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Dead trees can be expensive

September 30, 2008 1 comment

Decades ago consultants told us about the dream of the electronic paperless office. It’s cheaper. It’s easier. It gives you and your employees more flexibility. This paperless utopia has yet to be realized – but we’re a lot closer. Much or our daily work is electronic based. Yet, many of us still spend a tremendous amount of time shuffling, stamping, and filing dead trees.

Paper may never go the way of the Dodo bird. However, there are solutions that can help bring your office a few steps closer to the “paperless dream”. I recently found read an article on Forbes.com describing how small or mid-sized business may find it easier to make the transition (Here is the link to the article).

Here are a few bullet points to consider:

  • Small and mid-sized businesses have advantages over lager businesses when it comes to moving to paperless. There is less bureaucracy. They can be much more nimble with their IT projects.
  • Electronic is faster. Accounts payable invoices may require several weeks to process. Especially, if the invoice needs to be approved before payment or a discrepancy is found against the purchase order. Shuffling paper takes time. An electronic process can reduce the lifecycle of the payment process.
  • Don’t forget about security. A document scanned and password protected on your server is much more secure than sitting on your desk.
Categories: Articles

Documents at your fingertips

January 14, 2008 4 comments

I found a great article that describes the concept of document management and its impact on your work place.  The article was originally posted on an Irish news site, ThePost.IE. The entire article is included below.  You can see the original article here.

Documents at your fingertips
13 January 2008
Paper may still dominate business processes, but computer document management systems make it increasingly easier for the appropriate users to access important information, writes Dermot Corrigan.

The advance of information technology has not diminished the importance of documents to Irish businesses. Managing an increasing number and type of documents remains of huge importance for business success.

“Document management is the process for capturing, storing, indexing, routing and managing key business documents so that they can be processed and accessed when needed by the appropriate users,” said Garret Pearse, product manager with SoftCo.

The term document no longer refers just to sheets of paper, according to Stephen Tunney, managing director of Adest.

“Document management systems are used to store a range of different document formats,” said Tunney. “Essentially they can store any document coming into your organisation. You can scan paper documents, and also capture PDFs, JPGs, drawings, computer files. You can store all kinds of things in their native format within a single system, accessible through a single interface. It looks like the paper copy, you can view it, print it, fax it or e-mail it.”

Document management fits within the wider area of information or content management, said Richard Moore, business group lead, information worker, Microsoft Ireland.

“We would think of document management as part of a broader information management challenge that most organisations have, making sure things are held and accessed appropriately, and in a way that is easy for people to get a hold of,” said Moore.

There are two main ways in which organisations and businesses use document management systems, according to Andy Jones, general manager and director for Xerox Global Services in Europe.

“First there are transactional opportunities. Companies that want to digitise supplier invoices will implement a new process underpinned by a bit of technology and from this point on every invoice that comes in is digitised,” said Jones. “Other organisations have a lot of archival information that is important to their business and they look to digitise all that.”

Drivers
Nigel Ghent, UK and Ireland marketing director, EMC Documentum, said that document management systems are usually purchased because of an outstanding business need.

“People do not wake up in the morning thinking we need to manage content better or automate our processes,” said Ghent. “Maybe there is a EU directive to adhere to, or a requirement to drive cost reduction in a line of their business. We talk to customers and come back to them with a solution that can solve those problems.”

Tunney said the primary reason for businesses to adopt document management technology was to boost productivity by speeding up processes.

“For example, we have a number of clients making deliveries all around the country every day,” he said.

“They have paper dockets to prove every delivery has taken place, they are scanned in the depots and automatically sent to the system in Dublin, so their credit control department knows that those goods have been delivered.”

Blaik said organisations with staff that need access to detailed information on clients or products also derive impressive productivity benefits from document management systems.

“When somebody rings up and makes a complaint, rather than someone having to go off to a filing cabinet and trying to find a letter, or going to a warehouse off site, you can easily search and retrieve that information,” he said.

Blaik said tightening compliance regulations were leading to quicker adoption of document management systems.

“Compliance is a huge issue,” he said. “Not just around regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley; there are also many different EU and individual country directives about how long companies must retain, and make available, customer invoices and statements.”

Aidan O’Neil l, chief executive of Docosoft, said document management systems could also help businesses lower their storage costs.

“Some industries have to keep documents five, seven, up to 20 years, but the paper now does not have to be kept on site,” he said.

“Some companies would store documents in other locations and use couriers to bring them in when needed, but then there is a cost to the company every time they want to access it. Electronic documents do not replace the paper, but they can access the electronic copy whenever they want.”

