Document Imaging, Forms Processing & Workflow – A Guide

by Frank 28. July 2014 06:00

Document imaging (scanning) has been a part of most business processing since the early 1980s. We for example, produced our first document imaging enabled version of RecFind in 1987. So it isn’t new technology and it is now low risk, tried and proven technology.

Even in this age of electronic documents most of us still receive and have to read, analyse and process mountains of paper.

I don’t know of any organization that doesn’t use some form of document imaging to help process paper documents. Conversely, I know of very few organizations that take full advantage of document imaging to gain maximum value from document imaging.

For example, just scanning a document as a TIFF file and then storing it on a hard drive somewhere is almost a waste of time. Sure, you can then get rid of the original paper (but most don’t) but you have added very little value to your business.

Similarly, capturing a paper document without contextual information (Metadata) is not smart because you have the document but none of the important transactional information. Even converting a TIFF document to a PDF isn’t smart unless you first OCR (Optical Character Recognition) it to release the important text ‘hidden’ in the TIFF file.

I would go even further and say that if you are not taking the opportunity to ‘read’ and ‘capture’ key information from the scanned document during the scanning process (Forms Processing) then you aren’t adding anywhere near as much value as you could.

And finally, if you aren’t automatically initiating workflow as the document is stored in your database then you are criminally missing an opportunity to automate and speed up your internal business processes.

To give it a rating scale, just scanning and storing TIFF files is a 2 out of 10. If this is your score you should be ashamed to be taking a pay packet. If you are scanning, capturing contextual data, OCRing, Forms Processing, storing as a text-searchable PDF and initiating workflow then you get a 10 out of 10 and you should be asking your boss for a substantial raise and a promotion.

How do you rate on a scale of 0 to 10? How satisfied is your boss with your work? Are you in line for a raise and a promotion?

Back in the 1980s the technology was high-risk, expensive and proprietary and few organizations could afford the substantial investment required to scan and process information with workflow.

Today the technology is low cost and ubiquitous. There is no excuse for not taking full advantage of document imaging functionality.

So, where do you start?

As always, you should begin with a paper-flow analysis. Someone needs to do an inventory of all the paper you receive and produce and then document the business processes it becomes part of.

For every piece of paper you produce you should be asking “why?” Why are you producing paper when you could be producing an electronic document or an electronic form?

In addition, why are you producing multiple copies? Why are you filing multiple copies? What do your staff actually do with the paper? What happens to the paper when it has been processed? Why is it sitting in boxes in expensive off-site storage? Why are you paying to rent space for that paper month after month after month? Is there anything stored there that could cause you pain in any future legal action?

And most importantly, what paper can you dispose of?

For the paper you receive you need to work out what is essential and what can be discarded. You should also talk to your customers, partners and suppliers and investigate if paper can be replaced by electronic documents or electronic forms. Weed out the non-essential and replace whatever you can with electronic documents and electronic forms. For example, provide your customers, partners and suppliers with Adobe electronic forms to complete, sign and return or provide electronic forms on your website for them to complete and submit.

Paper is the enemy, don’t let it win!

Once you have culled all the paper you can, you then need to work out how to process the remaining paper in the most efficient and effective manner possible and that always ends up as a Business Process Management (BPM) exercise. The objectives are speed, accuracy, productivity and automation.

Don’t do anything manually if you can possibly automate it. This isn’t 30 years ago when staff were relatively cheap and computers were very expensive. This is now when staff are very expensive and computers are very cheap (or should I say low-cost?).

If you have to process paper the only time it should be handled is when it is taken from the envelope and fed into a document scanner. After that, everything should be automated and electronic. Yes, your records management department will dutifully want to file paper in file folders and archive boxes but even that may not be necessary.  Don’t accept the mystical term ‘compliance’ as a reason for storing paper until you really do understand the compliance legislation that applies to your business. In most cases, electronic copies, given certain safeguards, are acceptable.

I am willing to bet that your records manager will be operating off a retention schedule that is old, out-of-date, modified from another schedule, copied, modified again and ‘made-to-fit’ your needs. It won’t be his/her fault because I can probably guarantee that no budget was allocated to update the retention schedule on an ongoing basis. I am also willing to bet that no one has a copy of all of the current compliance rules that apply to your business.

In my experience, ninety-percent plus of the retention schedules in use are old, out-of-date and inappropriate for the business processes they are being applied to. Most are also way too complicated and crying out for simplification. Bad retention schedules (and bad retention practices – are you really destroying everything as soon as you are allowed?) are the main reason you are wasting thousands or millions of dollars a year on redundant offsite storage.

Do your research and save a fortune! Yes, records are very important and do deserve your attention because if they don’t get your attention you will waste a lot of money and sooner or later you will be penalised for holding information you could have legally destroyed a long time ago. A good records practice is an essential part of any corporate risk management regime. Ignore this advice at your peril.

Obviously, processing records efficiently requires software. You need a software package that can:

  1. Scan, OCR and Forms Process paper documents.
  2. Capture and store scanned images and associated Metadata plus any other kind of electronic document.
  3. Define and execute workflow.
  4. Provide search and inquiry capabilities
  5. Provide reporting capabilities.
  6. Audit all transactions.

The above is obviously a ‘short-list’ of the functionality required but you get the idea. There must be at least several hundred proven software packages in the world that have the functionality required. Look under the categories of:

  1. Enterprise Content Management (ECM, ECMS)
  2. Records Management (RM, RMS)
  3. Records and Document Management
  4. Document Management (DM, DMS)
  5. Electronic Document and Records Management (EDRMS)
  6. Business Process Management (BPM)

You need to define your business processing requirements beginning with the paper flow analysis mentioned earlier. Then convert your business processing requirements into workflows in your software package. Design any electronic forms required and where possible, re-design input paper forms to facilitate forms processing. Draw up procedures, train your staff and then test and go live.

The above paragraph is obviously a little short on detail but I am not writing a “how-to” textbook, just a simple guide. If you don’t have the necessary expertise then hire a suitably qualified and experienced consultant (someone who has done it before many times) and get productive.

Or, you can just put it off again and hope that you don’t get caught.


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