Imaging Gets A Second Look - InformationWeek

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6/20/2003
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Imaging Gets A Second Look

New applications and business drivers are fueling renewed interest in document-imaging systems

Everywhere you turn, there's pressure to improve operational efficiency and reduce cycle times. But where? Many companies are taking a fresh look at some more mature, established technologies such as document capture and imaging software.

Document imaging was trendy in the 1990s, experiencing its sharpest growth when companies attempted to move away from manual, paper-based processes and "go paperless." Then the Web economy of the late 1990s forced many to shift their business and IT focus to areas such as customer acquisition, branding, and alternative business models, and technologies such as imaging fell off the map for many IT shops.

Today, the big business drivers include simplifying processes and controlling information to comply with industry regulations--two areas that are right up imaging's alley. Document imaging is all about digitizing paper information to improve the efficiency of downstream business processes and to ensure the proper management, control, and retention of that information. Business-technology managers should take a close look at their business problems, determine their application requirements for document imaging, and roll their imaging strategies into broader strategies for enterprise content management.

The concept of imaging is fairly simple: scan a document and convert it into a standard digital form, index it, store it in a repository, and allow it to be used in business processes. However, a whole host of new applications and business drivers are fueling interest in imaging today. They include distributed or remote capture of documents in branch offices, customer service and agency enablement, customer self-service, and regulatory compliance and business-risk reduction.

For industries with remote agents or branches, such as insurance or regional banking, there's a clear need to capture incoming documents at the source in the field office and bring them under corporate control as quickly as possible. Not only does this eliminate shipping and courier costs, but it also ensures that documents such as enrollment forms are processed faster, allowing a company to bill or collect from customers sooner. Recently, the market has seen a growing demand for smaller departmental scanners and multifunction devices to support such applications, as well as software that allows users to drive the capture process from a Web browser.

At the same time, customers have growing expectations to access information, including all correspondence and documents exchanged with the companies with which they do business. Thus, they expect their customer-service reps and agents to have at their fingertips all relevant documentation, such as invoices, bills, original enrollment forms, claims forms, and notices, in order to handle inquiries or resolve problems.

The Six Stages Of Imaging
An effective system includes these steps
Stage Technology
Capture/import Scanners and multifunction printers
Image enhancement Capture subsystems
Indexing and recognition Capture subsystems
Forms-processing systems
Specialty recognition engines
Export Capture subsystems
Management, storage, and archival Imaging or content-management systems
Storage systems
Distribution or publishing Imaging or content-management systems
Data: Doculabs
More than that, customers expect to be able to help themselves to such information. With imaging, organizations can choose to make all relevant information available to customers over the Web, and not just information originating in an electronic format or data coming from databases. The more information a company can give its customers, the more likely its customers can resolve their problems without having to call the customer-service center. That saves companies money.

Those are nice carrots. But there's also a big regulatory stick, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. That, along with other industry-specific regulations for managing and retaining records, means most companies have little choice but to establish clear policies and procedures for managing and retaining relevant documents. Imaging technology makes great sense for companies with a need to reduce the risk of noncompliance and the costs of discovery during audits or litigation.

Applications in the imaging market can be divided up into four main segments: small and simple, small and complex, big and simple, and big and complex (see story, "Imaging Needs: From The Simple To The Complex"). Business-technology professionals considering implementing an imaging system should think about which category their apps are in and how their needs might change. The general dynamic is to move from small to bigger, from simple to more complex, and most recently, from centralized to distributed, or a mixture of both.

Building an enterprise imaging system is more complicated than just scanning a document and storing it. For the system to work effectively, there are several steps--and technologies--involved (see chart).

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