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Software // Information Management

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.

To automate processes and bridge gaps between heterogeneous and geographically dispersed information systems, IT professionals have turned to integration technologies including enterprise application integration (EAI), enterprise information portals (EIPs) and the relatively new category of enterprise information integration (EII). We've also seen widespread adoption of integration-enabling technologies such as XML and Web services. Yet something big has been missing.

PAIN POINTS
• Most customer-facing processes remain mired in paperwork. Document imaging can minimize paper-handling delays and data-entry labor, but Web-based forms offer a more cost-effective alternative that eliminates paperwork and secondary data entry. Built-in rules and data validation ensure accurate data entry and complete information, and integration with databases and back-end workflows speeds processing.

• Complex transactions aren't Web-form friendly. Opening accounts, applying for loans and handling other complicated tasks can be cumbersome online, requiring multiple Web pages, dozens of fields and time-consuming data entry that might otherwise be handled by customer service representatives. To improve the online experience, intelligent forms skip unnecessary fields, prepopulate data already available in customer databases and automatically duplicate new information entered by the customer wherever it's needed.

• Some transactions demand research and preparation. If you have to think about product and service trade-offs or gather documents and information, you're less likely to complete a transaction online. A few systems let users download and fill forms offline and later synchronize the results with back-end systems.

• One-size-fits-all help menus just don't cut it. Choices and options often vary based on customer histories and the information customers enter in forms. Intelligent documents offer embedded, contextual help menus and dialogs that can change based on current account status and the selections customers choose.

The lingering gaps are apparent to any company that has tried to let customers participate directly in business processes. Web self-service applications are a step in the right direction, but they're not all user friendly. Customers must navigate multiple Web pages and enter data field by field. Have you ever tried to open a bank account online? You probably had to fill out 10 pages of information and, if you had to consider the answers or options for too long, you timed out.

EAI, EIP and EII solutions have missed the direct interaction between customers and enterprise systems. Intelligent document integration (also known as e-forms automation or document process automation) is now streamlining information exchange between people and systems through interactive forms and documents. Vendors ranging from document and e-forms systems providers Adobe, PureEdge, Cerenade and Microsoft to more process management-oriented companies FileNet, Integrify, Nsite and Verity offer dynamic Web-based and, in some cases, downloadable forms with built-in data validation, business rules, conditional routing and presentation and process automation capabilities. Not only is document integration a promising medium for e-business transactions, but it's also enabling internal processes, such as employee recruitment, IT service changes and purchasing.

A Third Route to Better Customer Service

Document integration offers an alternative to costly, often inconsistent human-assisted service and data entry and to Web-based self-service, which sometimes overwhelms customers with complex, time-consuming navigation. Consider what happens when ordering phone service. With all the options available, you almost have to talk to a customer service representative to understand your options, right?

Intelligent documents offer built-in validation, help menus and guidance, and some even let users work offline: Customers download documents from a phone company Web site, for instance, and fill them in (built-in business logic helps here). Completed forms can even sense or request an Internet connection and synchronize themselves with the phone company's back-end systems. Copies of the completed forms serve as transaction records while specific data points are automatically forwarded to the appropriate back-end systems for processing.

In a real-life example of document interactivity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a Central Data Exchange (CDX) in a $100 million, seven-year project that's letting state and local governments and industry submit data in a standardized, electronic way rather than through paper-based forms (see www.epa.gov/cdx). The system uses Web forms with built-in error checking to eliminate inaccurate and duplicate data entry, and Web services and XML standards enable information to be shared across platforms and integrated with multiple back-end systems and databases. Launched in early 2003, CDX now has more than 17,000 registered participants and is expected to save $80 million a year by eliminating paper handling and data entry.

Document integration is based on the belief that forms are the best mode of communication between humans and computers. The technology turns human interactions into computer-ready input, and automation and integration features eliminate the drudgery otherwise associated with manually processing large volumes of documents. Intelligent documents can help make choices, with wizards or digital assistants that look over our shoulders, metaphorically speaking, to answer questions or verify answers. To avoid expensive support calls about particularly tricky choices, these digital document assistants can even suggest answers or alternatives and offer help menus for the task at hand.

Cover Image

In Europe, Ericsson Telecom is using software from Arbortext to create documents that can dynamically serve up information to meet customer interest in specific products and service situations. Arbortext was an early adopter of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), an open standard supporting delivery of information modules within documents based on topic of interest. The building-block approach is ideally suited to delivering information in context. It's an example of XML-based technologies supporting the delivery of intelligent, interactive documentation.

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