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More than meets the eye in planning a document imaging system

Mobile technology's set the stage for planning a document imaging system at many organizations. But before implementing, learn about its complexities.

Say capture to most people who have heard it in the context of information management processes and they often imagine someone feeding paper into a scanner to create an electronic image of a document. But there is much more to document capture than that -- laptops, smartphones, tablet PCs and even voice recognition devices all can play roles in the process.

At the simplest level, entering information in an online form or creating a document on a computer and storing those items in an electronic repository counts as capturing them, even though they never existed in paper form. Similarly, connecting to or importing information already stored in an enterprise database is another method of data or document capture that bypasses the use of paper.

And today's mobile devices are taking the inputting of information to a new level by repurposing their built-in cameras for use as content-entry tools. For example, the latest mobile applications for online banking and travel expense reporting enable users to photograph paper checks or receipts and upload them for processing. That eliminates photocopying, interoffice mailings and processing delays resulting from a need to physically submit the originals for a document imaging system.

Voice recognition technology promises to be equally transformative as a means of capturing documents and data. Speaking is the most natural way to add content into an information system. Perhaps the most familiar example is in the realm of customer service, where telephone response systems recognize callers reciting their names and account numbers for automatic routing to the proper person or department. The systems capture the information before processing it.

Document imaging evolves, expands

Integral parts of the capture process, document imaging systems originally were centered on the use of a scanner, camera or another device that could take an electronic picture of a hard-copy artifact. Early examples included microfilm and microfiche equipment, and desktop scanners and related multifunction devices were more recent innovations.

Today, document imaging has expanded to include such attendant technologies as optical character recognition (OCR), intelligent character recognition, bar coding and quick-response code reading, all designed to extract content from a document and insert it into a repository. Fundamentally, these tools operate much as their forebears did, using a camera-type sensor to gather the encoded information. The difference is what is scanned can then be processed electronically -- letters and numbers recognized, bar codes and QR codes translated -- whereas the earlier technologies stored images for later interpretation by document management professionals.

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Smartphones and tablets are easily equipped to be imaging devices, and apps abound that use their cameras as input points. Whether OCR technology then comes into play natively on the device or remotely on a corporate server depends on an organization's application architecture, and there are good reasons to choose one option or the other. But the salient fact is that we've moved beyond simple photography as an imaging technique.

Another example of this movement is manifest in the ever-increasing efficiency and accuracy of document auto-classification software. Improvements in algorithms and the availability of powerful servers and processors means that such systems can quickly identify the types of documents that are being captured -- invoices, membership application forms -- without any user input. Then users can insert the captured documents into a workflow so that the next steps in the document imaging system's process take place in the proper order. Does this mean that document imaging is being supplanted by workflow? No, but it does make clear how one works to complete the other.

More than just protecting documents

The broad array of tools and technologies affecting the ability of companies to capture and record documents and other information encompass such things as databases, electronic forms, mobile devices, voice recognition, OCR and its cousins, auto-classification and workflow. They also require a similarly wide variety of new management techniques that are critical to supporting such capabilities as version control and check-in and check-out to ensure the integrity and auditability of documents.

In mobile environments, for example, the documents are not the only items that need to be secured. The connection between the device and the server also must be subjected to a great deal of scrutiny since, in most cases, it is nothing more than a regular cellular connection. And then the security of the devices themselves is an issue because they might not be password-protected or support remote location and disabling should they be lost.

Another security issue has to do with database connectivity and whether the data being accessed by users is clean. And where importing documents into systems is concerned, it's critical to ensure that professional-grade extract, transform and load disciplines are applied to produce that cleanliness and generate the proper metadata.

Not everybody will agree that this is part of document management -- database administrators in particular seem likely to object -- but there's no point in protecting documents from unauthorized access, amendment or sharing if the information they contain isn't accurate. The savvy organization will think beyond mere protection.

It's often been said that simplicity is the key when engaging in complex matters, but in the case of document imaging, capture and management, keeping it simple might not be the best advice. The good news is that many of the technologies involved in the process can be administered in a relatively streamlined fashion. But it will first take some work to identify the parts you need and then determine how best to get them to work together.

Steve Weissman is a consultant and best-practices instructor in process and information management. President of AIIM's New England Chapter and a Certified Information Professional, he is the principal analyst at Holly Group, where he works with clients with a goal of helping them to derive "maximum total value" from their IT investments. He can be reached at 617-383-4655 or

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