O’Neil l said document management systems allow multiple users, in different locations, to view the same document at the same time.

“Many people can access an electronic document at one time, whereas if you have a paper document you have to photocopy it or move it,” said O’Neil l.

Tunney said document management systems made it easier for companies to avoid losing vital information. “Even if something is misfiled, it can be searched for using the content of the document,” he said. “If that was misfiled in a paper-based environment there might be a massive search to find it.”

Sectors
Document management systems come in a variety of forms, and are used in different ways in different sectors, including financial services, retail, manufacturing and local government, according to Jones.

“In the financial services sector, which is very document-driven indeed, companies are looking at how they handle incoming applications, claims, forms, enquiries from customers, how they receive that, digitise it and then run it through an electronic workflow process to make the incoming part of the process more effective,” he said.

“There is also an outbound part of the process, with lots of physical documents sent to customers. Content management systems can make that more efficient and lower the costs,” said Jones.

“In the retail area the big thing is supply-chain management. They are buying lots of things, so they are receiving lots of invoices from suppliers, so we look at how we can digitise these processes – receive physical documents, scan them, deliver them to the accounting operation and accelerate the accounts payable area.

“Manufacturing companies on their product and technical documentation, if I am producing a car or a piece of equipment, how can I help their customer understand the manuals more effectively, keep them updated more effectively, translate the documents and make them available on a global basis in a consistent way,” said Jones.

“There are huge opportunities for document management in central and local government, particularly with recent initiatives around making information more readily available to the public,” said Jones.

“The information can be made more transparent and more available using document management technology and services.”

Business processes
Blaik said organisations should understand how their documents fitted into their business processes before choosing a document management solution.

“Understanding how a document is accessed and used is crucial to understanding how the content management system can help,” he said. “Different people within one organisation can have different needs for one document. For example, when you put in a tax return, that document might be retrieved and used by many different people, so understanding the process and workflow is crucial when implementing the right system in the right way.”

Moore said the latest integrated document management systems were helping companies streamline and improve their business processes. “You probably will not want to change everything, but if you change two or three key things, you can get a much higher rate of return,” he said.

Tunney said some clients used document management systems to manage every single document that arrived into the organisation.

“As the post comes in the morning they scan it and electronically route it to the appropriate people within the organisation,” he said.

“That is where you are really getting great productivity and much faster delivery and accountability of what has come into the organisation.”

Intelligent recognition of the information within documents can make processes more productive, said Blaik.

“Rather than someone having to look at a piece of paper to see what boxes have been ticked, we can automatically push the relevant information to the right person to move things quickly to the next stage,” he said.

O’Neil l said some organisations preferred to purchase individually tailored document management systems that were built specifically with its business processes in mind.

“We tailor the solution to the company, and do not promote document management tools as such,” he said.

“We would know how the business works, for example insurance claims, documents and proposals. We would build business processes around that and supply the document management or workflow tools on the back of those. We would also integrate them into existing software the company is al ready using.”

Nuts and bolts
There can be a number of various hardware and software elements in an integrated content management solution.

“It depends on what the client is looking to achieve,” said Blaik. “If they are looking to produce imaging, they will need an input management solution. If they are looking to take paper away from a process, and automate that process, they are talking about automation and routing of documents, and that is process management. Information management can then make the right content available to the right person in the right way.”

Tunney said many document management systems did not require the purchase of specialised scanning equipment.

“Clients use desktop scanners or multi-function devices,” he said. “Mid range systems can scan at rates of 20 to 70 pages per minute now. As the documents are scanned they are stored on the server and can be accessed from the clients’ PCs. We would also have clients who scan their documents and make them available for viewing on the web. For instance the CAO would capture student application forms and make them available to the relevant university admissions departments via the web.”

To ensure easy retrieval, documents stored electronically are tagged with information including document name, type, origin, date created and the person who created it. Jones said it was important to ensure that this information is inputted correctly.

“If you are putting in poor information, there is no pixie dust inside these systems that make it better,” he said. “But if you design these systems properly, they can allow you to do a lot of error checking as you are entering the information.”

Pearse said the latest systems also allowed users to search inside the documents stored electronically.

“Advanced optical character recognition (OCR) and powerful full text indexing functionality can be used to easily and efficiently capture unstructured data,” he said. “Users can now carry out a Google-like search to find any unstructured data relating to their search. They will then be presented with any matches that they have sufficient permission to view.”

