For many companies today, the focus around technology is on increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and embracing a “greener” business model, but does this mean paper documents are finally heading toward their long-predicted obsolescence? Probably not. However, creating, sharing, editing, and printing those documents has proven to be a large drain on productivity, efficiency, and budgets.
Contrary to many projections, paper documents are not going away. Rather, a new generation of technologies – centering on document capture and routing – is steadily emerging to enable organizations to dramatically reduce the use of paper while increasing productivity, accelerating business processes, improving compliance with regulatory requirements, and strengthening both disaster recovery and “green” business initiatives.
Document capture and routing technology is an efficient, flexible way to capture, transform, and move paper and electronic documents among a variety of people, places, and formats. It starts with the familiar, simple, and ubiquitous networked multi-function peripheral (MFP) – the new-breed copy machine – and provides “any-to-many” means of scanning and distributing electronic versions of paper documents to multiple destinations in multiple formats.
For example, at the simplest level, a knowledge worker can take a signed paper contract to the MFP, and scan it into a digital version of that contract. The document handling application converts that scan into a Word document or text-searchable PDF file, and e-mails the resulting file back to the worker’s preferred destination (e.g. network folder, e-mail inbox, fax number).
The power of document capture and routing becomes even more apparent when a team of people are working on a specific client or project. All content related to that matter can be captured by the MFP, collected, and consolidated into a single, central, and secure document management system that enables distributed teams to share information and collaborate easily. This eliminates the need to make multiple copies (with the associated security risks), reduces courier and shipping costs, cuts the use of printer consumables such as ink or toner, and increases information accessibility throughout the organization.
Three key elements
For enterprises considering document capture or scanning, the MFP is the core capture device because these new breeds of copier-class and printer-class MFPs have the right mix of feature-rich sophistication, usability, and cost-effectiveness to support broad deployment.
The MFPs must be connected to a software-based infrastructure on the network to enable post-capture document processing (e.g. format conversion and compression) and routing. Ideally, a document routing solution embodies a three key elements consisting of:
- The MFP Hardware Platform – This includes the device’s system-level software and network connection.
- Document Handling Middleware Application – This software platform centrally controls and manages all of the document conversion, compression, routing, auditing, and more. This layer acts as a “many-to-many” hub, supporting n devices and n destinations.
- Destinations – These are the recipients of a document whether it is a network printer or folder, e-mail, fax, or a more sophisticated document/content management system.
Regardless of their role or level in the company, every user should have access to a foundation of basic, consistent features from the MFP that is managed, supported, available, reliable, and understandable. For instance, every user should be able to select simple scan settings, perhaps convert a file format or perform optical character recognition (OCR), and route the scanned output to their own e-mail address or to a fax number. Those user instructions – sometimes called “routing rules” – can be defined, saved, and executed using a routing sheet (like a fax cover sheet) or directly entered on a display panel at the MFP.
The ability to efficiently and effectively handle massive volumes of documents across disparate geographies with distributed groups of virtual users requires a series of considerations and best practices that each IT department can initiate:
The payoff for business
- Manageability – The architecture must support centralized management while enabling decentralized document capture. From an administrative perspective, the right solution should take full advantage of management tools such as Microsoft Windows event logs, performance monitors, and Windows consoles. This enables an organization to configure unattended, low-maintenance operations and receive exception notifications and alerts.
- Reliability –There’s no tolerance for application failure that could leave thousands of employees unable to print, fax, or scan. There should be built-in failover so if the primary system fails, a secondary server takes over. A SQL-based message queue working with a reliable database management system should store the current state of jobs in SQL tables so if a problem occurs, it can quickly roll back to the last known state and restart the process.
- Scalability – Component-based architectures enable IT to simply plug in other nodes to increase throughput and capacity – without penalty. Virtual machines (VMs) are also increasingly popular for their ability to bring efficiency, cost-control, and on-demand scalability.
- Security – From a technical and user perspective, an audit trail lets the organization track who did what, when, where, and with what documents. Best practices such as encryption, firewalls, and other security measures are essential elements of enterprise document management as well.
- Flexibility – Many organizations have unique IT environments and applications. The application/platform should be flexible and customizable to support those environments, now and in the future.
- Cost-Effectiveness – A less-managed, less-reliable system is inevitably more expensive. A system that provides a reasonable ROI is achievable with properly designed and priced document capture and handling solutions today.
- Control – By requiring authentication at the MFP, companies can role-restrict access to features and personalize the user experience. For instance, Joe can use color-copying or color-printing features and send long-distance faxes but Bob can’t. This also permits chargeback cost-recovery. A company might permit certain users to scan to their own e-mail address. Others might be allowed to scan into Microsoft SharePoint or EMC Documentum or scan to multiple distributions and destinations.
For enterprises that embrace document capture and routing, the payoffs are considerable. First and foremost, business processes are faster and less expensive as worker productivity increases. Documents and the information they contain are accessible around the office and around the world. Additionally there’s an enhanced ability to comply with security and privacy frameworks.
Most importantly the enterprise will experience a drastic reduction in the consumption of paper, toner/ink, and floor space by moving documents to electronic systems. This cut in costly resources and wasteful habits are easily adoptable with this technology and the benefits streamline future initiatives. By embracing green motives, businesses achieve solid ROI and increased efficiency.
A 20-year veteran of the software and hardware industry, Thaddeus Bouchard is chief technology officer of Omtool. He brings extensive systems development and information management expertise along with a wealth of project-management experience. Bouchard joined Omtool in 1998 as director of product management and rose to vice president of products in 1999. Previously, Bouchard was founder and CEO of NetValu Corp., a Web-based provider of technology and services for profiling the interests of Internet users.