Chapter 1

The key to successful document automation projects:
Knowing when automation works – and when it doesn’t

Consider a very common business – and personal – activity: flying with an airline. Everyone who does this uses a boarding pass to make their way through airport security, access the aircraft, and claim their seat. Regardless of whether they used a boarding pass on paper or one that appeared on the screen of a smartphone, this is an example of a miniature document that any document automation solution can create. But it almost never does. Why not?

Boarding passes are too simple. They display details about the flight, seat, passenger name, and maybe the airline logo. Every passenger receives essentially the same boarding pass; only the passenger and flight data are different. This is an example of a very well structured document. There is no need for a document automation product. The flight number, time of departure, first name, and last name are always placed in the same location. Airlines’ booking systems can easily do this work. Why waste time and resources on an automation solution?

Close-up of a boarding pass being carried through a busy airport.

Boarding passes are documents, but would anyone use a document automation solution to create them?

Will a document automation solution ever be able to automate the writing of a novel? This seems unlikely. Even though the good automation solutions make it possible to implement elements of artificial-intelligence decision making, no automation solution can replace human creativity. Therefore, if a bulk of text to be written requires creative writing (it doesn’t have to be a novel; perhaps it is the summary of an annual report), someone must write it.

A neatly organized collection of books.

Novels are documents, too.

At this point, it may be reasonable to ask of a document automation solution: "What exactly can it do?" On the simple side of the document automation spectrum are customer statements, non-negotiated legal documents, sales quotes, and everything else that has some data in it, as well as some degree of personalization, and where business logic controls what text is shown. Apart from inserting information like the recipient and other details, it may be that a paragraph is inserted or removed based on simple rules.

The medium- to high-complexity band is where most automated documents are produced in. These may be insurance policies, mortgage or credit card documents, sales proposals, requests for proposals (RFPs) and responses to RFPs, negotiated legal documents, employment contracts, health and safety procedures, data-driven customer communication, and most other documents, emails, web content, and other communications that medium to large enterprises produce.


Document Automation can be used for:

  • Negotiated and non-negotiated legal documents
  • Statements of Work
  • Insurance policies
  • Requests for proposals
  • Sales quotes and proposals
  • Employment contracts
  • Customer statements
  • HR communications
  • Health and safety procedures and policies
  • Work instructions
  • Customer communications
  • Data-rich reports
  • Building reports
  • Real estate contracts
  • Email automation
  • University syllabus publishing
  • Land information reports
  • Leasing contracts
  • Credit card processing documentation
  • Permit issuance
  • Order processing
  • Government pension documents
  • Court documents
  • Legal proceedings documentation

And many other document and communication types.


Good automation solutions also make it possible to work with sets of documents. One example is the creation of an employment contract as well as health and safety policy specific to the position, and motor vehicle use policy for a specific vehicle. It can also involve generating a PDF document, sending it out as an attachment to a customized body of an email, and simultaneously making the document content available as a web page.

On the extremely complex side of the spectrum of automated documents are data-rich reports with well-defined structures that appear as though they have been written by humans. Many reports on the stock market and individual stock performance are fully automated, and are indistinguishable from reports written by a reporter.

How does all of the above translate into the day-to-day reality of organizations that are considering implementing a document automation solution?

In a medium to large organization, there are typically hundreds of types of documents, website content, and emails that people use and create every day. Employees spend their time locating suitable content and styling for these documents, then create them, review them, peer-review them, submit them for approval, rework them, correct them, and ensure that they are delivered to the correct recipient and archived in the correct location. If it’s possible to identify which of those processes can be successfully automated, the outcome should be a project with a return on investment (ROI) in the area of 400%. This means the solution pays for itself in about three months. In some cases, the payback period can be less than two weeks.

For small business that utilize their intellectual property to create documents or content, document automation can become a means of scaling up their operations and reaching a much wider audience. For example, small legal firms can serve thousands of clients across the country, while niche health and safety experts can generate compliant work procedures quickly and update them effortlessly.

In summary, every organization has documents to automate.

In the next section, we will discuss why and to whom document automation is or should be important.


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