Even more sophisticated systems can also pull together and link documents and information, which at first glance may appear very disparate, according to Jones. “In a situation where there are large numbers of documents, including paper, e-mails, electronic documents and we have some technology that lets users search for links and inferences between what may seem to be completely different documents,” he said.

Security can be a huge issue for document management systems and policies, said O’Neill.

“Security is very important,” he said. “One of our systems encrypts and compresses the document on the file server itself. There is also an audit control on the system, so that every time the user looks at the document it is audited. There is a whole log of when it was accessed, who accessed it and was it changed or moved. If they do change it, they can check it back in as a new version.”

The full power of document management systems can only be harnessed if organisations link them with other information databases within the organisation, said Tunney.

“If you want to get the best out of your system it has to be integrated with whatever other systems your staff are using,” he said. “We would integrate with a range of accountancy software systems, so that invoices and proof of delivery dockets can be seen side by side.”

O’Neill said there can be challenges for off-the-shelf document management solutions to integrate fully with other systems.

“Sometimes the integration toolkit that comes with other products is not good enough, and it can take six months to a year to get it to integrate completely,” he said.

Costs
The costs of purchasing, installing and supporting document management systems and processes is conditional upon the size and scope of the solution required.

“The cost of systems varies from four to six figures depending on the size, complexity and number of users,” said Pearse.

Tunney said costs varied from customer to customer, but typically started at €5,000 for basic solutions, with more sophisticated systems costing €25,000 or more. Moore said a basic version of Microsoft’s Sharepoint solution was included in the standard Microsoft Small Business Server package, which is aimed at organisations with fewer than 50 PCs, while the cost of the full version is dependent on the number of users and different applications included.

The costs of digitising an organisation’s entire paper archive can be prohibitive, according to Jones, who said that it is generally not necessary to digitise everything in one go.

“It is quite expensive to scan 20 years’ worth of documents, when you might only need to access a fraction of a per cent of those over the next ten,” said Jones.

“We offer a services approach as opposed to a purely technology approach. We can take over the responsibility for their paper archive and as they need access to information from it, we digitise it for them.

“In the health sector, for example, if a particular patient record is requested, we would then digitise the whole of that patient’s record in one go, so that patient’s information is now available online.”

Jones said the service model could also be used for day-to-day document management.

“We can receive all of the incoming post for a company into one of our data centres, we will do the opening, sorting, scanning and indexing based on criteria agreed with the customer,” he said. “We can then send that information back to the customer electronically.”

Future
Moving from paper to electronic documents can be a culture shock for an organisation. Blaik said change management is key to a successful transition.

“People may be used to filing paper in their cabinet, and accessing files in a certain way on their laptop,” he said. “Taking it on piece by piece, and department by department, it makes it easier.”

Blaik said scanning documents was only a step along the way to fully digital processes.

“I cannot see there ever being absolutely no paper in business. A better way of looking at it is to consider the creation of paperless processes, for example, the insurance claims process could become a lot less paper driven. The way consumers apply for a new mobile phone is becoming increasingly paperless.”

Paper is not being replaced, however, its role is just evolving.

“The electronic systems are becoming the master archive, and paper is becoming a more work-in-progress medium,” said Jones. “Documents are printed off so that people can read them on the train, or because a legal signature is important.”

“We are not eliminating paper yet,” said Tunney. “Maybe another couple of decades down the line.”

Categories: Articles

Lawson 9.0 and Service Order Invoices

August 23, 2007 2 comments

Lawson 8.x did not accept service order invoices using their MA540 interface.  I’m glad to say that Lawson 9.0 now accepts these documents.  Here are a few tips for you:

The HANDLING CODE (record #37) typically must have the handling code of either “M” for match or “S” for service.  A purchase order may have multiple lines.  These lines may include a combination of inventory and service items.  The handling code may be “S” only if all the lines sent with the invoice are service items.  If there is at least one non-service item, then you must submit the handling code as “M”.  Lawson will reject the invoice if you send a handling code of “S” for an invoice that includes a non-service line item.

If left blank, the handling code defaults from the vendor, process level, or match company.
The invoice will enter Lawson with a status of “UNREALESED”.  It will remain unreleased until the mass release process is run (job #126).  Some companies run this job on a daily basis.

If you need any help, let me know.  I’ve been sending MA540 files from DocEdge to Lawson for years.  I’d be glad to help.

Categories: Articles, Lawson

Process to Profit

March 28, 2007 1 comment

I’m a programmer. Not an artist.

Sometimes I fail to remember this simple fact. On occasion, I try to play artist. Especially, when I take a look at my corporate logo and realize…”man, that kind of sucks”.

