Document Automation: All You Need to Know

Monday, February 1, 2021

You've probably heard a thing or two about automation and the way it's starting to replace many tasks which were once only able to be done manually. As the term suggests, document automation consists of creating new and accurate documents by remotely inputting new data. As a result, you have properly formatted and organized documents while avoiding the many steps of file-editing and potential typos. We like to think of document automation as much more than a tool for just completing documents quickly, but as a part of how organisations are systemising large processes.

In this blog we will call out the different situations and tasks professionals and businesses may find automation to be helpful and take a look at what documents you can automate and how. Lastly, we will review the tools available for document automation and what to expect from them.

Signs that document automation might be for you

While it is true that document automation can be applied to every industry and the fact that everyone is jumping on the automation bandwagon doesn't mean that it's going to be a good fit for you.

Historically, industries that have benefited the most from document automation include law, accounting, finance, and insurance, however, this group of industries is expanding as the technology becomes more capable. With this in mind you might have a few types of documents that are a good fit. There are a few indicators you can use to identify if you should consider this technology:

  • You manage a large number of documents
  • These documents need to be accurate
  • You copy-and-paste (or transcribe) information into documents from multiple sources frequently
  • You have to remember when to obtain information and remind people to provide it to you
  • You periodically change certain parts of documents while keeping the rest intact, (e.g. reports, updates)
  • You often rely on third-party apps to update information within your documents
  • You rely on multiple people to provide information for documents you are responsible for

The benefits of document automation

Now if any of the points above sound familiar you should check out some of the benefits of document automation. Broadly speaking, document automation does three things:

  • Assures error-free results

Since automation replaces our direct action on documents, it can work as a way of avoiding typos and other formatting errors.

  • Saves time

Automation saves time at the expense of mundane tasks, and we all know in business land that time is money (and money is power and power is pizza and pizza is knowledge).

  • Aesthetic consistency

Documents need to be beautiful. Formatting documents properly will not only make them easier to understand but will improve your business' and personal impression to the reader.

What kind of documents can you automate?

Here is a list of a few of the different types of documents you can automate and save time:

  • All sorts of reports
  • Team meetings, questions, and presentations
  • Contracts
  • Quotes and invoices
  • Surveys
  • Forms
  • Pitches and sales proposals
  • Briefs
  • Spec and testing documents

Among many others...

What types of information can you automate?

Automation can take input for more than one data source. A data source is a person or system that this information originates from, types of information include:

  • Text
  • Lists (numbered or bullet points)
  • Numbers/amounts/values
  • Dates/Times
  • User information like username and email
  • Personal information like names, addresses, and phone numbers
  • App information

How to automate

If you have decided automation might be for you, let's take a look at how we can transform a regular document into an automated one. First of all, no matter what word processor (Office 365 or Google Docs) you're using, document automation follows a few principles:

  1. Identify the parts that are regularly updated in each version (In some templates these are highlighted sections which you replace with custom text). Aim to identify and automate every single variable in the document.
  2. Identify primary data sources, or how the information has been relayed to make it into the document. For example, if you completed the file yourself after talking with a client, then the client is your data source.
  3. For all data sources that are people (including yourself), write questions that will help those people complete that information.

Let's now apply these rules and automate something with Portant's Google Docs Add-On. For this example, we will use a project proposal

As you can see, green marks are placeholders for input. This is where we will put Portant's document tags for data sources. Enter the question, if it is a required field and insert the document tag into the document.

N.B. In the question box, you can use formatting such as bold, italic and new lines that will be replicated in the form.

Now there's a data source marker for each primary input.

These data source questions will be used to create a form like the one below, which works well on desktop or mobile.

When Portant's shareable form is completed a new document will be completed and saved in a folder in the same location as the original document (if this is the first time a document is created a new folder will be created at this stage too).

These forms can then be scheduled to be sent to one or multiple email addresses at a set time, which can be repeated on a daily, monthly or yearly basis.

Automation software & tools: What are your options?

Traditionally, document automation was something that needed to build as a bespoke solution, which meant writing code. But over the years, better solutions have been developed to automate documents, so you can expect to find a few different tools out there. To give you an idea of what to expect, these are the key features to look after when choosing a tool:

Integration

Make a list of all the tools you use as primary data sources for documents from month to month. Ideally, you want to have a platform that can integrate with all these tools. However sometimes if you have a few internal platforms, this might not be possible.

Also, look at the formats of documents these tools export and ensure they are the documents that your stakeholders want to receive. If your stakeholders have to download a different piece of software or log into another platform it will create difficulties for the adoption of the new tool.

Platforms/types of tools

There are stand-alone desktop and web options, or you can use a tool that integrates with your document editors or word processors. Add-ons are great when you already have a lot of users on a certain suite. These solutions are also frequently cheaper, which isn't a small thing when budgets and spending is being closely monitored.

Scheduling

A schedule option for automating the data request process from people is a must. These are sometimes combined with notification systems that mean you can avoid the awkward task of reminding people to provide information to you. This also saves you a lot of time and headspace during your working week.

Document management and database

When you switch on document automation you need to make sure the system is filing the created documents in a way that will save you time. Some options allow you to share the created document with a list of people (or the form respondent) after the document has been created, saving you even more time.

Conclusion

Working more efficiently has become a necessary skill with the constant demands on time in the modern workplace. On top of this, we believe it has the potential to help with work/life balance and job satisfaction. That’s why we’re set on bringing the power of automation to everyone. Our Google Add-on is our first step down this road, enabling every user to automate pieces of their documentation workflow to save time, stay organized, and get more done.

 If you want to be part of this journey please reach out to us at contact@portant.co or download our Google Workspace Add-on. 

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