Going digital

The paperless office is far from a reality, as most businesses accumulate masses of paper-based documents each day. But while in the past storing crucial documents meant filling up filing cabinets and consequently using up valuable office space, ‘going digital’ is fast becoming an affordable option for small and medium sized firms.

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By  the Gitex Times Staff Published  September 29, 2005

|~|going1.jpg|~||~|According to research analysts IDC, 90% of corporate memory still exists on paper. Unless a document is irrelevant and can be flung in the trash then, it must be indexed, stored, easily retrievable and capable of being shared amongst colleagues and customers. This begs the question: as your paper load increases, should you invest in yet more filing cabinets or complement the e-documents arriving in your inbox by converting your paper files into digital versions and bringing these documents together? Document management can perhaps best be defined as digitising and indexing documents, and storing these in a central location from which they can be quickly accessed across a network. There are several potential benefits to be had from this approach. For instance, document management can help prevent records being lost or misfiled. For example, if a physical file or folder is misfiled it could take hours for a staff member to track it down. If a digital document is saved in the wrong system folder however, a quick file search should locate it in seconds flat. Comparing filing cabinets to hard disks, document management can obviously help firms save on physical data storage space. Thirdly, and crucially to most businesses, storing digital documents on a network makes them available to everyone, meaning they can be sent to colleagues, suppliers and clients with one click of a button; so much easier than hunting down physical files and faxing or posting these. Until now document management was seen as relevant largely to enterprise-level firms but, similar to enterprise resource planning’s gradual move into the small-to-medium sized business (SMB) space, that is changing. “Even in a small firm there is the risk that people cannot actually manage the information properly,” says Simon Taylor, business development & integration manager at local e-mail archiving company KVS. “A firm with 50-100 employees will still have information management issues. People need to understand that all the information they receive is of value. If we don’t retain it, we don’t have efficient systems,” he adds. Mark Ward is IPG business solutions manager at HP Middle East and claims that most business customers realise they have difficulty tracking their information, but because of its complexity they may consider this too large a problem to solve. “They think: let’s just carry on focusing on profit or something else,” he says. “Then a reseller places a scan device with them for two or three weeks and it naturally reveals to them the way to solve some of their problems,” Ward adds. In addition to businesses organising their document resources, those that have dealings with government or authority bodies are under increasing pressure to digitise their docs to comply. “Some companies now, including government agencies, are making all their suppliers provide the necessary documents in electronic format,” explains Angelo La Duca, Kofax’s sales manager for Southern Europe and the Middle East.||**|||~|going2.jpg|~|Dicom’s Lars Bogvad Jeppesen shows how easy document management can be.|~|“If you want to participate in such a project as a supplier, you have to comply to a standard. One of these standards is that nothing is received on paper,” he adds. Lars Bogvad Jeppesen, managing director of Dicom FZE, which was formerly known as Valuvad, agrees that compliance is starting to affect more of the region’s businesses as they strive to become more transparent and efficient. “I think for the Middle East that document management has been traditionally practiced in government and the banking industry,” he explains. “But now the rest of the market is following on,” Jeppesen. According to Johni Jabbor, regional sales manager at Forefront Technologies, the steps involved in a document management project are as follows: deciding which documents to digitise, preparing and scanning them, indexing the files, managing a storage location and, of course, being able to retrieve documents effectively when they are needed. First off then, an IT manager must decide what documents to digitise. “It’s very rare that documents spanning back years will be used,” Jabbor says. He cites companies such as Veritas, which he says claim the lifecycle of a document today is a lot shorter than previously. “The average document life is between three and six months,” Jabbor says. “Anything more than two years old isn’t used, unless an organisation is forced by law to keep it.” A business must then invest in the correct hardware for the job. “Many businesses have a scanner,” Jabbor says. “But this mightn’t be a professional document imaging scanner. It could be a consumer model, which is especially likely following the introduction of low-cost MFDs.” Such basic devices really aren’t likely to be up to the job, Jabbor says, as they’re aimed at end users looking to scan maybe ten documents a day. For document management organisations need something more. From a staffing point of view, Jabbor says it depends on the size of the