It is the tragedy that happens when a software engineer gets his hands on a copy of Photoshop. I figure I would just “tweak it a bit”. A few hours, a pot of coffee and a sunrise later I realize that maybe I should recruit a pro.

So I signed up for the guys (and gals) at Logoworks to redo my logo. I heard they had a unique process for streamlining the creation process. As a workflow guy, I figured I had to check it out.

I have to say I’m impressed. I haven’t actually seen the finished product yet. (I’ll make sure to share the prototypes with everyone). However, their process of gathering requirements is great. They start with a step-by-step wizard to find out what you want – colors, shapes and text. Then they show you existing logo samples and ask what you like and dislike. In only a couple days, you get to see prototype samples. Then, the samples are routed between the customer and designers for review. The bottom line is a new paradigm that provides professional designs without massive cost.

Typically, companies use workflow to streamline and reduce cost. I spend a lot of time automating accounts payables departments. So, the primary focus is on minimizing overhead. This is an amazing example of turning process into profit. The team at Logoworks uses workflow to innovate the delivery method.

Categories: Articles

Document Imaging: Hosted vs. Installed Solutions

February 28, 2007 Leave a comment

Hosted solutions are often called Software as a Service (SaaS) or Application Service Providers (ASP). Such systems offer a diverse array of solutions that can be made available quickly and with a low cost. There are many issues to consider when it comes to a document imaging and workflow solutions. Here are a few of the pros and cons.

Low Startup Cost
An enterprise-wide document imaging solution may cost you thousands of dollars in man-hours, software licenses, and hardware infrastructure. A hosted solution lets you bypass much of the start up cost and begin reaping ROI faster.

Total Cost of Ownership
Most hosted solutions charge based upon volume – based either on page count or disk space utilization. You will also be charged depending on how long you need to retain your documents (often called a retention schedule). There may be charges for the number of users that access you documents. Depending upon these factors, you may reach a tipping point where the installed solution has a lower TCO.

Shorter Project Schedule
The initial time taken to launch a hosted solution may be a fraction of the time needed to organize and implement an installed solution. Generally, hosting providers have the infrastructure in place to quickly launch a project. You could be searching for documents online in a few days. An installed solution may take weeks or months to implement.

Accessibility
Anywhere – anytime – anyone. Hosted solution has the benefit of being available to all your people, regardless if they are in the home office or abroad. Most are available from a web browser. Others may offer dial-in access via terminal services or Citrix. An installed solution may offer this benefit, provided your company has the infrastructure in place. Of course, such an infrastructure will add to the total cost of ownership.

If you are taking advantage of workflow in addition to document imaging accessibility could be even more important. Getting the right information to the right people becomes easier when your people can get their information from anywhere.

Security
Depending upon the nature of our documents, compliance issues might make the decision for you. No hospital will be comfortable archiving medical records with a hosted solution. The demands of HIPPA require such organizations to keep tight control over such sensitive documents.

Even less sensitive documents require some level of security. Invoice, purchase orders and human resource documents all contain sensitive information. Most reputable hosting providers have secure, locked, facilities. Not to mention technical staff that maintains needed security patches. Considering that usually these documents are kept in simple file cabinets, it is easy to argue that a hosted solution is far more secure.

Outsourcing
You might be able to reduce operating cost by letting others process your imaged documents. An interesting solution is to allow the hosting solution provider to receive your documents via fax. They could then provide your ERP system with the required data and a URL to the associated document. Workflow could allow outsourcing personal to easily communicate with your team members to resolve problem transactions. I am not a proponent of outsourcing office jobs overseas. However, I know of a few well qualified office workers in middle-America that would be more than willing to do your data entry work!

Integration
A hosted solution may be more difficult to integrate with your installed solutions. A useful trick is to streamline data capture by auto populating some data with a lookup. For example, while data entering the information from an invoice the operator may enter the purchase order number. The P.O. number could then be used to lookup the associated vendor. Since a hosted solution is not installed at your location, the lookup would be more difficult to accomplish. This problem can be resolved; however, such scenarios should be taken into consideration.

Conclusion
There is not just one simple answer as to which solution is right for your company. Consider how both flavors may benefit your company. A hosted solution might allow you to start using the system in a few days and opens the possibility of outsourcing to reduce cost. However, an installed solution might allow for tight integration with all your legacy application or give you more control over your information. Feel free to contact me if you need help making these decisions. I’d be glad to help.

Categories: Articles

Data entry is a necessary evil – Do less of it!

