Is This the End for Document Developers?

Will artificial intelligence (“AI”) replace document automation coders, or will our industry continue to be more “IA” than “AI” in the foreseeable future? (“IA” stands for “Augmented Intelligence”, which is a complement and not a replacement for human intelligence. It’s about computers and software helping humans become more effective and efficient at the tasks they’re performing.)

While there is no doubt that AI will ultimately replace many document automation functions (Read “The Future of AI in Law” in the National Law Review fore more on AI), it isn’t the most urgent threat to the future of document coders. Nor are Smart Contracts the biggest threat (for a layman’s explanation of Smart Contracts, see Wikipedia), and augmented intelligence actually entrenches the role for document automation coders.

Data contracts

One real and imminent threat is where data is replacing verbose contracts. The data then refers to a verbose copy of the contract terms, which are available on the web. But while that sounds like it might also do away with template coding, data contracts are not without their challenges, because either the signer needs to accept that the terms can change at any time without notice, or the issuer needs to keep a copy of the terms as they were at the time the signer agreed to those terms, and that is difficult to manage.

Data contracts are more like decision trees than regular document automation. The only real difference is that the output is not a document. But what is very clear is that data contracts will still need high-end automation coders.

Low code templates

And what about “no/low code” document automation products, which claim that anyone can create their own document templates? Although the current crop of document automation products claims to have invented low code in the past few years, in fact, low code systems have been around for decades.

Typically, these low-code products don’t have the power of the full code solutions, but low-code certainly has a place in the document automation world, where end users need to create their own relatively basic templates rather than burdening the centralized template development department. Usually, the centralized template development department will be focused on the more complex and important templates – and clearly these type of templates will require competent and experienced coders for many years to come. So low-code is likely to complement the role that document coders fulfil at present, rather than to compete.

Standardized templates

Another possible threat is that the professions will work together to create libraries of standardized templates, along the lines that some of the State Bar Associations have done. But it isn’t likely that we will see too many start-ups providing these types of libraries for two reasons: First, it costs a lot of money to commercialize a template library. And secondly, the returns on these B2B libraries are not that good. So, these libraries lack a commercial viability. Besides, these types of libraries have existed for many years (decades in fact) and they have yet to impact the role played by document automation coders.

Shortage of template coders

In fact, the future has never looked so good for document automation coders, because there is an increasing demand for experienced coders as the market realizes just how effective document automation is with reducing costs and increasing throughput. And the reason that is happening is that as people-costs escalate, firms and corporations find themselves under pressure to remain viable. Hence IA (Augmented Intelligence), where machines enable humans to be more productive. But wait, doesn’t that mean fewer coders? And the answer to that is “no”. The demand for document automation coders is increasing far more quickly than the number of coders who might lose their jobs due to automation.

Innovative new uses for document automation

Added to that, document automation is evolving into new areas, for example, decision trees, contract lifecycle management, onboarding solutions, and portals or embedded interviews designed to attract new business. And while digital signatures have been relatively slow to gain widespread acceptance, document automation products are making it much easier to adopt digital signing.

Document Automation software has been around for over 40 years. While the underlying products have come and gone (remember Multimate, WordPerfect, Displaywriter?) the document automation functionality hasn’t changed that much. Sure, the Internet has changed how the world uses document automation, and integration with third-party applications has increased the return on investment from document automation, the underlying technology is still much the same.

I’ve been spectacularly wrong about predicting the future before, but my bet is that document automation as we know it will still be around in its current form in 10/15/20 years’ time.

Anyone care to bet?



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