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Documents get smart

XML-enabled documents could change how people interact with business systems

By Kym Gilhooly
November 8, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Despite paper's image as an outmoded and costly conveyor of information, businesses still love to push it. It's tactile, familiar and, in many cases, represents the primary way that companies interact with employees, partners and customers. Yet the difficulties inherent in tracking, storing and rekeying data and moving paper around take a huge financial toll on businesses. Even those documents that have been converted to an electronic format tend to be largely static. What might it mean to business efficiencies if corporate documents could become active in the processes they front and adapt as needed? What if they could become, well, smart?
If electronic documents aren't yet ready to do all of our work for us, some of them are at least pitching in. Smart documents, alternatively referred to as "intelligent" or "active" documents, are dynamic containers that use embedded, executable code to participate in business processes. Smart documents primarily use XML, which can agnostically represent data types and is highly portable. These documents can streamline processes by launching workflows, moving data to and from back-end databases and updating themselves as business rules dictate.
Proponents believe that active documents will change the way businesses control knowledge and how users interact with it -- facilitating everything from streamlined operations and enhanced collaboration to improved regulatory compliance. But while some enterprises can realize returns on investment by automating a single, costly process through a smart document interface -- insurance benefits enrollment or payroll deduction changes, say - the upfront design effort needed to re-engineer processes, map workflows and define XML schemas for XML repurposing can be complex.
"A smart document is a powerful end result, but the design effort is not for the faint of heart," says Carl Frappaolo, a vice president at Boston-based consultancy Delphi Group. "The challenge is in taking a step back and pulling processes apart. In order to teach a process to a document, you have to decompose it into finite pieces."
This decomposition, he says, requires that business analysts work closely with IT to determine where business intelligence exists, design business rules that trigger document behavior and map the workflows that dictate a document's life cycle.
Though analysts say active documents will become key components in dynamically updating technical documentation and other frequently changing records, the biggest application of the concept today is in e-forms. Jumping into the market with established providers such as PureEdge Solutions Inc., Verity Inc. and FileNet Corp. are big guns Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
San Jose-based Adobe's Intelligent Document Platform is a services-oriented architecture that includes

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