Documents get smart

Despite paper’s image as an outmoded and costly conveyor of information, businesses still love to push it. It’s tactile, familiar and, in many cases, represents the primary way that companies interact with employees, partners and customers. Yet the difficulties inherent in tracking, storing and rekeying data and moving paper around take a huge financial toll on businesses. Even those documents that have been converted to an electronic format tend to be largely static.

What might it mean to business efficiencies if corporate documents could become active in the processes they front and adapt as needed? What if they could become, well, smart?

If electronic documents aren’t yet ready to do all of our work for us, some of them are at least pitching in. Smart documents, alternatively referred to as “intelligent” or “active” documents, are dynamic containers that use embedded, executable code to participate in business processes.

Smart documents primarily use XML, which can agnostically represent data types and is highly portable. These documents can streamline processes by launching workflows, moving data to and from back-end databases and updating themselves as business rules dictate.

Proponents believe that active documents will change the way businesses control knowledge and how users interact with it — facilitating everything from streamlined operations and enhanced collaboration to improved regulatory compliance. But while some enterprises can realize returns on investment by automating a single, costly process through a smart document interface — insurance benefits enrollment or payroll deduction changes, say — the upfront design effort needed to re-engineer processes, map workflows and define XML schemas for XML repurposing can be complex.

“A smart document is a powerful end result, but the design effort is not for the faint of heart,” says Carl Frappaolo, a vice-president at Boston-based consultancy Delphi Group. “The challenge is in taking a step back and pulling processes apart. In order to teach a process to a document, you have to decompose it into finite pieces.”

This decomposition, he says, requires that business analysts work closely with IT to determine where business intelligence exists, design business rules that trigger document behaviour and map the workflows that dictate a document’s life cycle.

Though analysts say active documents will become key components in dynamically updating technical documentation and other frequently changing records, the biggest application of the concept today is in e-forms. Jumping into the market with established providers such as PureEdge Solutions Inc., Verity Inc. and FileNet Corp. are big guns Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

San Jose-based Adobe’s Intelligent Document Platform is a services-oriented architecture that includes forms development and workflow components, as well as its ubiquitous Acrobat Reader client (now called Adobe Reader) and Portable Document Format (PDF). Microsoft, meanwhile, has built extensive support for XML and Web services into its Office 2003 suite and offers InfoPath, an e-forms development and routing product.

“Paper forms are extremely expensive to produce, and they’re limited in terms of what they can capture. With a smart form, data callouts and process logic enable it to gather data from and deliver it to back-end applications,” says Toby Bell, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. More important, he says, a smart form “knows where it’s supposed to go and what it’s supposed to do.”

Serving internal customers

Bright Horizons Family Solutions Inc., a provider of employer-sponsored child care and early-education services, saw opportunity in using e-forms to automate employee status change processes.

With 16,000 employees in more than 500 locations worldwide, Bright Horizons found that paper-based processes for employee changes were extremely time-consuming and error-prone, says Tim Young, vice-president of IT. The Watertown, Mass.-based company uses Adobe’s Intelligent Document Platform. Bright Horizons is automating employee benefits and payroll form processes, and it plans to do the same for time sheets and capital expenditure forms.

“We wanted to better serve employees and lower operating costs,” says Young. “We have all these checkpoints now built in with business intelligence behind the forms, so if authorization is needed, it’s built into the workflow.”

Bright Horizons has saved costs by prepopulating form fields. It does so by drawing data from a SQL Server database when employees log into its intranet, providing guided assistance through drop-down menus, and using business intelligence that enforces the way fields are filled out. After a form is completed, it’s converted to a PDF document and is automatically routed via Adobe’s workflow server to appropriate managers and then to the company’s payroll system., a portal where people can identify grant opportunities available from 26 U.S. federal agencies and apply for them electronically, uses software from Victoria-based PureEdge Solutions. The portal is one of 25 e-government initiatives that the Office of Management and Budget has launched.

