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(No.15) Document Based Workflow

Human knowledge was first transferred by oral communications, then by the written word after writing was invented. Oral communication is based on human memory; this makes it hard to keep a record for long periods. Written communication, on the other hand, is stable although not perfect. Because written expressions must correctly reflect the speaker's intentions, more accurate expression is possible only through phonetic representation. Even ideographic characters like those used in Chinese include a phonetic component of four tones. After trial and error, Japanese written expressions came to combine two types of characters: ideographic Kanji and Kana, newly invented phonetic characters. It would not be possible to express highly abstract expressions or delicate descriptions without these phonetic components.

When written expressions were established, Mesopotamians described their events on clay; the Chinese described theirs on bamboo strips (Figure 1). Both societies recorded every kind of daily event with maniac enthusiasm. When records became large, they became a powerful tool for policy making or administration. The main concerns are recording and storage. Clay or bamboo was too heavy to transport, so the recorded media was centrally controlled.

Fig. 1 A document written on bamboo strips

Fig. 1 A document written on bamboo strips

It is also reasonable that people want to use the stored knowledge. It should be useful in everyday life, as well as public administration. For an advanced society, knowledge became a more important administrative tool, and accumulated knowledge became an immovable asset. Surely it was inconvenient for the emperor, or any other ruler, because a whole load of bamboo or clay had to be carried to his desk every time he needed to refer to something. It was also impossible for him to check a record secretly, without others knowing. During the Nara era in Japan, government officials used wooden plates for recording instead of expensive paper. Local government historical excavations often uncover many wooden plates.

Governmental administrative documents were inevitably transferred or stored at a remote location. Because officers needed to convey messages, store knowledge and data, and check and approve documents, they had to move these documents to and from upper agencies located someplace else. The clay tablet or bamboo strip didn't prove suitable for that purpose. Needs were fulfilled only after paper was invented. The recording media (paper) volume and weight was only 1/100 that of previous media (bamboo). The cost also fell significantly and the document approval process was verified with seals. At this stage, the clerical process was standardized with dramatic efficiency. During the Tang Dynasty, about 1300 years ago, this document-based process was completed. As a result, civilian officials were assigned higher positions than military officials. This was a revolution. Since then, paper based document processes dominate office work.

Fig. 2 Seals inscribed in stone (in a Beijing park)

Fig. 2 Seals inscribed in stone (in a Beijing park)

Business flow, which includes multiple departments or several people is called "work flow." As mentioned above, document tasks occupy the main part of the business process, which requires many people and departments. The larger the organization and more knowledge we have, the more complicated document processes we require. As a result, more bureaucrats need to be involved. This means that clerical employment holds the lion's share of administrative expenses of the state or organization. Sun dynasty bureaucrats were famous for being poor. To compensate for their poor income, they welcomed bribes.

Today, many documents are electronic forms and processed through networks. This advancement became possible only after low cost electronic media and communication means became available. And now, all systems are controlled by software. Because of this systematic solution, costs were reduced radically. Without electronic and network environments, large organizations could not survive.

(Ej, 2004.09)