Automated processing and registration of incoming correspondence using email
The incoming mail function, handled by the Information Services team at this Council, was overwhelmed by the increase in volumes of correspondence in a context of diminishing numbers of staff and an acute demand for better metadata from the business units. The Council had recently moved their document management to SharePoint and a bespoke application allowed them to manage their incoming mail but was very step intensive.
The Council partnered with eCloud Business Services Pty Ltd (eCloud) to automate the registration and workflow of incoming physical and electronic mail. The solution took a couple of months to implement and uses the Councils’ existing databases to validate the data extracted by an AI and machine learning engine. The results include the automation of over 120 incoming mail types, their individual business rules, and workflows.
A range of benefits was achieved:
- The standardisation of mail naming conventions to facilitate searches throughout the Council’s systems
- The need for only one person to do the work of previously three staff
- A steep increase in the quality of the metadata provided
- A fast turn-around for mail processing inside the Council
- The number of steps to validate the data was radically reduced to a few fields in a single screen to replace over 15 steps in multiple screens.
In 2015, the Council engaged eCloud after an onsite review of the current “as is” mail document processing practices. The Council was looking for opportunities for automation and efficiency gains in an environment where the business imposed budgetary constraints and increased demands for transformational changes to information management.
A report was provided which detailed the current steps and highlighted the changes needed as well as the benefits (financial and operational) which could be gained by automating the processes. It took 3 staff 7 hours to process 120 daily mail items, leaving them unable to undertake their other duties until after the mail had been processed.
Some of the issues were mainly operational (unnecessary steps acquired over time and retained by force of habits), others were cultural (a lack of trust from some departments in the Council for electronic documents which meant all incoming emails were printed then scanned into the document management system).
The proposed solution includes changes made to the manual processing and scanning steps in order to remove as many as possible but still retain the quality assurance required of the department. Once physical mail is digitised, the technical solution, oMail (eCloud’s inbound mail processing software), automates the classification, registration, and processing workflows of all incoming document types.
The solution processes all mail items through different stages. An intelligent OCR and image recognition process, which does not require the setup of templates, identifies and extracts the metadata from the document.
All extracted metadata is validated against the Council’s internal and trusted data for property information, author’s identity matching, and other planning, building, and health databases. A set of agreed naming conventions and business rules, learned by oMail using supervised and unsupervised learning, are applied, and the documents are automatically registered into the content management system with all the verified metadata extracted. Workflows are also triggered as part of the solution.
Artificial intelligence-powered solutions are new to most organisations and the implementation steps as well as the technology potential benefits are very much unknown. For this Council and with most of our clients, eCloud used an iterative approach with only a few document types implemented through a no-fuss pilot process which allows the team to truly evaluate in-situ the actual capabilities of the solution.
The scope of the pilot is based on an “as is/ to be” process which clearly evaluated the current processes and proposed a new process quantifying the estimated benefits for the solution prior to making a final decision. The pilot measured image quality (clarity, missed pages) and metadata extraction quality (application of naming conventions and business rules, quality of classification and registration, appropriate assignment of workflow, extraction of critical dates, and author information). Once the results were demonstrated successfully in only 2-3 weeks, the decision to go ahead and implement all document types was taken and the full project implemented within a couple of months.
The approach has been to focus the delivery on high volume document types to start with and to continue the training of document types less frequently used over a few months giving the team space and time to adjust their processes and learn the new way of working. This approach has also helped remove the fear staff expressed of losing their jobs and to allow for trust to develop for the automation processes. The Council is migrating document management systems from SharePoint to HPE Records Manager and is engaging with eCloud to re-route the documents and metadata to the new system.
The ability to retain the business intelligence already built into oMail regardless of the end content management system provides resilience for the long-term despite a constantly changing technological environment.
oMail was set up as a pilot project initially but was adopted as a solution after the pilot returned successful results and demonstrated the possibility to return higher-quality work in a shorter timeline with fewer resources. This means that staff was able to focus a much greater proportion of their time delivering high value projects to the Council rather than lower value manual tasks.
- The work originally done by 3 staff over 7 hours each, is now done by two staff in less than 3 hours.
- The cost reduction per item processed is lowered to less than half the original costs including the processing service cost and the reduction in FTE.
- Data that was not previously included in the dataset for each mail item is now included and automatically inserted. This represents a significant improvement in the quality of results returned through searches in the content management system.
- Common mistakes due to manual data entry have been removed reducing errors, typos, and duplication of information (for example when the name of an author is misspelled and therefore the view of the correspondence from this author is incomplete).
- The number of steps to scan and process the mail was reduced significantly because the software does not require sorting and using separator pages. It does not require setting up templates which can change over time and need constant adjustments. And the validation of data against internal databases (Pathway, SharePoint) was done automatically rather than in over 15 manual steps.
- Staff manage by exceptions and focus their time only on the small proportion of correspondence that does not fit into a business rule or where the metadata is not clearly verified. This means that staff efforts are focused on using their intricate knowledge of the business rather than on tasks that can be fully automated and do not require human intervention.