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Invisible in the Everyday

I'm sitting in the press "lounge" at the AIIM show in Philadelphia, thinking about imaging. I'm somewhat sheepish to confess that I haven't thought this much about imaging since this time last year. Sitting in the press lounge. At AIIM.

But that's not because imaging has diminished somehow as a viable marketplace. It hasn't. Nor should it suggest that there aren't still many opportunities for business managers to benefit from automated document capture. There are. And it should not indicate that I haven't been paying attention to imaging as a technology and a business solution. I have.

It's just that imaging has—at long last—fulfilled its destiny. It has disappeared into the everyday.

The Full Circle

I used to address a lot of audiences at imaging conferences. There was a story I always told that, I thought, profoundly represented the reality of imaging versus its promise. Stop me if you've heard this...

About a century ago, I was part of a group that started a magazine called Imaging. It was pretty early on, and our understanding of the value of this crazy newfangled technology was primitive. We ran articles about scanner speeds and how often they jam, oversized monitors and how fast they refreshed, OCR and how well it OCRed...typical tech journal stuff. But we also realized that buying into imaging was expensive, and the hardware and software vendors needed to convince customers that their investment was worth it.

So we got a bright idea: Let's dream up an ROI argument that customers can use to cost-justify their brand-spanking new imaging gizmos. It had to be something universally painful to every business. It had to have wide-ranging impact across the enterprise. It had to be something that could get executive buy-in. And it had to be measurable in real-dollar savings.

And we came up with it: File cabinets.

We figured that scanning all those pages sitting in file cabinets in vast warehouse-like rooms—think of that last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"—and replacing them with sleek shiny optical discs (the 12-inch variety) would free up thousands of square feet of office space. (And, I guess, they could have a big yard sale to get rid of all the empty file cabinets.)

THEN, if we could cross-match the newly available real estate with the going rate for office rental in various cities, we could create a "cost study" for the newly paperless masses.

So that's what we did. It was a top-notch piece of work. We discovered that the payback for real estate reclamation in Boise was about 10 years; in New York City, about 10 minutes, etc. We were proud of ourselves, certain we'd done the industry a great service.

Until...we got a letter. Now, you have to understand: there's a specific variety of the human species that takes the time to write letters to the editors of trade magazines. They are typically pompous, indignant and deeply self-righteous. This gentleman was no exception.

He told us that we had made an egregious error, and only a total and immediate retraction of the article would satisfy his wounded intellect. He said that, yes, we had calculated the square footage under the file cabinets correctly (he checked) and that the real estate figures seemed to be about right. BUT (you could almost see him wagging his finger), you forgot to include the 18 inches in FRONT of the file cabinets which is required to pull the drawers out, which, according to OSHA regulation 895, subparagraph D slash 90 or some damn thing, is required for all "safety compliant file-cabinet implementations."

I sat there looking at the letter, and realized: There's GOT to be something more to this imaging stuff than freaking file cabinets.

The Change in View

Of course, there is. As time went on, everyone's emphasis shifted away from the physical challenges of converting paper to digital, and to the PURPOSE for converting paper to digital. The first low-hanging fruit to be picked were the workflows that existed in the myriad paper-based transactions such as insurance claim processing or loan originations. These are predictable person-to-person activities, with the occasional exception, that are perfect for automation. Then came the forms-based applications...these required a little more smarts in the character-reading area, more intelligence in the forms identification and zoning functions and still more work in the verification of data arena. But still, it's imaging.

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