Document automation is a series of activities using software tools to systematize the generation of documents. In fact, these two little words cover a lot of things. As you start to peel back the layers of the onion, there’s a chance you’ll find some surprises that you weren’t expecting. If you find yourself frustrated at how much time it takes to create a document or fill in forms, then you need some document automation.

At the heart of it, document automation encompasses:

  1. Template Management
  2. Document Generation
  3. Document Management
  4. Workflow

In this article, we’ll give you an introduction to these four elements.

1. Template Management

Templates are everywhere – have you filled in a form lately? That’s a template. Created a quote? Signed an employment contract? Sent out an NDA? Those are all templates. There’s a good chance that you come across some sort of template every day.

Document automation starts with a template. To automatically generate a document, you need some base to build the document from. That is a template.

Templates are most commonly created in word processing software; where you can define basic placeholders to personalize your document.

You can write whole articles about the template management component of the document automation process; but the key thing to note here is that a template has placeholders (often called ‘variables’) for text, documents, pictures and other things. To automate the creation of documents, you first create a template.

2. Document Generation

The documents that we create within a business context vary in complexity. A leave form is very different to a sales proposal or a legal contract. The information that goes into each document can be as simple as a person’s name, or more complex information driven by business scenarios and logic.

In document automation, the placeholders in a template are populated to create a document. The placeholders can be added via manual entry, or automatically from a range of sources. Imagine an employment contract where the placeholders include the employee’s name and personal details, plus roles and responsibilities text based on the position.

Sometimes, there are decisions that need to be made about what to include in the document. This can be done manually or provided by another system. These rules can make the document automation process very powerful – with opportunities to ensure consistent and also more complex decision-making.

Documents can also be created in different formats. The most common are ‘word’ documents or PDF.

3. Document Management

Once the document has been created, what happens to it afterwards is just as important. It can be saved onto your computer, into a network drive or some other file storage system – even printed or emailed. You might also need people to review and approve the document. Down the track, you may need to archive or delete documents based on your organization’s retention policy.

All the above activities are part of the document management component of document automation. What you do with the document is just as important as creating it and managing its lifecycle.

4. Workflow

Workflow defines the steps and processes required for creating a document. The trigger for document generation can be manually driven (e.g. the click of a button) or automatically driven based on a series of events. There may also be another series of events for what happens after the document has been created (e.g. editing, reviewing and obtaining approval).

For example – if you are generating a commercial contract, the template may be the starting point for the process. After the document is generated, there may be additional steps for editing, reviewing and obtaining approval.

The need for system-driven rules (over manual processes) affects the degree of automation for a particular document. While events after the generation of the document can largely be managed outside of the document automation process, the trigger and decisions that drive the creation of the document are very much a part of document automation.

The level of document automation that you need for your business will vary based on the complexity of the document and the processes required to generate it. Now that you understand the components of document automation, you can start to figure out where your challenges lie and the areas that need attention.