Despite a profusion of document management technologies that have the potential to banish paper from the business world, most organizations continue to struggle with efforts to automate the process of storing and managing their corporate documents. Indeed, the promise of the “paperless office” continues to be elusive decades after the term was first coined.
Accounts payable, logistics and order processing are just a few of the core business activities that can suffer because of the inherent inefficiencies of using paper documents, said Kevin Craine, author of the book Designing a Document Strategy and host of The Document Strategy Podcast. But to make effective electronic document management more of a reality, he and other analysts noted, companies first have to get sales orders, invoices and the like into their systems by means of document imaging and document capture. And that can be a tall order.
To understand how document capture fits into the larger context of a document management strategy, it’s important to first understand that there are two levels of capture procedures, Craine said. The first is document imaging in its simplest and most obvious form: the act of scanning documents and creating digital images of them. The second involves gathering information about the contents of documents from the printed page or from existing electronic documents and associating that data with the files in a document management system.
The resulting metadata “enables the management part of document management, since it allows for quick search and retrieval across any number of hard drives and servers,” Craine said.
From there, he explained, document capture software can deliver that information to a variety of back-end databases and applications -- for example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) or claims processing systems. In addition, more advanced data extraction capabilities let users go beyond simple documents and capture multiple types of documents, and evolving intelligent data recognition technologies enable systems to read handwriting and map document fields.
More than scanning: unlocking data via document capture
“Sure, you can scan documents to create a digital image as a first step to eliminate paper, but this scan-and-store approach falls short of the full potential of modern capture systems,” Craine said. “The real strategic value is found by unlocking the data contained on those printed pages.”
“I think organizations are finally realizing that although they have spent a lot of money automating business processes with technologies such as ERP and CRM, many of the transactions that support those things aren’t quite automated because of paper,” agreed Melissa Webster, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.
But Webster said it’s not just paper that’s the problem: Electronic documents also are often not being adequately captured and integrated with business processes. “In a way, your business processes are only as good as their weakest link,” she said. For example, every time a process has to be interrupted for a manual intervention, it creates a potential compliance issue that isn’t auditable. “That’s what makes it worth doing what it takes to get it right,” Webster said. “It’s a bottom-line issue about cost-effectiveness and business agility as well as risk and compliance.”
In fact, she added, document capture initiatives and related efforts to better integrate electronic documents into business workflows typically have a higher return on investment than most other IT projects do.
A receptive audience for document capture investments?
However, selling corporate executives and business managers on the need to invest in document capture technologies might not be so simple, cautioned Bud Porter-Roth, an independent consultant who focuses on document management and collaboration technologies.
Porter-Roth said the document management process should incorporate documents that are generated both inside and outside of companies, including items such as application forms and letters that often are paper-based. “Paper is not going away anytime in the near future, and it must be taken into account when strategically thinking about a document management system,” he advised.
But many companies “still view capture as wildly expensive or not legally acceptable,” Porter-Roth said, adding that document capture vendors and proponents “are to blame for this sorry state. We somehow have not gotten the word out properly.”
Other organizations are unwilling to confront the issue. “I meet people who act as if they don’t believe paper exists,” Porter-Roth said. And in his experience, even when companies do face up to the need to capture paper as well as electronic documents as part of an automated document management approach, they often don’t properly address the problem. For example, some try to get by with optical character recognition (OCR) technology alone.
“The young guns think you just have to OCR everything and then search for what you need Google-style,” Porter-Roth said. But, he warned, that typically produces poor results compared with more comprehensive approaches to managing document capture.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.