Remember when becoming a paperless office was on every network administrator’s short list of projects to tackle? The term caused much excitement in the IT field, but unfortunately, the concept of going totally digital and replacing that good ol’ pulped wood had its limitations.

Not that the incentives to try were not there. Walk into a law firm or medical office where the filing cabinets are lined side-by-side, and you can quickly see why the idea of a little less paper in the office motivated many to pursue alternatives. So the concept of paperless is out, but it has been replaced by a strategy of electronic document imaging. Here’s an explanation of why document imaging makes sense for businesses to implement and a look at five important issues to consider before choosing a document-imaging strategy.

The case for document imaging
Many businesses are still clinging to paper-based operations, even though maintaining such an environment can be costly. Traditionally, paper documents are produced, photocopied, and mailed or faxed to others as needed. The recipients of the information often have to make copies for their records or retype the information into its final electronic form.

Beyond the environmental costs, constantly replenishing paper supplies can get expensive. All that paper has to be stored somewhere for future retrieval, right? The final resting place for papers not lost or damaged is typically in rows and rows of metal filing cabinets that consume a lot of valuable floor space.

One might say that the capital expense of a solid document-imaging solution, when compared to the variable costs associated with a traditional paper office, is too substantial a bite out of an already tight budget. However, the right document-imaging solution should not be thought of as an expense but rather as an investment. Thus, it should have a measurable return that will justify the capital expenditure.

Say goodbye to the rows of filing cabinets. Document imaging can decrease the need for physical storage space by converting pounds of paper into megabytes of electronic data. Data exchanges between the producer and recipient of paper documents can be streamlined. Retrieval times of archived documents can be drastically decreased. These productivity and efficiency gains have a value associated with them.

Remember that the most expensive resource is typically the human resource. From these examples alone, an ROI can be established that will aid in deciding the impact of a document-imaging solution on your company’s bottom line.

Important considerations
Before choosing your document-imaging strategy, you should evaluate several important factors. Carefully consider the questions below, as they will have a major impact on the type, cost, and scope of your document-imaging solution.

  • What types of documents will you be scanning? Are they mostly simple text, or will they include images, pictures, graphs, and even handwritten items? Simple text documents can be scanned and read into the system using Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. OCR technology has come a long way and made many advances over the past years, so now even low-end document-imaging solutions have this capability.
  • How will the information be retrieved from the system once it has been converted to an electronic format? How quickly will this information need to be retrieved? The answer to this question will help you decide whether your organization requires a solution that allows for indexing and keyword searches of scanned docs.
  • In what format will you want to save your scanned documents? When deciding on a format for saving your scanned documents, keep in mind that many solutions save scanned documents in .tiff or .jpg format. You will likely want the option to save your documents in a more universal format, which may require a conversion to Microsoft Word or .PDF format. Not all solutions offer this capability.
  • Have you already made an investment in a scanner or will the purchase of a scanner be included in the assessment of a possible solution? If you determine that you already possess an adequate scanner, ensure that whatever document-imaging strategy or solution you consider is compatible with your hardware. A complete solution is dependent on a seamless integration of both scanning hardware and imaging software.
  • Will you hire an external document-imaging company? Even the best imaging strategy can take quite a few hours to implement and administer. Existing documents must be sorted, scanned, validated, and electronically stored, which can be a time-consuming project. Do you have the in-house resources to take on this work? Consider whether an outside company or a contractor that specializes in this type of service would better perform this function.

Common strategy
Many companies are choosing to implement their electronic document-imaging and management solution in-house using cost-effective scanning hardware coupled with the latest in document-imaging and sorting software. Companies are using their network infrastructure to form the basis of a document-imaging network where documents can be scanned to a network server, providing multiuser accessibility.

Prices for these solutions can start as low as $70 for a flatbed scanner, when used in conjunction with scanning functions already present in Windows XP. This solution may work for basic scanning operations but lacks many of the features mentioned above, such as OCR and document-retrieval management. Most organizations will want to opt for a more versatile combination scanner/software solution, which includes most, if not all, of the features mentioned. You can expect a solution like this to run several hundred if not thousands of dollars.

Where to begin
The decision to replace or augment an existing paper-based document-management process should start with those who handle this function day to day. IT personnel seldom have insight into the creation, distribution, flow, and storage of their organization’s paper trail.

Consider conducting interviews with key personnel and managers to ask what particular functions or capabilities would equate to more efficient handling of documents. Their involvement will not only ensure that the proper solution is implemented but will also mean that the users of your solution have complete buy-in from day one.

Have you implemented a document-imaging strategy?

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