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Document imaging systems mature, offer expanded options to users

A boom in sales of document imaging systems is driving lower prices among capture and scanning tools and expanded features like improved image quality, color and optical character recognition.

The basic functions of document imaging, scanning and capture technologies are not new. But the form and frequency with which imaging and scanning tools are being applied today is providing both large and small organizations – and those in between – with increased options to automate costly manual tasks as part of their document management strategies.

The strongest drivers for using imaging, scanning and capture technology are improved search capability and knowledge sharing across the enterprise, according to a study released last year by the industry group AIIM, titled Capture and business process: drivers and experiences of content-driven processes. Those critical functionalities are followed by additional drivers such as accelerated productivity, reduced costs and improved customer service, AIIM said.

The economy, unsurprisingly, has had a big impact on accelerating the adoption of document imaging systems and scanning equipment as a means of reducing labor and operating costs. Businesses continue to be pressed to cut costs while remaining profitable. “One way to do that is by automating processes,” said Anne Valaitis, associate director of image scanning trends for InfoTrends, a market research and consulting firm based in Weymouth, Mass.

Applying new document imaging and scanning technologies to internal workflows has resulted in reduced cycle times and improved processes for many companies, Valaitis added.

One potential path to achieving that kind of modernization is through distributed imaging and scanning. “If we look at the product cycle of scanners over the last few years, scanning was once very centralized,” Valaitis said. Companies would often have a production scanning environment using machines installed in a central location. Business users from different departments would bundle scanning tasks and then deposit the scanned documents in some kind of archival storage system. According to Valaitis, medium- to high-volume scanning systems best fit that type of application.

Cost of document imaging systems drops as quality improves
In the last few years, however, there has been a boom in sales of lower-volume scanners that can be distributed throughout the enterprise for various document capture purposes. That means a drop in prices, “but the features are improving” at the same time, Valaitis said.

Newer scanners offer improved image quality and color, good optical character recognition, image rotation, duplex capabilities for double-sided scanning and many of the other features that were once the exclusive domain of production-class document scanning systems. And, Valaitis said, “distributed capture can be much more far-reaching in an organization in terms of capturing various types of content across the board.”

Although the cost of scanners has come down, and their use has become more widespread, some analysts question where the value-add is in deploying them without a comprehensive document capture and document imaging management strategy.

“You can buy a document scanner for $400, and some think that’s all they need in order to do document conversion, but when you get into it, you realize that the difference between that and any sort of enterprise capture technology is huge,” said Chris Riley, senior enterprise content management and document capture architect at consulting firm ShareSquared Inc. in Pasadena, Calif.

To go beyond the basic conversion and storage process, you have to engage the entire document workflow, according to Riley. The real value, he said, is in taking the information on scanned documents and making it available as quickly as possible to those people within an organization who can use it. To do that, document imaging and capture must take place at the point of or very close to the origination of data. Then, all the information should be made easily searchable via metadata.

Ideal document imaging and scanning programs aren’t so simple to implement, however, and some businesses struggle to reach that point. “Enterprise capture software costs hundreds of thousands [of dollars] and requires a minimum of three months to get up and running,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of rebellion from the user space because of that. It’s harder than people want it to be.”

Not so basic: the benefits of document imaging systems
Valaitis is more optimistic about small-scale implementations. She noted that the majority of individual users are already scanning documents to email and marrying that process with their own workflows, enabling them to share the documents with other knowledge workers.

“The percentage of users who scan to email is over 70%,” Valaitis said, adding that the simplicity of doing so has helped the practice proliferate. But now she sees a desire in many organizations to move beyond simple document imaging and scanning and basic collaboration.

“We’re at the point where we need to pull content off those [scanned] pages and we need to make it actionable,” Valaitis said. “We need to be able to search off that content; it needs to be intelligent and more sophisticated. The software is there now that can do that, the hardware is there that can map and marry with the software – it can all be done.”

It’s up to document imaging and management professionals to demonstrate all of that to business executives and end users who can benefit, she said, “and show them how they can really get an ROI” from investments in document imaging software and scanning equipment.

Catherine LaCroix
is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She covers technology used in business, education and health care.

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