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A World Made Of Paper
Seems Like That Sometimes, Doesn’t It?

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Paper-Centric Business Process Automation [July/August 2009]
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Paper is not sexy. First of all, it’s flat—no curves! And it’s thin—no muscles! Don’t even get me started on the fact that it’s mostly white. It doesn’t even have that certain allure of danger ... unless you count paper cuts.

So how come every information manager I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a lot) always tells me, "We’ve got to deal with this paper!" "We’re overwhelmed by all this paper!" And my favorite, "We have to tame this paper beast!"

The paper beast is still alive and well, after all these years. Despite almost two decades’ worth of effort to automate paper-based business processes of all kinds, it might be a little surprising that the issue of "paper" is still on the minds of knowledge managers and business executives.

Yet, it is.

In fact, "taming the paper beast" is holding a lot of our imaginations as firmly now as it did back in the old days. In the ancient ’90s, I ran a magazine called Imaging. Back then, the primary focus was on the equipment ... all the hardware stuff you needed to capture document images, store them, view them and save them. It was all about scanners, monitors, storage jukeboxes and networks. Soon after came all the software amendments—OCR, image clean-up, forms processing..

And that was important. It was new, and anybody who had a paper imaging challenge needed to learn about all that stuff. But I remember the day I had an epiphany about imaging, and switched from caring about the mechanics of document capture to the reason for document capture.

Back then, we were still caring about getting the mountains of stored paper under control. One of the primary drivers was—I kid you not—file-cabinet replacement. We were convinced that the overarching value proposition for scanning documents was to save millions in office-space reduction. If only we could get rid of these file cabinets, we could have the company gym we always dreamed about ..

So we set out to prove that file cabinet reduction was a legitimate business case. We researched the real estate prices in major (and not so major) metropolitan areas, then measured file cabinets and determined exactly how much floor space they took up. Then we developed a payback projection, based on recovered real estate footage versus time-to-payback. It was fantastic!

We were able to show a payback in St. Louis in about 16 months. We were able to show a return on investment in midtown Manhattan in about a half an hour. We were VERY proud of ourselves.

UNTIL ... we got the letter. An observant reader (as Dave Barry would say) wrote to tell us how offended he was at the egregious errors in our calculations. It was not that we had miscalculated real estate costs ... we had that right. It was not because we had accounted for file cabinet space space incorrectly ... that was pretty close.

It was because, he indignantly snorted, that we had neglected the 18 inches in front of the cabinets required to pull the drawers out! And thus, our calculations were entirely flawed.

That, my friends, was the day I realized that I didn’t give a flying damn about filing cabinets.

Growing Up With Content
I tell that story about the file cabinet article a lot because it expresses the shift in valuation that many of us made in the later ’90s—that the content residing in those paper documents was much more valuable than the physical space they were inhabiting. There had to be more to document image capture than saving room in Manhattan office space, or clearing out office furniture for the world’s largest yard sale.

That line of logic led a bunch of us to start thinking about the value of business content and the knowledge it represented, as opposed to the cost of storing it and maintaining it.

We’ve come a long way. I recently talked with John Gonzalez, director of product management and business development at Xerox Docushare, about all this stuff. I wanted to know the degrees to which organizations have evolved past the "file-cabinet" phase, and into something more value-added.

"Our customers ARE getting much more sophisticated with content," he began. "They’ve moved beyond simply snap the image and keep it to how can I access the image and get information from it in a more flexible manner?"

So I prodded him a little for some examples of the "more sophisticated" variety of customer he was referring to. "There are three types of documents that are currently interesting to us. One is patient information in a healthcare setting. I’m not talking about patient records, but patient information regarding their billing, etc."

He continued: "Then, similar to those, are documents that contain content that is somewhere between business content and transactional content. I’m not sure how you characterize these exactly. They’re transactional, but the transactions are long-running. Think of HR documents pertaining to employment relationships. These aren’t the kind of documents that, once the transaction is complete, the document’s value is over. They are documents that you want to save, and require additional reference every once in a while," John said. This category includes insurance documents, I suggested; they may stay dormant for a long period of time, then suddenly become "hot" when something occurs.

"Yes, exactly. Then the third one has to do with the public sector, and the retention of information related to judicial cases ... case management, really ..."

These are not your father’s imaging solutions. They are NOT about data extraction and workflow. They are NOT necessarily (although in some ways this remains a benefit) about storage facility issues (i.e., reducing file cabinets). These examples are way more subtle than that, and the retention and retrieval demands are way more complex.

One of the underlying implications of these kinds of "semi-transactional" (we need a better term) documents is that they require both secure access to people with permission, and in some cases public access ... policies and procedures, for example, or other information that should have the ability to be disseminated.

John continued: "We are finding—no surprise—that people are looking at applications that can save them money. And the money they want to save is usually measured in terms of headcount. They want to repurpose people to do other activities, not manage documents on a daily basis," said John. "People’s jobs are getting bigger, and they want to do a good job at their jobs. The way to do that is to get more efficient at doing some portions of the job," he said, so that they can be freed up to concentrate on the high-value stuff.

I asked John if he thought, of the two issues—creating a "higher value-level" workforce or just cutting costs and reducing headcount—whether one is the greater driver. He couldn’t say, because, "I see them as the same thing," he said. "People want to save money. And headcount IS money. So I don’t think of them differently at all."

From Capture to Value
Document-centric business process automation takes many forms, and yes, a lot of it is far from sexy. John provided some examples: there might be an HR document that starts as paper, then is scanned so that the information can be available in a database structure. Not sexy. Or, still rather unsexily, the employee may request a form that’s prefilled that they sign with a wet signature and fax back, and use the fax version as the retained record. Or, getting a little hotter now, people may submit a document as an e-form, along with an electronic signature.

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