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.

• 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 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.

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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.

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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