Breaking through the barriers of digital paper

Four ways to break through the barriers of digital paper

What should I put in this form? Why do I need to fill in this data again? Why does it take so long to get an answer on my request? Every single one of us recognizes these frustrations when thinking about the administrative procedures when dealing with our electricity provider, at the city hall, in the hospital, etc. But why is this still the case? How come that — in the digital age we are living in today — these problems still occur? This post will give you some insight into these questions and outlines how administration can be simplified.

Smart simplification requires breaking through the barriers of digital paper

Paper paradigms

Throughout history, paper has shaped our view on information modelling and sharing — so much so, that many digital processes and documents of today still rely on the paper paradigms:

  1. When you scroll through a word or pdf document, you see 1 page at a time, in a fixed lay-out; you need to browse through the pages sequentially to discover the content, even though certain parts are not relevant to you;
  2. Sharing documents via mail is like carrying around paper. If many people need to receive the information, you make standalone copies that never get updated after the distribution;
  3.  In too many digital contexts, changes are made by a person on a standalone copy — without any side effect on the other copies, forcing anyone who needs a merged version to do the complex job of “diffing & merging”, i.e. finding the differences between versions and creating one common version;
  4. Only very few digital applications link to relevant knowledge existing on other pieces of paper. It is up to the author or reader to spend time in the “digital library” and hopefully find something useful;

In a recent article, Forbes pinpoints the limitation of simply porting the solutions from paper to screens.

The problem with digital paper comes when you are using it for repeatable processes in which knowledge is created that could be of greater value and could be shared & operationalised.

This certainly applies to administrative processes and documents. So, any endeavour addressing administrative complexity should take this into account. True simplification and better service means a digital approach that goes beyond the paper paradigms.

Break through

We see 4 ways to break through the barriers of digital paper.

(1) Separate Structure from Lay-out

Information that lives in your process or documents must be usable for different purposes. Sometimes you need the nitty gritty details, sometimes you need the overview. At any time, you want actionable reporting.

To have this flexibility, separation between the data structure and the lay-out is needed. Indeed, if the data is present in a (semi-)structured format, different lay-outs, filtering and reporting can be applied.

(2) Activate Deep Integration

Nobody likes to ask people for the same information over and over again. Rather, you want to reuse information that is already present. And you want to be able to integrate newly captured data in your further processing.

As a result, integration must happen in 2 directions: inbound integration that enables maximal reuse of the data that is already available and outbound integration to provide other systems with the data needed for operational tasks.

(3) Allow Seamless Collaboration

With the digitization of processes and documents, people expect a clear view on the progress of administrative processes, they demand quick reactions and expect short execution cycles.

As an organisation running these administrative processes, you want to make the best use of your collaborators’ time. To realize this, the process must be collaborative by nature and maximize parallel work.

(4) Harvest Existing Knowledge

A lot of existing bodies of knowledge can be very useful as further assistance to users when they complete documents. The challenge lies in providing relevant information at the right moment.

Technologies from the semantic web, natural language processing and data mining are available today and allow existing knowledge to be harvested during the administrative process and/or when the user is completing the document.

Technology is ready to further reduce the (digital) hassle and improve your service

Technology is now at a point that allows breaking through the barriers of digital paper.

In a first round of digitisation, the paper paradigms were used as the reference. This was not only the case because technology limited the possibilities, but also because of our overall affinity with the “paper way of doing things”.

Today’s technology allows us to go further: it can support smart simplification to administrative processes and documents. Now it is up to all of us to realise this simplification!

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