Intelligent Documents: The Missing Link to Customers

Conventional integration technologies have missed a big problem: difficulty communicating with customers. Dynamic, interactive forms are an emerging option for self-service, offering built-in business rules, data validations, personalized help and audio synchronization with back-end systems.

Intelligent documents provide a new level of interactivity superior to the experience customers have with rigid Web-based forms or ephemeral communications via e-mail or instant messaging. In the financial services industry, many customers can now receive electronic banking and brokerage statements that let them categorize information and crunch the numbers interactively. Consumers can type age and income information into promotional brochures to obtain insurance quotes or financial planning advice. Documents can also be enriched with experience-enhancing features such as video and audio elements, calculators and financial models.

The telecommunications and utility industries are turning the monthly billing process into an opportunity to enhance customer service by delivering intelligent, interactive bills and statements. Some customers can even dispute charges, request service changes and report service outages or problems without having to write letters, navigate call center menus or wait on hold. These service providers save money while customers save time.

Technology Behind the Scenes

Intelligent document integration encompasses a set of technologies that let you publish electronic documents with which customers interact and that will then interact with your back-end systems. As shown in the diagram on page 42, intelligent document integration products typically include four core features. First, they help create intelligent documents. In many cases, forms are designed in HTML, but business rules and data validations are embedded via Visual Basic or Java script. Several products, including Adobe's Intelligent Document Platform and Verity's Liquid Office, offer a single authoring tool that can publish documents in a standard format — usually portable document format (PDF) — and also apply business rules, such as validations and help fields. Platforms typically offer formatting templates that let you add comments and explanatory text to help customers find answers to common questions and complete documents without assistance or errors. It's even possible to add instructional videos, sound clips and interactive buttons to documents. In some cases, templates also offer built-in integration with desktop applications such as Microsoft Excel.

In most cases, documents are published to be filled out over the Internet using browsers, and depending on the form's embedded business logic, databases or business systems can be synchronized to prefill forms with customer-specific information and options based on service levels or account status. The Adobe, Verity and FileNet Forms Manager systems also offer downloadable documents (in PDF in the case of Adobe and Verity) that can be prefilled, completed by the customer offline and later uploaded and automatically synchronized with back-end systems.

A second feature common to intelligent document integration products is an XML transformation engine that makes it easy to integrate with databases and business applications automatically. XML is used to encapsulate business rules applied to the information users enter into documents. Customizable XML tags are used to link customer responses to corresponding help information or links to informational videos or online enrollment forms. XML can also translate the document content and attributes, eliminating the need to convert files to specific formats required by various back-end systems. In short, XML is the carrier of the original documents and all information exchanges required for processing.

A third element typically found in document integration environments is a generalized integration engine — an EAI messaging product, a Java application server or a portal server — that supports secure, reliable exchange of intelligent documents (or specific data contained therein) among enterprise systems and devices. The integration engines invariably provide a programming environment, such as Java-based APIs, that support information extraction from the XML-encoded document. Exchanges may be handled via Web services. Essentially, intelligent document integration systems combine the advantages of EAI-supported messaging-based integration methods with the ability to dynamically assemble and display information in response to customer interest and requests (drawing from knowledge bases online or embedded in documents).

Finally, because documents come in many varieties — letters, account applications, notifications, bills, statements — intelligent document systems often include template libraries or form repositories with content management features such as check-in/check-out, version control and componentized content reuse. Such features help organizations develop and maintain standardized forms with shared semantics, navigation approaches, corporate identity and branding — in short, a consistent look and feel. These libraries can also be linked with portals and corporate knowledge bases to make them broadly accessible throughout the enterprise.

Think Beyond the Squeaky Wheel

Intelligent document integration doesn't replace EAI, EIP, EII and other technologies; it's a complimentary solution that completes the spectrum of interaction and integration needs. Document intelligence and integration capabilities have taken years to develop, and technologies are still evolving. For example, many envision documents as stand-alone Web services clients that will be able to call out for information and services and enable transactions without platform, application or data and content format barriers.

Document integration is in its early stages of maturity, so it's important to invest in the right foundation. Intelligent document integration is a strategy that requires a long-term plan and a thorough, phased deployment. Limited systems may be able to address tactical problems today, but will the system scale, address more complicated needs and integrate with all the applications and back-end systems that might come into play in a wider deployment? Look to solve the big problems so you'll win immediate returns, but make sure you're also laying the groundwork for a sustained document integration plan.

Mark M. Davydov, Ph.D., is the author of Corporate Portals and e-Business Integration — A Manager's Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001). Write him at [email protected]

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