Overcoming Document Challenges is Key to a More Efficient Supply Chain

New research among supply chain leaders on digitizing paperwork has revealed that their biggest headache is finding and verifying information. A document challenges study shows that 60% of transport and logistics organizations have already invested in digitizing and improving their documents, yet more than half complain that they’re still experiencing issues with information verification and finding the data needed for customers. There is a clear disconnect within the industry on what it means to be fully digital.

Electronic documents sharing

This new data highlights that manual document handling continues to be a huge time suck. Let’s explore why supply chain organizations must connect their data and documents with the right automation technologies to move toward a high-speed, more efficient future.

Why shippers are getting it wrong

While many organizations have begun to dedicate more time and resources to digital documents, they’re still handling data and documents separately. For many organizations, they see digital documents as having them in PDF form, which doesn’t move data into a digital process; a PDF is still a document or document image that’s somewhat easier for them to read. The same thing happens with invoice processing: 65% of organizations said they still have paper-based invoices. What’s astonishing is that more than half of those respondents receive PDF documents in an email, and they still print them just to key the information back into another application or database — contradicting the whole point of having digital documents in the first place.

Additionally, shippers don’t understand what being fully digital and having documents with intelligent capabilities mean. Are their end-to-end processes digital without a single piece of paper ever being generated? Or did they only get rid of paper to replace it with PDFs? For most, it’s the latter, and many companies simply did this because they could no longer afford to spend time and money on keeping up with paper documentation. This only provides gradual efficiency gains and often doesn’t change the document processing operations.

The key to approaching document automation

Document-intensive processes, which make up the majority of supply chain processes, rely on human intervention and decision-making more than any other part of logistics operations. When disruptions occur, they directly expose operational reliance on documents and the rigid nature of manual processing or legacy OCR-based automation. Document processing often is the least adaptive part of logistics operations, so it’s important for companies to reimagine their document process from the ground up.

Yet, most organizations don’t know where to start their automation journey in a way that gives them the quickest, most efficient wins. They need to embrace an automation-first mindset rather than solely focusing on task-based solutions, and analyze the people involved with their processes to determine which processes and tasks could be automated effectively.

For example, a global logistics company we worked with wanted to automate several areas of their organization, including invoice processing. However, following an assessment with their solution partner, they felt that the complexity of semi-structured documents, coupled with a lack of extensive intelligent document processing (IDP) capabilities within their robotic process automation (RPA) platform would lead to inefficiencies. They re-engaged the accounts payable team and began to prove the value of an IDP solution, then analyzed the current process and designed the future process prior to implementing a solution that could be scaled and reused. With the increasing sophistication of technology, the logistics company was able to benefit from an intelligent invoice processing proof of concept, which could be applied to a number of different document types.

How AI enables more sophisticated ways of working

Embracing a smarter document processing system is a quick and relatively simple way for companies to free up a significant amount of employee time while strengthening their bottom line. Document processing with intelligent capabilities can help provide speedier processing of bills of lading, waybills, invoices, and more, allowing quicker decision making and providing a more competitive edge. Once they adopt more sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, including IDP and newer low-code/no-code tools, and leave manual paper documents in the past, their document processing automation turns into a realistic, attainable next step.

Most supply chain organizations have experience with traditional automation approaches such as RPA with basic OCR technologies, which enable them to automate routine tasks and document data extraction and validation in stable processes. But they only focus on data field recognition, extraction, and validation through hard-coded instructions from applications and IT systems. Adding AI technologies like machine learning (ML) can be used to “read” information and apply experience and skill to make decisions on it, making it well-suited for applications that include information extraction, machine translation, report generation, and more. AI can be trained by humans to learn and read large amounts of complex information similar to how trained workers would do. It can distinguish various forms containing exceptions and be applied to different situations.

Additionally, no-code IDP platforms take this even further by removing the burden of having to create a complex application infrastructure for IT to implement and maintain. Pre-trained low-code/no-code document skills (pre-built skills that understand the content of documents like bills of lading, for example) are a drag-and-drop option that can easily be plugged into an existing process or application and can run within minutes. This is extremely helpful for organizations that don’t have much of, if any, IT budget to work with and can be implemented directly by their operations group, where agility is needed most.

Real-time visibility and document processing are the key to supply chain digital transformation. Companies that continue to use paper documents will likely fall behind their peers who are more digitally advanced and must re-think their processes sooner rather than later to avoid seeing significant revenue losses. Innovative AI technologies like no-code IDP platforms will provide a hassle-free solution that identifies, evaluates, and removes friction from any document-driven process, and will ultimately help them remain competitive in a volatile market and during a time when agility in document processing matters more than ever.

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Bruce Orcutt is the vice president of product marketing and management at ABBYY.