Web-based electronic document management is one of the most useful resources companies have available to keep their managers, staff, and customers informed. Managing files effectively is an ongoing challenge, but a well-planned document management implementation makes it significantly easier. Scanning, which ideally is the entry point of data into the active life of a document in the document lifecycle, can be ineffective if careful thought is not given to the imaging and indexing process. When it is done properly, however, scanning ensures that the data stored in the document management system is valid, readable, secure, accessible, and useful throughout the enterprise.
Scanning in general, and desktop scanning in particular, facilitates the collection and management of information for managers, staff, and even customers. Convenience and ease of use in a desktop scanning solution make it tempting to scan everything for easy access. In reality, however, desktop scanning only promotes efficiency if it is understood, used wisely (for the capture of useful data), and implemented correctly.
To maximize the productivity that any imaging solution provides, you must understand your goals, the document types that support your processes, the usefulness of the data contained within those documents, and more. This article is intended to help readers evaluate when desktop scanning of documents and images is not a cost-effective and appropriate solution. It also details critical steps that must be taken to ensure that the electronic data you capture is useful both now and for your future needs.
Understanding where you are headed and why you are scanning
Generally speaking, desktop scanning is most viable when you have active files with data that will continue to be needed, at least in the short term. Back file scanning of archives has its place, but is usually relegated to larger scanning stations and their staff, or outsourced to scanning companies. While back file scanning can be valuable for accessing historical documents as well as papers that support active files, desktop scanning has a more useful role in capturing data directly pertaining to active files.
Documents that are part of the active business cycle benefit from front-end scanning: in other words, capturing the data electronically before it enters the business process. Desktop scanning puts information immediately into the hands of end users, who frequently benefit directly from the data collected. College enrollment forms, patient admissions, loan applications, and formal grievances are several examples of documents that are critical to business processes, and they contain active and useful data. Such areas benefit tremendously from the secure ease of access and electronic search that an imaging and document management system provide.
As you evaluate whether desktop scanning is likely to be a cost-effective solution, consider who needs access to the data, and how often. Do other departments request files or data from forms that result in time-consuming searches? Will auditors, the court system, or compliance officers need access to the data contained on the forms to assess compliance or assist in electronic discovery? If the data is useful to others within and beyond your business, desktop scanning is likely to be a cost-effective solution. It will save money and man-hours, providing business-critical data instantly and securely to those who need it.
Establishing clear goals for your scanning project
After you decide to engage in desktop scanning, the next step is to evaluate the document types you intend to capture, and determine who will need access to the data once it is stored. Although the need may appear to be isolated to your department, limiting the data's usefulness without examining company-wide needs is shortsighted. Consider the various document types that enter your office. Which documents are related, and which depend upon each other during the business process? What information is typically used to associate documents with each other in the physical storage process? What other departments rely on information contained in each of the forms? Which information is sensitive and needs to be restricted to pre-authorized persons? The answers to these questions will help you to establish a document scanning strategy that will maximize the usefulness of information to everyone in your organization who legitimately needs access.
Getting started: best practices for effective desktop scanning
1. Establish simple business rules that make sense to the end user
In some cases, desktop scanning equipment is operated exclusively by staff, and in other cases, it may be desirable to put the power of scanning into the hands of the customer. For example, a collegiate setting often affords students the opportunity to scan their own forms. One of the benefits of a desktop scanning solution is the ability to make it accessible for people who have limited technological savvy. When you (or your vendor) configure your desktop scanning software, make sure the end user's choices are clear and simple, as they would be at an ATM machine. If multiple form types are routinely scanned, for example, the customer might select the document type from a drop-down menu which then automatically pre-fills other information pertaining to that form. Simplicity is the key to successful staff and customer adoption of the technology.
