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Content management: Integrating the paper flow

It may seem surprising in this digital age that so many invoices arrive via the U.S. mail, and that so many insurance applications are filled out on a form attached to a clipboard. For many organizations and individual consumers, paper still brings a comfort level that digital data cannot match. But in order to make use of that data, conversion to digital form is a must. New methods of integrating paper with enterprise applications have made the process easier and more cost-effective.

The timing couldn't have been better for the city of Nacogdoches, Texas, as far as being prepared to handle paper. When 1,000 evacuees escaping Hurricane Katrina arrived from New Orleans, the city (population 30,000) was ready, thanks to a newly installed system designed to meet its imaging, fax and e-mail requirements. Without the system, workers would have been hard pressed to cope with the paperwork associated with the individuals being sheltered in the local recreation center.

Early in 2005, Nacogdoches officials had decided to replace a collection of standalone copiers with multifunction devices that could scan and fax documents in addition to copying. The city had a wide range of needs for disseminating information internally. Some departments, such as police, also required the ability to communicate with many outside agencies. To make the best use of the new equipment, the IT department had to rethink its approach to document management. With everything in digital form, it did not make sense, for example, to continue faxing hard-copy documents from a standalone fax machine.

After reviewing its options, Nacogdoches selected a set of multifunction devices and associated software to pull together its document and communication requirements. A central component of the new solution was eCopy, which integrates scanned images into a variety of enterprise applications. eCopy allows city workers to scan images directly into the e-mail system or shared network folders. From that point, the document can be stored in the Laserfiche (laserfiche.com) document management system, faxed or e-mailed directly from the copy machine. The software components were integrated by IKON Office Solutions, which also supplied the Canon copiers.

To interact with eCopy, users enter an ID, as they would at their desktop. At that point, desktop applications such as Novell's (novell.com) GroupWise become available, providing access to users' e-mail addresses and other resources.

"This system has revolutionized our processes," says Lynn Thomas, IT manager. "We no longer fax paper documents at dedicated fax machines, for example—everything is sent via the multifunctional devices and their associated software applications."

When the Katrina evacuees arrived, city workers had to gather information on paper forms and process them. "It became a forms nightmare," recalls Thomas, "and then we decided to use eCopy to manage them." Once the forms were scanned, the city was able to store and retrieve information for the evacuees and share it as needed with federal agencies, housing authorities and various state agencies in Texas.

As it turned out, Katrina was just a warm-up for Hurricane Rita. One of the two major highways leading out of Houston became clogged with traffic, much of which was diverted to Nacogdoches. The city hosted 10,000 evacuees in a dozen shelters.

"This time, we had it down pat," Thomas says. "We were able to operate very efficiently, with all the documentation scanned in from paper forms filled out by the evacuees."

Nacogdoches had been using the imaging system for several months before the hurricanes struck, and continues to gain efficiency in carrying out the city's regular business. Features such as the ability of the solution's desktop to combine MS Word and PDF files into a single document, mark it up and save it as a PDF file, have given the city more flexibility in managing its digital information. But the ability to easily move the paper stream into the city's applications remains a key benefit.

Image capture is a mature technology, so what differentiates eCopy from the other solutions available? According to Vickie Malis, VP of marketing for eCopy, ease of use is one aspect that offers users a significant advantage. "The interface is very intuitive," Malis says, "so users can figure it out easily. No special scan system operators or special training are required. All that's needed is an understanding of the organization's requirements for where to store the document and what metadata to include."

eCopy is not a replacement for centralized, high-volume applications. Solutions from Kofax and Captiva often exist side-by-side, according to Malis. "eCopy lets you take a paper-based workflow throughout the organization, wherever the worker is, and convert it to digital information," she says. "Much of the information that fits into the eCopy flow is high-value, maybe just a single piece of paper, rather than high-volume." Workers may not want to lose access to that document for the several hours or days that it could take with a centralized document capture system. A solution that keeps the document in the hands of the worker offers an advantage for that type of content.

Industries such as financial services, healthcare and legal have been the most active adopters of imaging technology, according to Malis. Often the first users are involved with business process such as accounts receivable, claims processing and expense reports. "In these cases, multiple knowledge workers in small medical clinics or sales offices can input their paper-based information into business process software applications," she says.

The pluses of paper

One of the attractions of paper is that in some ways it is more flexible. "People are still more comfortable with paper because they can annotate it easily," says Don Dixon, principal research analyst at Gartner, "in a manner that is difficult to duplicate electronically."

Paper documents can be lined up side-by-side to be viewed simultaneously, or physically carried to show someone. Sales cycles often begin with paper and end with an e-mail, or vice versa.

Print is still the single largest method of delivery for content, averaging 41%, according to Cap Ventures. E-mail ranked second, at 33%. Thus, solutions that combine paper and electronic media have a distinct edge.

Montgomery County, Md., had sought a countywide document management system into which its paper documents could be scanned, but for several years the high cost of such a system posed an obstacle to implementation. Departments within the county government then began searching for solutions to serve their own needs. The Department of Finance selected ZyIMAGE from ZyLAB, using it to scan and store check images, and then expanded it to other uses, including correspondence and distribution of bills.

Within a few years, other departments--including Housing and Community Affairs, as well as Technology Services--had become convinced of the value of ZyIMAGE, and bought into the system. The county has now scanned more than 10 million pages. The documents are indexed and OCR'd (optical character recognition) to allow for efficient search and retrieval. Everything from invoices to vouchers, code enforcements and news clippings are included in the imaging system. A total of 14 departments now use it for more than 40 applications. The county has found it easy to add new applications as well as to incorporate migrated data. Planned expansions include records management and enhanced workflow.

ZyLAB's records management system accounts not just for files that are in digital form but also for the paper source files from which the image files were created. "When the stakes are high in an investigation, many users select our product because they need to support records for paper, documents and e-mail files," says Johannes Scholtes, president of ZyLAB North America.

"If someone sends an e-mail with a bitmap attachment," Scholtes says, "we can automatically OCR and search that too, which is a unique feature." ZyLAB's technology converts e-mail messages into XML format, and searches them in virtually every language (over 200). ZyINDEX supports more than 370 electronic file formats and can OCR bitmap-based e-mail attachments, to allow for flexibility in matching the software to the task.

"We are able to carry a job from the paper state all the way to storage and retrieval," Scholtes says, "which simplifies things for the user." Somewhat ironically, as distributed scanning becomes more prevalent, printing is becoming more decentralized. "Printing has moved from the desktop and the print shop to the workgroup," says Dixon. "These machines are much faster than the desktop units and are nearly comparable to the units in the print shop. There is no overwhelming evidence that the number of pages printed is dropping, just being shifted from one place to the next."

According to Gartner, the market for printers approached $60 billion in 2005. Thus, the interplay between paper and digital information is likely to continue for some time.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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