January 11, 2007 6 comments

We have thousands of paper documents with valuable information. Before we can use that information, someone needs to take the time to key the data. If you work with people whose days are consumed with tedious data entry, consider simplifying their workday with automated data extraction. Data extraction allows you to reduce manual data entry, increase throughput and often even reduce errors. Such technology is referred to as OCR, ICR, or MICR. It is easy to see how someone interested to automatic data extraction can get lost in a sea of acronyms. Here is a brief overview of some data extraction technologies and how they may benefit you.

Quick Note: Data extraction technology does not completely eliminate data entry. If you get a slick salesperson that promises OCR will magically make your data entry needs disappear, do the following. Allow him take you out to a free meal (order the lobster), smile and nod at everything he says and then never return his phone calls. It is the least you can do to someone that knowingly deceives you. OCR technology will allow your people to do more work in less time – making them more productive.

Image capture is the first step in electronic data capture. Image capture is the process of converting a paper document into an electronic image. Usually these documents are stored as Tagged Image File Format (TIF) or Portable Document Format (PDF). There are many benefits to document imaging beside automatic data extraction. I’ll cover those in later articles.

The image is typically captured with a scanner. There is a wide variety of scanners available – from single workstation (five pages / minute) to full-scale production scanners (fifty pages / minute). Of course the price reflects the features of the scanner.

Many companies have electronic fax servers such as RightFax or Biscom. These fax servers convert incoming faxes into images automatically. These solutions can be very costly. If you are looking for a low cost alternative to expensive fax servers consider email-based fax solutions such as eFax. These solutions send inbound faxes to an email address of your choosing.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software reads an image and converts the information into digital data. Such software is capable of processing machine print, handwritten or even cursive text. OCR of handwritten text is often referred to as ICR (see below).

OCR of machine written text is largely considered a solved problem and yields high accuracy. Clean machine text may conservatively reach 95% character accuracy. In the real world documents are rarely perfect when they are scanned. Lines running through text or smudged ink can reduce the accuracy level. However, significant productivity gains are typical.

Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR), or Handwritten OCR, has come a long way in the last decade or so. Accuracy of handwritten data extraction is enhanced using constrained print fields. You may receive recognition rates of 80 to 90%.

ICR implementation uses constraint print fields to maximize recognition rates. These print fields encourage the user to separate each character and prevent written text from “running together”. Here are a couple examples of print constraint fields.

Example Print Fields

Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) is used by the banking industry to facilitate the processing of checks. MICR characters are the odd looking numbers and symbols written at the bottom of all our checks – often called the MICR line. In addition to the special font the MICR line is written using special magnetic ink. The ink allows the text to be accurately captured – even if someone writes over the MICR line.

Example MICR Line

After a data has been extracted, the results shall require review. This step is necessary to ensure the data is accurate. Suppose an OCR program needs to extract data from the following region. Notice the smudge in the fist zero.

Example OCR Region

You and I can easily recognize the smudge and understand the zero is a zero. An OCR program, however, may not be so sure. The OCR application may recognize the smudged zero as an “8”.

The person reviewing the extracted data will have an opportunity to change the “8” to a “0”. This should require only one keystroke – as opposed to the four needed to data enter “2100”. This reduction in keystrokes is a primary source of productivity gains. There are other reason these techniques increase productivity. I’ll cover these in later articles.

If your people spend their days entering data, you should consider data capture as a strategy for increasing productivity. Such technology allows you to focus on the core business at hand – running your business – instead of pounding away on a keyboard. If you have any questions about how to best take advantage of OCR technology, feel free ask.

Categories: Articles

Drive Savings with Account Payable Automation

November 18, 2006 3 comments

Accounts payable departments require tremendous overhead – without generating revenue for an enterprise. For this reason, many view the AP department as a revenue sinkhole. However, your AP department may provide an opportunity to drive dramatic reductions in operating expenses.

Most account payable departments rely on expensive paper-based methods. Data entry operators key data from stacks of invoices into their ERP systems. Managers receive photocopies of invoices for approval via inter-office mail. Finally, invoices are archived for a decade in room full of file cabinets – or worse, sent to an off site storage location.

An average invoice cost $10 to process (IAPP, 2003). Consider an organization with a volume of 25,000 invoices per month. The overhead of paying these invoices will reach 3 million dollars per year. Organizations have reported between 40% and 60% savings by implementing an invoice automation solution (Aberdeen Group). If we assume only a modest 20% reduction in cost, this AP department can yield $600,000 in savings per year. Even a company that processes 5 thousand invoices per month can benefit from AP automation.

I shall discuss strategies that can be used to achieve such success in later posts.

Categories: Articles