Like any business process automation project, undertaking a document assembly initiative requires careful planning and execution. Unlike many broader workflow projects, though, where a positive outcome is as much hope as it is reality, the path to success with document assembly projects is well lit. Just the same, to ensure success, you have to stay on the path. Here are four guiding lights to help you along the way:
1. Pick the right platform
Which platform you choose depends, of course, on what you want to do with it. Simple mail merge types of automation projects can be done with Microsoft Word, and there’s nothing to buy. More involved projects, involving lengthier documents and complex business logic could probably be completed with a combination of Word Macros and VBA, but, beware. This alternative is not for the feint hearted. Success will likely require that you be a competent software engineer (or, at least, have access to one).
If you’ve got a stack of legal documents—contracts, agreements, wills, trusts, etc.—that need to be transformed into process applications (templates), the best bet is to go with one of the commercial document assembly platforms. Pick one that’s been around a while (just to be sure your chosen vendor isn’t out of business in a year or two), and make sure it can handle both text-based documents and PDF forms. Likewise, make sure you can deploy it anywhere you like (desktop, on-premise, cloud), and that it has powerful APIs for integration into other important web applications.
2. Embrace complexity
Here’s the thing: Although you may have simple documents in mind today, next month or next year, you may encounter something more complex—dozens of pages, hundreds of variables, conditional logic controlling the inclusion/exclusion of language. And it may turn out that this beast of a document is mission critical and that it needs to produce transaction-ready documents, right off the printer.
The point here is don’t be seduced by the siren’s song of simplicity. (See “Fixing the Simple Problem.”) Legal documents are complex, and you need a platform that can handle any documents or forms, no matter how lengthy or complex they may be. Choose a “simple” solution today, and you could end up explaining to your boss a year from now why you need to upgrade to an enterprise class document assembly platform.
3. Start out Simple
Despite the fact that you need to make sure your platform can handle documents of any complexity, the 80/20 rule is in effect with document assembly projects—80% of the automation tasks can be completed in 20% of the time. To avoid getting bogged down in the complexities of a single document, start out simple—insert variables. Automate pronouns and verbs. Maybe insert some business logic controlling clause insertion. This level of work in any of the major platform vendors is pretty easy to master. And as soon as you get your first process app (template) up and running, you’ll immediately begin to save time, money, and eliminate proofreading mistakes.
If you work for a law firm, a good first draft may be all you’re looking for. If you work for a bank, insurance company, government agency, or any other type of organization, you may need to push on towards total automation, which will allow you to generate transaction ready versions of even your most complex documents.
4. Focus on information-gathering interviews
Enterprise-grade document assembly platforms allow you to build sequences of wizard-like, interactive, data-gathering forms (interviews). These interviews allow you to guide system users through the process of entering all the necessary data for generating transactional documents or sets of documents.
Document assembly interviews reflect the business logic in the document templates, an approach which allows you to present questions (or sets of questions) to system users based on answers to previous questions. This feature allows you to avoid asking unnecessary questions. Further, individual fields in an interview can be validated for range, and help resources for individual questions can be provided.
Interactive interviews dramatically reduce the amount of training time necessary to get new staff up and running on your various document assembly process apps, enabling less skilled staff members to perform like they’ve been on the job for years. Not only will interactive interviews save on staffing costs, but they represent the most effective way to prevent human error from making its way into legally binding documents.
Of course, these are just a few suggestions. Document assembly offers one of the best ROIs in the entire business process automation (BPM) space, and any document assembly initiative deserves careful planning and detailed analysis.