Self-registering, self-managing records, a reality or just a pipe-dream? Chapter 4

by Frank 3. November 2011 14:00

This article is about using RFID technology and Active tags in particular to help us fully automate the paper records management process.

However, the first thing any organization should do is to remove as much paper as possible from the equation and in doing so reduce its RFID costs as far as possible. This is usually done by a proven process known as ‘Document Imaging’. In regular parlance we ‘scan’ as much of our incoming paper as is practicable and legally allowed and convert it to an electronic record usually in the form of an indexed PDF.

What this means is that the first result of the document scanning process is a TIFF file, a bit image (where no text is extractable or searchable). In order to add more value to our document and improve search results we should next process our TIFF image with an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tool to extract the text from the bit image. We then combine the bit image and the extracted text into a single document by converting both of them to a single PDF document. The PDF now contains both image and text so it is full text searchable and the text can be extracted if required.

I will cover how we fully automate the management of all electronic records in the next chapter.

Now to the core paper problem; paper is generally either sent to us or produced in-house as the result of some business process. If we are smart we produce as little paper as possible in-house and manage all of our in-house documents as electronic documents (e.g., Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). As mentioned above, we also try to capture as much of the incoming paper as we can by scanning it and converting it to electronic records (indexable PDFs). It is the paper we can’t or are prevented from converting to an electronic record we now have to deal with.

Our paper records are usually managed as ‘loose’ paper (i.e., as single documents) or file folders (loose paper collections) or archive boxes (file folder and loose paper collections). We have to decide which of these classes of paper records to apply RFID tags to (i.e., loose papers, file folders and archive boxes) and what data to encode on the tags.

I think the usual decision would be to apply tags to a small number of loose documents (e.g., important documents that travel ‘loose’ throughout an organization) and then to all file folders and archive boxes. There may be an argument that says we don’t need to tag archive boxes if the contents are tagged but that decision will depend upon each organization’s specific needs and tools.

As to what data to encode that is totally dependent upon each client’s needs and the various classes of documents and containers it manages as well as its compliance needs. It is probably worthwhile mentioning here that Active RFID tags can also differentiated by the way they store data. There are three types of data-storage (and again I generalise):

  1. Read-only
  2. Write-once, Read-many (WORM); and
  3. Read-Write

Read-only tags are the least useful because they can’t be changed or added to once they have been created. WORM tags can’t be overwritten but can have data added at a later time. Read-Write tags are the most useful because their data can be modified at any time. Each type of tag has its most appropriate uses depending upon your needs and budget.

For my fully-automatic solution I will again choose the most expensive option, the Read-Write tag because it provides us with the most features and most flexibility and again let me say, “Computers are cheap, people-time is expensive!”

In my system, our Active RFID tagged documents now communicate directly with the records management system and database. Our paper documents are now active, not passive and are able to both receive and pass on information as they are processed.

They can tell us where they are, they can tell us that a process is due or overdue and they can tell us when they are due to be archived or destroyed.  They will tell us if they are moved and they will signal an alarm is they are moved away from a predetermined area or building. If we have also RFID tagged our employees (either chipped them – probably not practicable but certainly possible, or more reasonably, RFID enabled their employee badges) then our active documents will tell us who has them and who is reading them and at what time. They will also maintain a complete history or ‘Audit Trail’ either on the RFID tag itself or within our database.

It may sound like science fiction but it is not as all the technology and tools required are current and proven and ‘affordable’ and in use in other applications like container and freight and asset tracking. Our task is to simply adapt the most appropriate elements of RFID technology to paper records management.

Our now fully-automatic new system obviously requires a records management computer system and database plus RFID reader/writers at strategic locations in our enterprise. We also need a suitably appropriate and well-designed Taxonomy or classification system and a predetermined set of rules (workflow) with which to manage our now RFID-enabled paper. The Taxonomy and Workflows should be combined into what we usually call a ‘File Plan’ such that we can encode all of the information required to manage the full life cycle of the record (the Continuum model) into an RFID tag. As each document is captured with an RFID tag its information is automatically entered into our records management system’s database and the management process immediately begins with the document and computer system in constant contact thereafter.

The Read-Write tags chosen provide us with the flexibility required by for example allowing us to reprogram the workflow or retention as and when required. This feature is essential if we are to meet the real world requirements of the records management profession. We can do this via our records management system in a controlled and audited and secure way.

This article is just a skeletal view of what is possible and how it can be done. A complete description would entail writing a wordy tome inappropriate to this medium. However, the above is all possible; it is not science fiction.

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