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Still entering data manually? Digitise & automate your systems

By Tim Stephenson - 03rd March 2020

Be honest, how many times have you filled in a spreadsheet this week?

A quick search on a well-known jobs site found me 1406 jobs matching ‘data entry’ and that’s before we include titles like finance or credit controllers, accounts payable and everything related to stock control. 

And don’t even get me started about the print and re-type rubber bands holding our NHS together.

When was the last time a friend or colleague joked about the paperless office that his company pronounced in 1980-something having done nothing but proliferate the amount of paper to wade through?

Excel was created in 1985 - when Marty McFly was trying to get his parents to go on a date in Back to the Future. Next time you open a spreadsheet, ask yourself how we ever got to a future like this?!

So what’s wrong with office tools - aren’t they the backbone of the productivity increases that coincided with the explosion of the PC era?

In the mid-1990s, the rate of productivity growth increased significantly in the United States, led by the IT-producing sectors as well as IT-using sectors — a change attributed in part to improvements in the nature and use of IT.

Unfortunately, when the tool you’re holding is a hammer, all problems start to look like a nail.

So what’s wrong with data entry in 2020? 

  • suppliers sending things like invoices in printed form to be re-typed into another system on arrival (or even worse, doing the same within an organisation) 
  • critical data is scattered throughout the organisation in opaque file systems 
  • multiple copies of similar data distributed through the organisation, each one ‘tweaked’ to answer someone’s particular question 
  • unaudited and, potentially even uncontrolled, changes to data 
  • accidental loss of data when laptops are damaged or staff leave
     

If these problems sound familiar, it may well be time to start looking at your solutions more holistically. 

Digitise immediately

Make your work digital from the start. When a task needs doing, don’t look at it in isolation but think about what will happen downstream and who will need to be involved. What do you need to know to complete it?

For example, there are powerful tools in every smartphone to convert pieces of paper into reusable data: Google Lens, Office Lens and Text Fairy to name a few. Process automation tools have evolved to the point that anyone who is capable of using a spreadsheet can now equally quickly define the data fields needed in a form and send it to the relevant person to be completed. 

Know where your definitive, authoritative data resides

Ok, so we know that it is not realistic to imagine a brand new system that will hold all your data in the ideal way - the one ring to rule them all only exists in Middle Earth. However you may be able to retire some systems, especially the informal ones. 

Many of these crop up because it is hard to access the definitive source or because two sources need to be merged to provide the answers you need. Powerful integration tools and automation can make it simple to pull together these merged views. Having done it once, it is simple to repeat as often as needed. And because it’s available on demand, your users no longer face the temptation of keeping their own local copies.

Track who does what

There are many occasions when it would be useful to know at which particular moment a given data item was changed, or who did it so that you can ask them for the context. When digitised from the outset, it’s easy to see where and when things happen.

You may also find some interesting insights into your workloads: no more guessing at how much of this or that you do each week, or how often things have to be revisited because it was not done correctly. When digitised, these are standard reports.

And for bonus points

Depending on how much you are able to influence your business partners they may insist on continuing to provide you paper or other locked down forms of data. So why not open your systems up to them too? Those same simple forms can be filled directly within email or even chat interfaces and you won’t even need to reach for a scanner app.


Although fundamental change is daunting and you may feel it’s fraught with risk, sticking with these fragmented systems is no longer tenable. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of our experiences show that any perceived value provided by these systems is soon lost when you consider the effort required to join them up. 

Suffice to say, when you take the plunge to full digitisation, and see the benefits it brings (e.g. discarding legacy systems, removing data silos, collaborating seamlessly, being compliant and auditable), you will truly be where you should be — Back To The Future.
 

About the author: Tim Stephenson
Tim Stephenson is our DPA Practice Lead. With over 15 years' experience, Tim's area of expertise is business process management and digital transformation. He has architected many million pound plus software development projects and his expertise is called upon regularly at industry events.