFMS, a specialist in offering services for financial, procurement, business intelligence and business process management; please go here to start your free download