When the human resource team at Impact Networking invested in a next-generation document management system, it shifted the department's efforts to go paperless into overdrive. The new technology allowed HR to digitize myriad paper forms and documents, eliminate cumbersome e-mail threads, collaborate on documents, and track and store digital forms more efficiently and securely.
Mary Zellers, director of HR at Impact Networking, a managed services provider in Lake Forest, Ill., said the platform from vendor PandaDoc enabled her team to digitize offer letters to job candidates; compensation plans; and administrative documents like position changes, salary adjustments, leave requests and offboarding forms.
"We were able to accelerate the digitization of paper documents but also added important new efficiencies to how we organize, track, approve and store all of those forms," Zellers said.
The platform proved its mettle during the pandemic when Impact's workforce started working remotely, she said. "We had to send a lot of documents out quickly to employees, like work-from-home contracts and other agreements and training resources. We were able to rapidly create those digitally and automatically send them to large groups. In the first three months of the pandemic, we sent out about 1,800 digital documents."
The system's reusable templates and collaboration tools also have streamlined HR workflows, Zellers said. "Many of our documents require multi-employee sign off from finance, line managers and employees. We no longer need to send out individual versions to people because we can collect multiple e-signatures on the same document."
Zellers said the platform allows her to know at a glance who's received and signed documents.
Value of Next-Generation Document Management Platforms
Experts say that while HR has made progress in digitizing the many forms and documents used in the department, it still lags other organizational functions in that effort. In its 2021 Global Enterprise Content Management survey, Forrester found that overall adoption of document and content management platforms rose steadily in the last year. The top three reasons for implementing these platforms were to digitize business processes, achieve cost-effective automation, and improve legal and regulatory compliance, the study noted.
Vendors have recently launched new applications designed specifically for employee file management, onboarding and contractor compliance, according to the study.
A 2020 study by Aberdeen Strategy and Research in Austin, Texas, found that one of HR's top challenges is that the sheer volume of requests to the department is growing too fast for current technology solutions to handle. The study's authors concluded now is the time to digitize processes that still have manual and paper-based steps.
The Aberdeen study found that HR functions using simple techniques such as e-signatures can improve employee productivity by up to 70 percent and allow organizations to be up to four times faster in time-to-hire for job candidates than those not using e-signatures.
Experts say document management systems also help HR avoid the headaches and time delays related to the still-common practice of sending out forms via e-mail to be reviewed and signed.
"In the past, important documents here would get stuck in e-mail inboxes and never make it to a personnel file," Zellers said. "With the digital storage, automated workflows and notifications provided by our new system, there's a reassurance forms end up where they're supposed to be. It's extremely important in HR to have processes in place that ensure safe storage of documents and a clear audit trail if needed."
Innovations in Document Management Systems
Cheryl McKinnon, a principal analyst for Forrester, said innovations from document and content management vendors are helping to accelerate the move to "digital-first" HR documents, processes and file management.
Those innovations include a growing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. "New, intelligent services are helping HR extract useful data and text more quickly from a broader range of less-structured document types and are helping to solve new problems," McKinnon said.
For example, this new technology is being used to auto-detect missing signatures on documents and ensure remediation quickly, rather than delaying a new hire or manager approval, she said. In addition, "intelligent data extraction" platforms no longer depend on human operators to define specific "zones" on a document to extract an employee ID number or address.
"New AI tools can find the relevant piece of data even if the documents are laid out differently, such as with resumes," McKinnon said.
Improvements to integration and search features on these platforms have allowed HR teams to better manage documents and forms alongside the employee data in human resource information systems and case management or service desk applications, she added. "That helps provide a more contextual view of an employee record or a transaction."
McKinnon said cross-repository or cross-application search ability also is increasingly essential for HR, particularly for those operating a mix of on-premises and cloud applications or who have a strategy of growing via merger and acquisition where there are multiple systems holding digital records.
Challenges of Digitizing HR Forms
Digital transformation doesn't come without challenges and potential risks. Among the key challenges is integrating and creating a common interface when paper documents still exist alongside digital ones, experts say.
"There are some records management applications that do indeed support common search tools to find both types of documents or employee information," McKinnon said. "But it requires that an organization make the effort to import or otherwise capture relevant metadata on the physical folders, boxes or individual items."
For example, a search could return relevant digital items for viewing as well as provide information on where to go to retrieve the physical items by box number, shelf location or warehouse location, she said.
Digital records also can present long-term storage challenges that tend to be overlooked. McKinnon said employee records may have retention rules that span decades based on specific laws or regulations. Examples would be employee certification records, records pertaining to health or safety regulations, and documents about pension obligations.
"Long-term digital preservation is often an afterthought in enterprises," McKinnon said. "But after 10 or 20 years there is a risk of file formats becoming obsolete, as well as risks tied to underlying storage devices not being well-maintained or if a third-party storage provider or app exits the business."
Experts say planning for long-term readability, accessibility and trustworthiness of digital records should be a criterion when selecting HR document or content management platforms.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.