Smarten up

Smart documents, also called 'intelligent' or 'active' documents, straddle the line between effective enterprise content management and value-added documents. While initially the uptake of intelligent documents was to ease repetitive work processes, they are also adding additional benefits to collaborative workflow and project management.

Smart documents, or tags, based on an XML backbone, make it possible to associate user-requested actions with stored data, maximizing the use of information through an automated delivery. Smart documents primarily use XML, which can agnostically represent data types and are 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.

Mark Szulc, Adobe systems engineer, said the use of automated templates is bringing a sense of order to what was previously an unstructured approach to document management and gives collaborative tasks or team projects a single point of reference.

"When you think of unstructured workflows and structured workflows, a database needs structured information to make the best use of it, but workflow is sometimes ad hoc. What smart documents do is sit in front of the database and act as a fluid platform to allow users to move information in and out of the business very quickly," Szulc said.

"In a collaborative task they can even go as far as tracking who has provided comment on a task, but also if you think about doing any team projects with paper you might have to photocopy and distribute 20 documents, get them back and collate them then do corrections and mark-ups.

"Through smart templates, once the document is routed a project manager waits for each person to complete their tasks then simultaneously review the document and merge the data into the source document one by one; you then have the ability to go through and decide to accept comments individually."

At the consumer end, Szulc said, smart documents enable better customer service.

"They overcome the need for data repetition. If you bank online and want to apply for a credit card through your bank, then once you have logged in there should be no need to reiterate already-provided details. A bank in this case has the ability to serve information to a customer that it knows [the customer] can validate."

Malcolm Groves, regional product director of Borland Australia, said that, until six months ago there was very little uptake in the enterprise space of smart documents within Australia and the Asian-Pacific region. Interested organizations are still only in the exploration stage of enterprise-wide deployments, whether for front-end portals or as an internal cost-saving device. Groves added that the definition of what smart documents actually are is also a bit unclear.

"In relation to what Microsoft terms a smart document, some "smart" products are not a smart document, but the edges get blurry. Most people think either Web application or rich client and people either look at one or two extremes," Groves said.

"Smart documents are more around removing the friction of producing documents from different data sources."

Borland's Delphi programming language is being supported in Microsoft's .Net Framework. Delphi, a Microsoft OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) product is geared towards automation-aware programming.

Borland positions itself as a software delivery and optimization vendor that also branches towards application lifecycle management.

According to Groves, uptake of smart documents within the Asia-Pacific region and Japan so far has been to maximize the amount of data available for remote workers, especially sales staff.

"For a salesperson on the road filling out orders, if they have access to a research pane that gives automatic assistance according to where they are placed on the document - you have an automated sales-based system talking to an automation package, and maybe an Excel spreadsheet which allows you to click on a customer cell to automatically search for relevant information," Groves said.

"Smart documents seem to recognize people work in the Office suite of products. And rather than forcing users to jump to another tool to get data, bring the mountain to Mohammed."

Borland's JBuilder and Enterprise Server was selected for the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs' deployment of its eVisa system which, according to CIO Cheryl Hannah, reduced application processing turnaround time - from days to hours - and slashed the amount of paperwork.

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 -- 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 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.

While analysts say active documents will take centre stage in dynamically updating technical documentation and other frequently changing records, the main application of the concept so far is in e-forms.

Smart documents typically use Web services structures for invoking and receiving data values, says Joshua Duhl, an analyst at IDC. 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 - such as supply chain applications, healthcare processes -- you'll want an active document," he says.

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."

"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 Gartner analyst Toby Bell. More important, he says, a smart form "knows where it's supposed to go and what it's supposed to do".

- With Kym Gilhooly

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More about Adobe SystemsAdobe SystemsBorland AustraliaDelphi AustraliaGartnerIDC AustraliaMicrosoft

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