When most people think of document automation, they usually imagine a simple merge of a document template with data captured on a keyboard. While that is indeed document automation, there is so much more that can be done to increase efficiency through the reuse of information and integration with other systems.
Below are some of the ways you can get more value from your document automation implementation.
The simplest advance on basic document automation is probably to create a central clause library, where ‘master’ clauses can be conditionally included into any template that needs them. This not only simplifies new template development, but clauses can be managed from a single location. The document automation software should format the included clauses to match the format of the main document, and cater for paragraph numbering and additional fields within the clause text.
Using data from other data sources
A great timesaver is to reuse data which is located in databases (such as Excel, SQL Server, MySQL, ODBC) or even in a customer relationship management (CRM) or accounting system. This means users don’t need to manually recapture information, which saves time and increases accuracy. It also creates a ‘single version of the truth’ because information is only stored in a single location. Some document automation systems also allow additional information capture in the interview to be written back to the database, although most firms don’t allow that.
Save documents and data into a DMS
While it is possible to manually save completed documents to a document management system (DMS) such as iManage, NetDocuments, or SharePoint
with some document automation systems, few people know that assembled documents and datasets can in fact be automatically named and the appropriate folder selected (or created) from data captured in the interview at run time. This ensures that documents and data are filed correctly, and it prevents users from saving sensitive information onto their local disks where it might be lost if the user’s computer malfunctions.
Although not often used with document automation, it is possible to have different users capture different information, which is then combined into a single record before document assembly. In some cases, documents will be generated into one long document, or as multiple separate documents. Collaborating users can be both internal or external users, which enhances data gathering.
External or client-facing interviews
A few of the more sophisticated document automation systems have introduced external interviews where questionnaires are sent to the client or external user via email for completion. All information is secure, and the sender can manage their ‘shares’ from a central console. This technology is ideal for new client onboarding, where the information that is captured by the external user can be reused to generate other documents such as an engagement letter. By having clients capture their own information, the firm and the client save time, and the information captured is often more accurate than if it was transcribed and recaptured. These client-facing interviews also have the option to simply gather data, or they can assemble a document if required.
Integration with other applications
Although we already mentioned integration with data sources earlier, a few of the more advanced document automation systems offer an application programming interface (API) where developers can integrate document automation into their own applications. The advantage of this is that users ‘live’ in only one system, which simplifies training and system architecture. In this scenario, users aren’t aware that they are using the document automation system, since all template selection and merging is managed via the host application.
Very few firms that use document automation appreciate just how powerful (and valuable) decision trees can be. By adding conditional logic to interviews, the system can lead users through a series of questions to a conclusion, which not only saves a great deal of time, but also ensures a consistent outcome according to a set of defined rules. This is generally referred to as ‘augmented intelligence’ where the computer assists the person with decision making. This application is useful for insurance claims, or for other complex decision making within a firm. Typically, decision trees do not produce an end document (although they can); they simply advise the user of the outcome on the screen. The system also automatically records who ran the decision tree template, when they ran it, and the outcome, in case an audit is necessary.
A few firms have added template links to their knowledge base. When the user clicks on the link, the browser interview is launched automatically. Once the user has completed the questions, the document is generated, and the document and the dataset are saved in the right place. The advantage of launching templates from within a knowledge base is that the firm can add context and guidance notes for the user, which will help the user select the correct template. It will also help to better understand the ramifications and pitfalls of certain answers.
Digital signatures save time for the sender and recipients and many firms have now adopted products such as DocuSign, HelloSign, Adobe and others. With modern document automation software, the signature point is prepositioned in the template, saving time. The user can also assemble the template, ensure that the assembled document is correct, and then send the document/s into the digital signature system’s workflow for tracking.
Some firms have experimented with commercializing their templates online. In the past, this was both expensive and time-consuming, and while most of these initiatives fail due to lack of take-up, some niche practice areas have had some success with monetizing their content. A couple of document automation products cater for this via a templates market framework, which is a great way to test a concept before spending a small fortune developing their stores from scratch. While initiatives like LegalZoom had first-mover advantage, today the secret to success for templates markets is in the content. If the content isn’t really useful and affordable, the initiative will always fail to launch. However, the biggest challenge for firms lies in the commercialization of their template library.
User and usage reporting
Reporting has become increasingly important for document automation – especially for large firms when they introduce a new document automation system. In fact, the biggest challenge with implementing document automation software is not in the cost of the software or the creation of the templates but it in getting users to actually use them. Firms need to know which templates are (or are not) being used, and which of their users are actively using the template library.
Of course, not all firms will implement all of these aspects, but should be aware of what document automation can do for them. The real return on investment comes from the re-use of information and using the above listed ideas to drive innovation.