A Step Forward for Unstructured ERP Data

December 10, 2009
By djohnson

An ongoing problem in IT organizations is the fact that critical information is often stored in an “unstructured” format. From a database perspective, unstructured data is anything that cannot be stored in rows and columns and must be placed into BLOBs (binary large objects). From a business perspective, this can include emails, word-processing documents, image files, presentations, PDF files, videos, telephone conversations, blog comments, and much more.

Experts say that 80-85% of organizational data falls into the unstructured category. David Cappuccio from Gartner is quoted in ChannelWeb as naming unstructured data as a key trend that needs to be addressed. The problem is that ERP and accounting systems only utilize structured data.

There are several ways of overcoming this (indexing, meta-data, advanced imaging techniques, etc). But in this post, we will focus on an interesting solution for ERP and accounting … data linking.

Accounting and ERP solutions are structured. Data is organized according to business rules and systems are built to reject data which does not conform to those rules.

Current method: To get data into the accounting system, information from documents such as invoices, purchase orders, contracts, timesheets, expense reports, and receipts is manually keyed. The original document is stored in a filing cabinet or scanned and put on a shared server drive or a file server.

Converting Unstructured Data

Converting Unstructured Data


A slightly better way: After keying the data, link the original document directly to the structured transaction. In the case of paper documents, you may have to scan them first. Several ERP systems allow you to link transactions in this way and achieve the following benefits:

  • Auditing becomes much easier because documents are linked to transactions.
  • Additional details from original documentation are one click away. This is useful because many times all of the financial details are not keyed into a structured format. Terms and conditions, line item details, descriptions, and other information often fall into this category.
  • Error checking becomes much easier because original documents are linked.
Journal Entry Linked with Invoice

Journal Entry Linked with Invoice

A much better way: Do not allow data to get into an unstructured format. Have employees enter timesheets and expense reports directly into the accounting system using web-forms so that they can do it from anywhere. Use the “slightly better way” when this is not possible – like in situations where a supplier hands an employee a paper receipt.

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