2. Scan images at a high enough resolution to maximize long-term value
Document scanning must be done with a preservation mindset. Nothing substitutes for quality, and nowhere is this truer than with a scanned image. The future value of the document and its data will depend on the usefulness of the scanned image, so the required resolution must be carefully considered. Higher resolution can mean greater storage requirements; in spite of this, short-sightedness has consequences when an image lacks readability or is rendered useless for future purposes. Use file formats and compression techniques that are non-proprietary and conform to industry standards.
3. Index automatically for speed, consistency, and accuracy
One of the advantages of desktop scanning is easy indexing of scanned documents. Even a screen with one or two categories in a drop-down menu helps you to categorize information for future retrieval. For multiple document types, auto indexing pre-sorts diverse forms into digital batches, enabling staff to continue the indexing process manually or with drop-down menus pertaining to their departments, directly from their desktops. The most important aspect of document indexing is to know the different types of people who will need to access data that is captured through the desktop scanning process and how they typically search for information.
Take, for example, a college admission form. An honors department may want access to the student's grade point average in particular, information on advanced placement classes. A financial aid department will need to know whether the student is applying, or has already been approved, for student loans. Enrollment services must take note of the student's major and minor areas of study, so that the appropriate information can be forwarded to the right departments. The admission document would need to be indexed in such a way that specific data could be found easily by those who need it, and security settings would ensure that sensitive information is only accessible to authorized departments or persons. Appropriate and useful indexing is contingent on open communication between all parties that interface with each document type and thorough analysis of the data contained within. Without a good indexing plan that lets you retrieve your images and data when they are needed, the best quality images of your documents are rendered useless.
4. Verify the quality of the scans
High-quality desktop scanning solutions do an excellent job of automatically verifying the completion and integrity of scans. They typically report the certainty of a scanned image quality as they create the electronic image, just as a printer informs the user of the degree to which a requested printing process is complete. Images that register less than 100% certainty of a quality scan can be identified easily and imaged again immediately. Since documents that have been shredded clearly can not be sent to be rescanned, having an indexer or member of staff skim the scanned images to confirm their quality is wise, especially when sensitive information, or items that could support eventual litigation, are involved.
5. Store data in a central, searchable electronic document management system
Ideally, an electronic document management system is a central repository for all of a company's mission-critical information. Regardless of whether data is collected by reading bar codes, capturing faxes and emails or electronic forms, storing video files, or through the desktop scanning process, documents and data are all stored together and are instantly searchable. Since a large volume of information collected by most companies still originates on paper, desktop scanning is a critical element in the process. However, it is not the only element. As you create a repository of useful data via your desktop scanning solution, evaluate other ways you could maximize the use of your document management system. If your information continues to be stored in hybrid technologies and isolated silos, the data you capture through desktop scanning will still be valuable, but that value will not yet be maximized. Bar code reading software, electronic forms, and other technologies can help you get all of your information into one location.
6. Send business-critical information on its way
Since desktop scanning brings the greatest value to a business during the active stage of the document lifecycle rather than at the end, a company or organization gains the greatest value from the data by using it to activate routine processes. Businesses that automate their processes with digital workflow can build on the accurate information obtained through digital capture. The data collected can be used to expedite processing in accordance with the company's predefined business rules, resulting in faster and better service.
For example, an insurance application that is captured with a desktop scanner could automatically trigger a request for specific additional information. Or, it could push a copy of the application forward to the agent for evaluation and approval or signature, and then to the head office team for their simultaneous or sequential review. Similarly, the capture of a grievance form from an employee could trigger a procedure to send that grievance forward to the human resources department and to the appropriate members of the management team. The simple capture of data, viewed perhaps by some as an accessory to the document management process, becomes one of the most vital parts, telling the storage system what information is important, and dictating how the system will respond.
As you evaluate desktop scanning, make sure you have an eye to both your short- and long-term needs. Take the time to study your documents and understand how they fit into the business cycle. Talk with all levels of staff to understand how those documents are used, both within and beyond your department. By investing in careful planning, your desktop scanning solution will be far more than an accessory.