As the middleman between granting agencies and applicants, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must carefully support the systems used by clients on both sides, says program manager Rebecca Spitzgo. For example, rather than requiring citizens using dial-up connections to stay online while filling out a grant application, the agency deployed PureEdge to make the application packages downloadable.

To view and complete forms, users run a downloadable client, says Spitzgo. uses PureEdge to build edit formats into data fields to ensure that they’re filled out correctly the first time, as well as to perform calculations. When users complete a form, they click on a button to submit it. then converts the received form to an Acrobat PDF file, creates an XML-formatted data file and sends both to the appropriate agency. doesn’t dictate what agencies do with the XML data, but the majority use it to avoid rekeying data, Spitzgo says.’s staff has designed a global XML schema for pieces such as its grants application face page so that agencies can reuse it.

XML marks the spot

Today, XML is a primary enabler in the creation of smart documents. XML helps define document elements such as pagination, enables content to be separated from presentation and allows it to be reused and retargeted as needed.

Smart documents typically use Web services structures for invoking and receiving data values, says Joshua Duhl, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. Web services are increasingly wrapped around key enterprise systems, such as accounting, inventory and content management databases, to transport data. “For certain kinds of applications with lots of updates — supply chain applications, health care processes — you’ll want an active document,” he says.

In a pilot of LiquidOffice e-forms software from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Verity, the state of North Dakota will use XML to perform validations, do calculations and prefill user data into a variety of forms.

“XML provides some opportunities we’ve been seeking for a long time, eliminating data entry and rework,” says Bill Roach, the state government’s CRM enterprise EDMS coordinator. “When we have the information in XML, we can package it up and send it to [back-end] applications automatically. We can have it create an image or a PDF or store it in its native format and just push it into a records-retention system.”

LiquidOffice is just part of the state’s much larger EDMS (electronic document management system) infrastructure, which includes FileNet’s Content Manager, Verity’s TeleForm and KnowledgeLake Inc.’s workflow products.

John Gartrell, a project analyst at Seattle-based Sound Transit, expects the extensive XML capabilities in Microsoft’s InfoPath and Office 2003 suite to ease data sharing with back-end systems such as its PeopleSoft ERP software.

The regional transit system used InfoPath to convert a paper-based payroll process that took a month to complete to an e-forms process that takes four to eight hours. Sound Transit isn’t using XML yet, Gartrell says, but “we’re integrating InfoPath with our SQL Server 2000 database, with InfoPath handling all the XML.”

As their role in the enterprise expands, active documents will need to better support newer capabilities such as digital signatures, says Duhl. Because of regulatory compliance requirements such as those in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, vendors also need to ensure that electronic documents can be rendered exactly as they would be on paper. Adobe’s PDFs excel in this area, says Duhl. Meanwhile, businesses must address numerous infrastructure and process issues to exploit the benefits adaptive documents can bring.

“While active documents are a great idea and interface, even at the forms level they affect business processes at a very fundamental level,” says Duhl. “It goes far beyond technology to the way people work.”

Three basic variations of active documents

1. Active forms

These interact with users and forms-based processes, such as insurance, payroll and benefits programs. Using business rules, active forms ensure that fields are filled out correctly and that they can populate themselves with user information from back-end systems. After an interaction, they can trigger a workflow that routes them to the appropriate individuals and updates pertinent databases.

2. Active documents

Characterized in part by their ability to be paginated, these non-form-related documents might include technical manuals, customized proposals or individualized 401(k) reports that update themselves as back-end data changes and new information is entered on the front end. Technical documentation for an aircraft, for example, might enable a mechanic to click on a link to order parts as a step in a supply chain process, with the document updating itself when new parts are installed.

3. Active graphics

Typically part of larger active documents, these consist of XML-based graphical elements, such as scalable vector graphics, that interact with text and the user. An active graphic might delineate an engine assembly and enable the user to “fly through” the structure, updating itself as the larger document changes.

Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine. Contact her at [email protected].

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