Anybody who still uses paper clips, manila folders, or filing cabinets as the primary means of managing documents — well, quite frankly, needs help. The Chinese inventor Ts'ai Lun came up with paper about 1,900 years ago; and although it's been a great solution, its time has come and gone. The third millennium is upon us. And, in accord with this advanced date, we have technologically advanced solutions to match. One of these advancements (designed as a replacement for paper), is integrated document management (IDM).
This technology promises to do the same thing for business today that writing on clay tablets did for civilization 4,000 years ago. If you think your business can win out by hanging on to paper-based solutions, think again. Liken yourself to the suckers who held on to clay technology during the advent of paper. Do any of these phrases sound familiar? "The copy machine is out of clay, can you put in a new block?" "Donna, get out a clay tablet and take down this memo." "The clay tablet is stuck in the fax machine…again!" "Take these notes down to the kiln and fire them."
Document Management And Imaging 101
Generally, the purpose of IDM is to allow a business to quickly index, store, and retrieve information. Additionally, the system should allow you to do this in a variety of ways, such as cross-referencing relationships between documents, folders, or sub-folders. For example, most companies have information saved in a number of different formats: Word documents, Excel files, scanned images. Rather than storing these files haphazardly in different hard drives, servers, and filing cabinets, an IDM system provides users with a common interface. All the files can be accessed from one system, regardless of format.
Of course, this is an overview of IDM. If you want to break it down further, you will find many more distinctions. The most notable of these distinctions would be the difference between documents and imaging. The definition for documents is fairly straightforward — it refers to paper records such as letters and memos, and electronic files, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Imaging refers to the scanned electronic images of documents: photographs, purchase orders, invoices, checks, correspondence — anything that has been scanned. Once a paper document is scanned, it is no longer a document; it is an image. The distinction between documents and images is a good place to start, but by no means the place to end.
How Workflow Works
Among the more complicated aspects of IDM is workflow. The nuts and bolts of a workflow system can be extremely complicated, but every workflow system's purpose is simple: facilitate a work process. Workflow removes the need for user retrieval of documents and information in a system. Rather than having users actively search for documents in an IDM system, workflow is configured so documents are automatically routed to users, like an e-mail in-box. Workflow systems can be customized to send specific documents to specific users — in a specific sequence. An essential characteristic of IDM that is often seen in workflow is called "version control." With this feature, the IDM system can record the time, date, and user's name for accountability and security purposes.
Consider how banks are benefiting from IDM and workflow in particular. "The paperwork involved with getting a loan or disbursement can be cumbersome," says Bill Priemer, vice president, marketing for Hyland Software. "Every time some kid wants a disbursement on a trust, he calls in and says, ‘I want $50,000 out of my trust because I'm going to buy a new BMW.' Well, Grandma may have put all kinds of parameters on this trust concerning what he can and cannot buy. It's going to take lots of time and paperwork for this request to be approved.
If a workflow system is used to expedite the process, the documents will be sent directly and electronically to the right people, and individuals will be accountable because of version control. When the customer calls back in five hours, a representative can tell him, ‘Oh, let me check — it's in the final approval stage right now and will take only two more hours.' When you're in the wealth management industry, customer service is the only differentiating feature you can offer; otherwise, you're just holding the money. People don't realize that the benefits of workflow extend into areas like customer service."
COLD Is Old
The term COLD (computer output to laser disk) has somehow remained a constant, despite advancements in IDM technology. Originally, COLD referred to the information stored on mainframe computers that was transferred to laser disks. This initial solution was revolutionary. Before COLD, the mainframes served as data repositories with no access to specific information. The data never existed as a record or statement within the mainframe. When someone wanted access to particular information, all of the data in the mainframe was printed to greenbar paper, and someone searched manually through the printouts.
Microfilm was a great alternative to this dilemma, but it still required a lot of time and labor (manually searching for the microfilm and making printouts). COLD was an evolutionary step from microfilm — with it, all the data was stored on a more advanced medium that improved retrieval. Today, the data in mainframes is connected directly to users on the client/server level through a technology called electronic report management (ERM). Microfilm and laser disks added an additional step between users and information. ERM has removed that step. With ERM, users can directly access mainframe data through an IDM system.
Stand-Alone Systems Versus Integrated Systems
Another important distinction in document management and imaging systems is between stand-alone and integrated systems. Stand-alone systems offer a solution for only one particular area of IDM. For example, with a stand-alone system, you might be able to handle ERM and nothing else. This stand-alone ERM system wouldn't have the capability to handle documents and images, or to incorporate workflow. That might be fine if your business only requires an ERM solution. In most cases, however, the most effective solutions handle several types of information.
Fortunately, most IDM systems are scalable to fit the needs of the individual business. That means if a business chooses to use only the ERM portion of the IDM system, but six months down the road requires workflow, the system can be upgraded. But, beware. Not every system is scalable. "If you buy a system that doesn't offer upgrades, you could be in big trouble," says Scott Ward, director of computer software, Smead. "If your system isn't scalable and you need to upgrade, your only option is to start from scratch. That's a costly mistake."
Where Do We Go From Here?
For people who are out there searching for an IDM system, what additional answers might help them choose the right system? Well, to begin with, how about asking, "How big should a company be to use IDM technology?" Stewart Nickel, vice president of product management, OTG Software explains "We have customers ranging from a mom-and-pop-shop with five people, to Fortune 500 companies with tens of thousands of employees. You can't put a size restriction on IDM solutions. IDM can offer huge benefits for both small and large companies. For the most part, however, the cost of an IDM system is prohibitive for smaller companies."
Another good question concerning an IDM system would be, "What can you expect it to do for your business?" Scott Ward of Smead responds, "You can expect significant cost savings on everything associated with handling paper — time, labor, materials. The larger benefit, though, will be efficiency. One customer I know used a workflow system to track customer productivity in work teams. He was able to determine which teams were fastest, and then pair off slower teams with faster teams. He offered everyone profit sharing bonuses for reducing the time it took to accomplish tasks. The employees ended up spending less time on work, and all received bonuses — all because of workflow. IDM systems also allow you to more quickly respond to customer complaints and inquiries. The technology preempts the need for manual research. Certainly you can respond faster if the information is readily available."
However, the most important question is, "What is the future of this technology?" Potential customers shouldn't be worried about investing in an IDM system and having new technology make it obsolete a year from now. The direction IDM technology is taking builds upon current offerings by including Web-enabled applications. OTG's Stewart Nickel adds, "You are going to see a push for Web-based deployment and maintenance of IDM technology. As the Internet matures, you'll be able to offer a full product suite over the Internet. This will probably take place in the next six to 12 months."
At one point, Hyland's Bill Priemer made a comment that attests to the implicit acceptability of IDM technology. "I was watching TV the other night, and the Home Shopping Network was selling scanners. I've actually seen episodes where they've gone through 2,000 scanners in the course of three hours."
If the audience for the Home Shopping Network is technologically sophisticated enough to be involved with IDM, shouldn't those on the cutting edge of business be, too?