A key to effective decision making in organizations is the ability to quickly access correct information in order to make decisions in a timely manner to support customer requirements, to meet service level standards, to satisfy compliance requirements and support business operations and administration.

While much of the information required to support decision making is stored in database applications or external data sources, a great deal is also contained within documents. These documents may be in a physical format (e.g., paper documents or microfilm) or in digital form (e.g., word processing documents, emails, drawings and similar formats).

Many organizations have interacted with customers, business partners and service providers using traditional methods of exchanging physical documents, such as hard copy bills that require their customers to draw checks to pay for services or requiring customers to lodge applications and claims at office counters, via postal mail or facsimile transmission.

The use of email messaging systems and facsimile devices has also enabled customers to interact with service providers to exchange digital documents, such as draft contracts, business proposals and similar documents. However, many organizations and, indeed, jurisdictions still require executed documents to be in hard copy with physical signatures for digital documents transferred by email.

The proliferation of computers in business and home environments, together with the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web, has provided the opportunity for technology-savvy users to interact electronically with service providers (such as billers, financial institutions, insurance companies, etc.) in order to transact business in a simple and expedient manner.

THE UTILIZATION OF VIRTUAL DOCUMENTS to interact with customers is an opportunity that enables organizations to employ the web and related technologies to improve communications with customers, business partners and service providers. There are a number of definitions that describe different concepts of virtual documents. One type of virtual document scenario is that of a primary document (container) that allows sub-documents to be represented in a hierarchy. The second definition, and that which will concern our discussion, covers documents for which the content, nodes or links, or all three, are created as needed. Virtual documents in this context are generated when data is input into predefined fields in an electronic form published to a website (Internet or intranet), and a digital document is output based on the input parameters.

The key element in understanding whether a business has a requirement to provide virtual document capabilities for transacting with its customers, partners and service providers is for each organization to understand its business model, how it transacts business with customers and external parties now and determine what internal and external factors may influence directions towards a virtual document platform, including analysis of service expectations.

The implementation of a virtual document solution in order to streamline processing, better interact with customers and other parties or otherwise solve a business problem may be justifiable for a specific business application. However, it may be difficult to justify a requirement for a virtual document solution in isolation. Instead, a business case for using virtual documents may be more easily justifiable in terms of return on investment by integrating the strategy into an end-to-end business process improvement initiative.

For example, the case study (click here to view) illustrates how a financial institution used virtual documents and supporting technologies, such as integrated workflow and document management, to improve turnaround time on loan processing, thus increasing customer satisfaction, supporting its corporate strategies of acquiring new customers and retaining existing customers in a highly competitive environment.

This scenario describes how an innovative and integrative approach to the planning and implementation of a virtual document solution can deliver significant business benefits. In this case, the virtual document capabilities were integrated into an end-to-end business solution, which assisted with development of a compelling business case with tangible benefits that supported required return on investment outcomes.

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LEN ASPREY [len.asprey@pims.com.au] is a principal consultant with Practical Information Management Solutions Pty., Ltd., Australia and provides professional information management and technology consulting services to corporations, businesses and government departments.


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