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From smartphone to scanner: Mobile workforce alters document scanning

Document scanning and information capture processes are changing with the rise of the mobile workforce and the mainstream use of mobile devices.

Readers of a certain age will remember an ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes that carried the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It’s an expression that fits particularly well with the current state of information capture.

Specifically, the rise of a mobile workforce and the mainstream use of mobile devices is changing the way data is being consumed, created and shared. Within that realm, the trend with the most profound implications is the rising use of mobile devices for document scanning and information capture and collection. Truly, we have come a long way from photographing documents for microfilm storage and stuffing paper into electronic scanners.

It’s not unusual to hear people describe capture as the means organizations use to deposit documents into content repositories. They conjure images of people feeding documents into scanners, eyeballing the resulting images to ensure clarity and then storing those images somewhere for retrieval later on. Sometimes, the actual information contained on the pages is extracted using optical character recognition (OCR), optical mark reading (OMR), or other means -- often resulting in static images that might or might not ever be metatagged or even viewed again.

From a best-practices standpoint, the problem with this view is that “capture” actually is best defined as the gathering of information for a business purpose. (If it serves no business purpose, why then is the document being captured?) Looking at it this way keeps the focus where it should be, which is on the process (the actual capturing) and not the medium (the paper). After all, it’s the information that’s important, not the format.

From smartphones to portable scanners
With this in mind, consider the typical expense reporting application. Historically, a user would return from a business trip and physically ship the receipts -- with the requisite paperwork -- off to accounting for reimbursement. More recently, she might run her receipts through a scanner, attach them to an email message or online form and click Submit.

Today, however, this same user might use her cell phone camera to take pictures of the receipts and tap a button to send them to a back-office system. In turn, this system might automatically append the user’s information and put the images in a reimbursement queue, even in near real time, all while she is still on the road.

Along similar lines, think about the common activity of purchasing a subway fare card from a vending machine. Imagine that the user no longer has to deposit cash or swipe a debit or credit card, but instead can simply place his phone next to the machine to complete the transaction.

These scenarios describe the two types of information capture. The first trades in records, the second in transactions -- and both revolve around the information needed to make the process work. Even better is the fact that neither is a matter of blue-sky speculation. And not only are both of the aforementioned examples practical realities, they illustrate just how dramatically mobile devices are expanding and transforming the notion of capture itself and its implications for content management.

Welcome to the future
Just a few weeks ago, travel and expense management technology provider ExpenseAnywhere released its mobile application for use by Blackberry, iPhone and Android users. Over the summer, imaging vendor Mitek announced a set of application programming interfaces that will allow any developer to build photo document processing into their applications. And financial institutions like Chase and PayPal are permitting customers to upload camera-based images of checks they wish to deposit.

Meanwhile, Google Wallet made its debut in September as a means of “tap and pay” transaction technology. Users with a smartphone running the proper app simply rest the phone on a suitably equipped point-of-sale terminal and the transaction is completed electronically. Relatively commonplace in Japan, the technology is fairly well proven and should gain significant traction in the U.S. once a critical mass of enabled devices is reached.

If this all seems a long way from traditional capture, that’s because it is. There is a common thread, though, that binds the emerging present-day picture to the historical works we have become accustomed to; namely, a functional fixation on the collecting of information to accomplish a business objective. In the examples just listed, the business objectives cited were to generate expense reimbursement monies and buy commuter fare cards. But they just as easily could have been to capture a signature on a contract or to authorize a diagnostic medical procedure -- reason enough to declare, We’ve come a long way, baby.

Steve Weissman is a certified trainer in content, process and information management, president of the AIIM New England Chapter and principal consultant at Holly Group. He advises and speaks regularly on information strategy, needs assessment and RFP development. He can be reached at

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