document management job. “If it’s a backlog conversion where a company has a million documents to scan, there has to be a team to prepare these for scanning, remove staples, separate pages and so on,” he explains. “When there is limited time to scan a huge number of documents, this is when you need to really prepare: the human resources, scan operators, a supervisor to see that the project runs smoothly, and a quality checker to see that documents are scanned effectively,” Jabbor adds. A 50-person company will not need a mass of production scanners says Jabbor, even if they have several hundred documents or more. “One member of staff, a document scanner, and a couple of scan stations can speed through it,” he says. How a small or medium sized business with moderate scanning needs staffs this work is an issue of some debate in the vendor community. Jabbor suggests that particular staff members should be made responsible for the process. However, HP IPG’s commercial product manager for this region, Steffen Papke, makes the point that, “with the introduction of new capture devices, we are creating a better opportunity to decentralise the capturing, and moving it closer to the end user.” A business’s decision on this question will likely be based upon how much scanning needs to be done, how technology-literate office staff are (with regards working with hardware and storing files on a network), plus which members of staff are likely to have the time available. Those who haven’t scanned a document for years might be raising an eyebrow about the storage capacity required to store all of a company’s crucial paper documents. However, with the powerful JPEG compression technologies now on offer document management is less demanding than you might imagine. Applications such as Kofax’s VirtualReScan (VRS), for instance, can scan a mono A4 page, complete with text marks and comments, and use up just 65 kilobytes. This type of scanning software will also automatically ignore blank pages and scan to fit; for example if a business card is attached to a blank sheet, just the card will be scanned by the system. After the scan process, documents must be checked and indexed. “If I use a good scanner, I’ll be able to get different types of output document — JPEG, PDF, TIFF formats and so on,” says Jabbor. “The document capture solution comes between scanning and storing a file,” he explains. Some applications have built-in OCR functionality to turn image scans into text files, which helps when retrieving documents as a user can search a document’s text rather than just its file name. Another useful feature is ‘zone OCR’. “For instance, if I know an invoice number is always at the top left of a page, I can zoom in, OCR this, and save the file under this number,” Jabbor explains. The main scanning issue yet to be resolved in this region is that perennial favourite — Arabisation. In this respect OCR programs available still lag some way behind their English language cousins. “Companies claim to have 60% or 70% workable solutions,” says Jabbor. “But English programs can regularly achieve 99.9% accuracy,” he adds. Storing files securely in an accessible location is key to the success of document management, because if users can’t grab a file easily then a system is of little use. In the early stages of document management, optical drives found favour due to the high cost of hard drives at the time, however as hard disks have dropped in price RAID storage solutions have become popular, whereby several hard disks are linked together. Many mid-to high-end motherboards also now offer RAID functionality as standard. “I would say that maybe 90% of our customers go for a SAN (Storage Area Network) solution,” says Jabbor. “If you are transferring lots of images across a network at once, you might create a bottleneck, so people tend to use either fibre-connected SAN storage devices or SCSI drives as their online storage devices. As back-up solutions people usually go for tapes.” Once a business has made the decision to embrace digital document management, how should it get started? One option is for an IT manager to sit down with a vendor such as HP, Canon or Kodak to discuss what scanners, and in some cases storage solutions, will fit its needs. Vendors in this field are now regularly bundling all the relevant software a business might need with such purchases, plus the latest hardware often includes useful scan-to-PDF and scan-to-email features. Alternatively, document management specialists such as Forefront Technologies can provide the whole gamut of scanners, storage devices, software and even PCs, tailored specifically to a particular organisation. For the better part of the last two years, Forefront has even sold an off-the-shelf, small business package that includes a Fujitsu scanner, DynaMO hard disk, PaperPort archiving software, Adobe Acrobat and ABBYY OCR software. “We thought of having a small bundle for businesses that could only invest a small amount of money,” Jabbor explains. “This is aimed at 10-15 users and costs a thousand US dollars.” Whether users in the Middle East opt for a tailored solution or buy an off-the-shelf document management package is down to the requirements they have. However, as the amount of documents local business gather increases by the minute, the one thing that is a definite is that document management solutions will become a must for all companies.||**||

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