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Digitizing Forms & Processes: A Primer

Transitioning to a new technology platform may help in some areas of a company but changing the technology won’t fix the problem if the underlying business processes remain outdated, manual, and largely paper based.

Before the pandemic, walking a document around the office for review or signature probably didn’t seem like a big deal. However, as working from home becomes more commonplace, how will you “walk” that document around? What if that document could be filled out electronically and sent to someone else for approval and signature? If your company has yet to make the digital leap, it’s time to transform that paper document into a digital file and digitize your construction processes.

What Does It Mean to Digitize a Process?

With an electronic A/P process, you can transform a paper invoice into a digital one and can easily track the invoice’s movement throughout your company. This electronic process will notify the appropriate person that an invoice needs approval or rejection within a specific time. It can also send the approval outcome back to the A/P department for further action. Digital processes improve efficiency, accuracy, and speed thereby reducing bottlenecks, errors, and lost documents.

How Do I Start to Digitize a Construction Process?

If your company is not ready to digitize an entire process, start small; digitize a document, form, or both. Start by scanning a document, which can now even be done with a mobile device. There are several free document scanning apps available but check with your IT department to make sure what you use complies with company policy. It is important to always work with your IT department before implementing a new procedure that involves technology because when you digitize your information it will be saved into the cloud. You will want to ensure that your information is being kept in a safe location and that no sensitive information can become compromised.

Before you start scanning away, consider the purpose of the digital document. Do others in your company need to see it? Where should it be saved? What types of information does someone want to know about the document? Answering these questions will provide insight into what technology solutions meet your business needs. Bringing your documents into the virtual world may seem like an overwhelming process but starting small with timesheets or schedules allows companies to easily share, collaborate, and access documents along with greater protection of data.

For example, if you need a location to save documents for others to access, use cloud solutions (such as Box or Microsoft OneDrive) to keep files off your local hard drive as well as to share and control who can access, edit, and delete. Referring to the A/P example, you want others to determine who the invoice is from, the date, amount, and due date. With help from your IT department, investigate solutions that can create and set categories for your documents, making them much easier to find. Partnering with your IT department can reduce the time it can take to go digital. There may already be a solution within your company that has the ability to capture and store electronic documents. And your IT department will know the capabilities of current and new technology and can share best practices for each.

Lastly, you can digitize a form. Such solutions as Microsoft Forms can create simple, multi-page forms that can be used to collect information. This solution also integrates well with Microsoft Teams, allowing you to edit and collect responses in a single location. For example, contractors may want to consider digitizing daily reports to keep project management teams informed of current conditions and the status of projects. Data from digital daily reports can be collected from a computer or mobile device and imported into an Excel worksheet for easy collaboration and manipulation.

There will be cases where the form you wish to digitize will be more complex. For example, if you wish to create a form that allows users to select a project name from your timekeeping software, consider a different application to build the form that allows choice field selections to come from information stored in a database or Excel sheet, accept electronic signatures, pair with workflow technology, etc.

Who Do I Involve in the Digitizing Process of a Form?

It’s essential to gather input from those who closely interact with forms to identify all the steps and actions (e.g., identify and select the correct form, who uses the form, and what data is needed to input into the form). Then, meet with each person individually to identify all steps in greater detail and find out why they take specific actions. Here are some examples of research questions:

  • How is the process started? Does the department or the requestor initiate the request?
  • What happens at the end of this process?
  • Do all the steps or actions make sense?
    • Are the steps or actions exact, or are they confusing?
    • Are they in the right sequence?
    • Are any of the steps redundant?
  • What other inputs are needed to complete an action?
    • Does the action need to be approved or rejected?
    • Who approves or rejects the action?

As you meet with more actors, you may discover gaps, errors, or redundancies between steps, actions, or both. When you finish gathering feedback, your team should meet to validate, refine, or reengineer the steps. And all of this research can be completed virtually.

Resist the urge to skip the individual meetings and jump right to meeting with all your actors at once; hosting a large initial meeting before collecting feedback often leads to you becoming the mediator of a disagreement around who is doing the process correctly or incorrectly. It is best to come into the meeting with a collection of input, allowing the meeting to be a working session to review the steps and actions, uncover any improvements, and get the team’s consensus. Then, start digitizing your process.

A similar method can be used to collect feedback on digitizing or creating a new electronic form. If you want to digitize an existing form, you will want to work with the form owner to ensure the form collects all the information they need or to discover if anything is missing or needs updating. Also, feedback such as “it would be nice if we can pull this information in from our accounting system” is your first indicator that the form you are building will not be simple and that you may need to enlist help from your IT department. Connecting your form to other systems within your company will require your IT staff and coordination from the system owner.

What Should You Do After You Define Your Process?

Once the steps and actions are defined, officially record it by writing it down. To create a record of your process, use tools you’re familiar with to illustrate it. It might be more advantageous to use a visual depiction of the process than to write it out in a large document.

There are many tools available to illustrate your processes (i.e., Microsoft PowerPoint or Visio). These program types may already be used within your company, but if you don’t know how to use these applications, you can start with some markers and large sheets of paper or a whiteboard. The idea here is for you to break out each step into actions, and using arrows, show users what the next step or decision point would be. By doing this activity, you will get a sense of what steps or actions to digitize and what steps or actions will need to involve actors’ interactions. You can now investigate what technology you can use to enter the digital world.

It is important to involve your IT department when researching any new technology, especially when deciding on which one will best work within your company. Most solutions are cloud and subscription-based – providing more flexibility in the number of licenses needed. For example, to digitize A/P invoices, licensing for a document capture solution may be per workstation and not per user.

Digitizing your construction processes streamlines your operations and can provide greater visibility, decrease time to complete tasks, and save on company overhead costs.

Originally published in the February 2021 issue of CFMA Bottom Lines

Please contact a member of our Construction Services Team  to help address your questions.

Construction Services

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