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Whenever and Wherever: The Document is Critical to Society

by Kevin Craine
Published: April 1, 2004

 

Published in TDAN.com April 2004

Documents Convert Information Into Action

In early human history primitive tribes documented the movement of bison on cavern walls and outcroppings of rock. The tribesmen painstakingly scribed pictograms in the sediment with stones and bones. The location and timing of the herd's arrival was vital information that could mean the difference between a successful hunt or hungry days of wandering through the wilderness. Information alone, however, did not feed the clan. It was only after the hunters took the information from the cave walls and converted into action -- by finding and killing their prey -- that their families were fed.

Fast forward 40 thousand years to an age where information is shared instantaneously and effortlessly around the globe. Digital information drives the machinery of modern society: currency and stock exchange; health care administration and medical treatment; government, military and civilian operations. Information alone, however, will not nourish a nation. It is only after information is productively used - by prompting meaningful actions - that society is served.

Whether in the Stone Age or the Information Age, information is of little value if it is not converted into the right kinds of action.

 

Document Renaissance

Our age marks a time of a Document Renaissance. Never before in human history have we had so many ways to communicate. We've gone from cave drawings to fax machines; from parchment to PC's; from tribal legends to the global village of the World Wide Web. Never before have people reached so far or with such freedom to create, share and express information. All along this continuous change there has been one constant, and that's the Document. Throughout human history -- whether constructed with hieroglyphs or hypertext -- the Document has been the constant aide of human communication. It was there with the Unas at Giza. It was there with Moses at Mt. Sinai. It was there with Lincoln at Gettysburg.

Despite its lineage, however, the Document has been overshadowed in the recent computer technology explosion. Most of our society's attention has been on the sexier side of technology. But as technology guides us into an epoch where people demand access to information directly through computers, databases and the Internet, the complexion of the Document has changed. Our traditional notions may no longer apply in the wired world.

What has not changed is the inherent role documents play in human communication. Consider the word communication. It is based on the Latin commun, or common, and the suffix "ie" which means "to make or do." So one meaning of communication is to make information common between people who then make or do something. Documents do this. We are now more likely to communicate using hypertext than hieroglyphs, but the basic function remains the same: to make information common between people, who then act in some way.

Communication is the Catalyst

Human communication has been the catalyst for the information age. Computers, databases, networks and printers -- the aggregation of information technology in modern organizations -- are put into place to gather, distill and present information for people. People take this information and act in some way.

It is the gap between information and action that is key. All of the gadgets, widgets and wires in the world are for naught if this gap is not effectively crossed. A document strategy is a plan to cross that gap. How can our documents take the information we have gathered and communicate it in a way that elicits the desired response from our readers? These "desired reactions" are at the very heart of how documents are strategic.

Documents are Strategic

Building a document strategy starts with the notion that documents convert information into action. Are readers inspired to buy our products or engage our services? Are people prompted to act efficiently and correctly within the inner workings of our business processes? Have people understood our message and adopted our point of view?

Documents have great scope because they provoke a variety of actions critical to an organization's business processes. Companies communicate with customers through documents. Documents drive revenue by prompting customers to buy, borrow and pay. Customer satisfaction, brand recognition and perceived quality are fostered by documents that communicate clearly, provide accurate and timely information, and serve the needs of readers.

Documents are also the beginning and end of internal business processes. They are the tools that help run a business every day. Documents connect work groups and link key business processes to the people who perform and manage those processes. The efficiency of day-to-day workflow hinges on action provoked by documents. Do workers get the right information when they need it…and then act accordingly? Are they wasting time searching for information and correcting errors? Are they besieged with useless information and weighted down by unending paperwork?

Documents can influence the way people think and feel. Corporate documents inspire a feeling about the company that issues them and influence what customers think about the quality - good or bad - of products and services. Political candidates, social activists and religious groups use documents to sway opinion and persuade people to adopt a certain point of view or behavior. Law enforcement and governmental agencies use documents to record public opinion, establish societal norms and influence the conduct of citizens. For students and scholars, documents help to convert information into understanding and learning.

Documents are Tactical

If a document strategy starts with the notion that documents convert information into action, then it ends with the recognition that documents are a tactical liability if they are not effective. Whether digital or paper, documents cost money to produce and require labor to process.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Thirty billion original documents are used each year in the United States.
  • The cost of documents to corporate America is estimated to reach as much as 15 percent of annual corporate revenue.
  • Documents claim up to 60 percent of office worker's time and account for up to 45 percent of labor costs.
  • 85 percent of documents are never retrieved, 50 percent are duplicates, and 60 percent are obsolete.
  • For every dollar that a company spends for a final document, ten dollars are spent to manage the process.

Clearly, documents that are not effective in converting information in to action have a tactical stranglehold on organizations. It's no surprise that the lion's share of work concerning documents is tactical - producing pages faster, cheaper or not at all. The tactical opportunities found in document systems are concrete, measurable and readily apparent, so the success of any document strategy will certainly be measured using these factors as a yardstick.

But ultimately, no matter how efficient the "speeds and feeds" of document production become, or how effectively we migrate from paper to the web, if documents fail to inspire "desired reactions," they represent little more than a tactical liability.

One of the constraints that must be overcome by those who are building a document strategy is that the traditional view of documents is tactical rather than strategic. Documents are generally seen as a problem or a liability, not an opportunity or an asset. But simply viewing documents tactically - a cost to be contained or a function to out-source - limits opportunity to incremental improvements whenever they happen to present themselves and excludes a large part of the equation.

Balance the strategic and tactical aspects of documents by concentrating on the effectiveness of their communication, as well as the efficiency of their production. Now that we have the technology to efficiently produce an avalanche of documents, we must always ask: Are they effective?

Using Documents Strategically means Using Information Strategically

Organizations must build a document strategy if for no other reason than the current exponential growth of information. More information has been produced in the last thirty years than in the previous five thousand -- the entire history of civilization. What's more, that body of information is expected to double in less than five years. With over 90 percent of information contained in documents it is clear that whatever the medium -- pixels or paper; bytes or birch bark -- documents are the currency of human communication. Information: You've got to be able to find it, you've got to be able to use it, and you've got to be able to keep it. Documents allow us to do all these things.

Information is now the most valuable component of the entire economic chain, according to Peter Drucker, the prominent management consultant. Organizations that are able to harness the power of information and manage, share and use information effectively are well positioned to create value for everyone involved, says Drucker.

But to harness that value comes at a high price. Investment in information technology now accounts for over one-half of the United States gross investment in equipment. It has been estimated that U.S. businesses spent more than $100 billion in 1995 on hardware alone.

Documents are a vehicle that can turn the expense of gathering information into an asset and are one area of information technology that can be quantifiably measured and improved. A document strategy is vital because it monitors, directs and improves the way information is used in a very tangible way. Enhancements made in document systems can ultimately determine the real value of the information we have gathered and the technology used to collect it.

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Recent articles by Kevin Craine

Kevin Craine - The author, Kevin Craine, EDPP is Supervisor of the Output Management, Electronic Publishing and Corporate Forms departments for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon. Kevin can be reached at 503/225-5213. Visit his web site at: http://members.aol.com/kccrain/craine.html.