Despite what “The Office’s” Michael Scott would tell you, a lot of “real business” isn’t done on paper. Some of it isn’t even done by humans anymore. I think that now and in the future (especially in the future), the world looks a lot like the paperless vision that Frederick W. Lancaster described in “Towards Paperless Information Systems (Library and information science).” In his book, published in 1978, the information scientist predicts that it’s only a matter of time before print will be replaced by electronic media, as it relates to communication between humans. Just as word processors were becoming a thing, Lancaster outlined the concept of a “paperless information” system, in which information could be easily accessed and shared in an instant.
When you consider how most of the devices that you use every day are internet connected, and that your information can be stored, accessed, shared, and worked on in the cloud, today’s current technosphere is a goldilocks zone for Lancaster’s paperless vision.
Alas, many have harped on the prospect of a paperless office, writing it off as unrealistic and utopian (some folks really like paper). But recently, the idea of the paperless office is becoming an imperative. This shift isn’t driven so much by “wouldn’t it be nice to reduce our carbon footprint and save money on paper this year” as much as it is by “if we digitize and place the right automation technology here, and the right line of business applications here and there, then we can get things done smarter, faster, with fewer mistakes, and at a much lower cost.” (In fact, Lancaster ascribed cost consideration as a primary driver, but far from the most rewarding benefit of paperless information.)
Obviously, the journey to the paperless office starts with reducing (and eventually, eliminating) the use of paper as a means of sharing and working with information, so it can be accessed, shared, and collaborated on across the globe, in real time. Plus, there are so many more benefits to working with digital information. In digital form, it can be integrated into automated workflows or leveraged against a BI/analytics platform to unlock insights that are otherwise invisible to the human eye, for instance.
As more and more folks aspire to go paperless, they will also be increasingly interested in how they can use their MFP to unlock the information trapped inside paper, and how that information can be enriched to optimize their business. But you are not Michael Scott, and you can’t just declare that your business is now a paperless office — there are steps. Before you can automate, you’ve got to digitize. And if you’ve got to digitize, you’ve got to do it right. You’ve got to scan.
It Starts With Scanning
Scanning should be a quick and painless task. You shouldn’t have to waste time programming jobs, separating and merging batches of originals, keying in indexing information, or cleaning up images. Instead, it should go something like this: a worker loads all of the documents into the ADF that he or she needs to capture, hits a few buttons, and then lets the machine handle the rest.
Luckily, many devices, with the help of some software, are built with these considerations in mind.
Today’s devices are built to handle most of the media sizes, types, and weights you can throw at them, from ordinary office paper and thick plastic cards and cardboard, to long documents and delicate media. This versatility translates into cost savings, as you won’t have to spend more money on extra devices to support a vast array of scanning needs. Also, the staff won’t have to run around the office looking for a device that can support their media.
Many devices also come with robust batch handling and processing features to make scan operator’s lives easier. In the past, you would have to manually separate batches of mixed media, then recombine them after scanning (both the originals and their digital counterparts). But now, users can capture a batch consisting of disparate media types all at once. Better yet, many devices support some form of automatic batch splitting, so users don’t have to spend additional time processing or reassembling documents in digital form.
Just like the devices knowledge workers use at home, today’s MFPs and scanners connect with and download applications from a web-based app marketplace. Many of these applications connect users with core business systems at the MFP. But others offer features and functionality that would normally be reserved for a workstation.
Full-color, tablet-like control panels are the norm for modern MFPs and network scanners. They mimic the look and feel of the modern devices we’ve all come to love, down to the tap, swipe and flick/pinch gestures used to navigate the user interface (UI). Some control panels are powered by the Android operating system — these panels are made for much more than just configuring a collated copy job. And like the tablets and smartphones they use at home, your staff can tailor the UI to meet their specific needs by reorganizing which features and functionalities are displayed at the surface, or by adding widgets and apps to streamline specific tasks.
Many scanners and MFPs enable users to build a number of custom scan profiles. Workers can program all of the image enhancement settings, indexing and routing instructions, and other processing requirements into a single button. Often, these profiles can be saved on the device’s control panel, so users can kick off scan workflows with the touch of a button. In turn, your business can streamline frequently recurring scan workflows, reduce mistakes associated with improperly configured jobs, and ensure a uniform document capture environment.
As an onramp to your digital repositories, workflows and business solutions, scanners and MFPs should be able to integrate seamlessly into your network, and with your core systems. Many devices can route documents to popular cloud services like Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive and SharePoint, or email scans directly to others, out of the box. TWAIN, ISIS, and WIA drivers are usually included to connect with most document management systems and line-of-business applications. And when all of your out-of-the-box options run out, there is always the handy-dandy SDK to help build or connect with other apps.
But to get the most out of your scanning device, you’ll need to look to leverage document management and capture software. These further streamline scanning processes, and help you keep your information organized and easily accessible.
Paramount to any current scanning solution, OCR converts static documents to dynamic form (like searchable PDF), so they can be searched for and edited by others. But more advanced OCR technologies, such as zonal OCR, can help with other processes, like automatically capturing and indexing fields on a digital form. Other iterations, like IMR (intelligent mark recognition) can be used to capture checkboxes and radio buttons, or even to read handwriting. Many applications also come with some form of barcode and/or patch code recognition technology to read encoded instructions, such as indexing and routing details. What these do is automate a ton of processes, not only so you can get more done in a shorter time, but also because this technology outperforms humans in completing such tasks without any mistakes. For example, when a human goes to file a contract, they can (and often do) mistakenly store it in the wrong client’s folder. This can lead to a big mess later down the line, should someone need to access it quickly in the future. But with automated indexing and routing capabilities, all of your information will be properly indexed and stored in the proper location.
Meanwhile, a cloud-enabled document management system can be used to store and proliferate information across your entire organization. Many solutions come with a built-in workflow engine, which allows businesses to automate all of their repetitive, rules-based processes — even those that can get quite complicated. Powerful search features allow your workers to find all of the information they need quickly, while a number of document editing tools and collaboration features help them get the job done. Many solutions let multiple users access and work on a document at the same time, maintaining an audit log of all changes all the while. Most solutions come with tools that let users mark up, annotate, comment on, and redact information from documents, and enable users to share documents in one way or another. The ability to collaborate with others, no matter where they are, in real time, can speed up how long it takes to complete projects.
The Journey Continues
While Lancaster is credited with coining the term “the paperless office,” there are so many other important concepts that were outshined by the catchy buzzphrase. Paperless information isn’t about carbon footprints or reducing your paper costs — it is about bringing the business world into the future. Going paperless is just one step in a grander journey.
We are on the precipice of a digital revolution (if you think we’re in the middle of it, I’ve got to tell you something: it’s just getting started), where software robots will automate a ton of processes, and BI/analytics solutions will inform nearly every important decision you’d ever make. The office of the future will be unrecognizable from that of today. There won’t be file cabinets, but businesses will operate much more smoothly.
The future will be smart, and things will move faster than ever — and it all started with a book written way ahead of its time.
Samsung Electronics America
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel