Last month, we discussed the main functions of a document management system, with regard to documents that are internally generated and, therefore, already available electronically.
This month, we want to concentrate on external documents.
External document management
External documents can enter your company in a number of ways.
- Hand delivery
The documents received via e-mail are the easiest to manage. They are already available in an electronic format and can be imported into the archiving system and processed from there.
Fax documents are as easy, as well, if the implemented solution for fax allows an incoming fax to be routed to an e-mail address.
That leaves us with the traditional paper documents. They come in many shapes and forms, and they are the most challenging sources of information for a document management system. But, in many cases, they are also some of the most important documents, because they may contain signatures or other handwritten information that might become critical in case of disputes or questions.
All paper documents need to be processed by a scanning device. There are a wide variety of scanning devices on the market. You can buy a simple scanner for less than $100 or you can spend thousands of dollars for sophisticated, duplex, high-resolution scanning devices that can process more than a page per second.
Although, naturally, there is a big difference in speed and quality between an inexpensive scanner and a high-end device, they basically perform the same function: They read a piece of paper and produce an electronic copy of it, which is made available as a file (typically in .tif format) for further processing.
At this stage, the former paper document can be treated the exact same way as a document that was received via e-mail.
The result of the scanning process is a photographic image of the document. This is of high-enough quality to be printed, reviewed or sent via e-mail or fax; however, the data contained within the document is not accessible though the stored, photographic image.
To access the data, we have to re-engineer the document. The technique to do that is called Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for printed or typed content, or Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR) to read hand-printed numbers and letters. As with scanning devices, there is a wide range of OCR/ICR software on the market, ranging from packages for a few dollars to products that cost thousands of dollars.
The largest difference between the inexpensive solutions and the high-end solutions is the accuracy of the data recognition. Where high-end packages will be able to recognize close to 100 percent of the data from a printed image in good quality, you can’t expect more than 80 percent to 90 percent of handwriting recognition, even with quite sophisticated solutions.
In any case, to ensure that you use good data, a quality-control and correction mechanism has to be introduced to your scanning/recognition procedures.
Some packages add intelligence to the OCR process to recognize certain forms, like recurring invoices, purchase orders, etc., and, by doing this, allow you to automate the data-entry process beyond the document management system and make the recognized data available to be processed in the company’s ERP package.
As much as OCR/ICR technology has evolved over the years, it is still a relatively unreliable method to gather data. You should communicate with your suppliers and other external resources to exchange your information electronically to avoid possible errors.
The big crashes of major corporations over the last several years triggered a whole array of new or amended regulations, and now all decision-makers of a corporation are confronted with a new set of rules that they need to comply with in order to avoid legal issues or problems with their shareholders or auditors. One of the biggest challenges in this field is the need to accurately document all business-relevant transactions from beginning to end.
Document management systems play an important role in this scenario.
Here are the different types and sources of information that are the building blocks of business transactions.
* Quotes or offer letters to your customers and prospects
* Accompanying documents during the negotiation phase
* Purchase orders from your customers
* Order confirmations
* Production documentation
* Quality control documentation
* Shipping documents
* Invoices to your customers
* Checks, documentation for wire transfers or direct debit
All these document types lead to accounts receivable records, and they may be received or sent via phone, fax, e-mail, mail, EDI or one of the many transportation methods over the Internet. A similar set of information exists for the accounts payable departments of a corporation.
While phone transactions would typically be entered directly into the organization's ERP system, others may need preparation to find their way into this central repository to be processed according to the business process rules.
But the ERP system, although typically the most important source of information of a business, usually does not supply the necessary functionality to keep track of the paper trail of the business transactions. This is where document management systems come into play.
The market offers a wide variety of solutions, and almost all of them cover the basics to enable your organization to capture, index, store and retrieve the documents described above. You can purchase and implement a simple system for a few thousand dollars, but you may have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for an enterprisewide deluxe solution.
To make sure that you get the maximum benefit from a document management solution, ask yourself and the potential vendors of the system the questions in the above chart.
There are a lot more questions to ask and decision criteria to be defined. However, you may use the above questions to eliminate some solutions early in the selection process and save yourself a lot of time and frustration.
Maybe it is simply unrealistic to avoid paper altogether -- it can be hard to handle, but it's convenient and familiar. Maybe the time has come to modify the dream. Rather than a paperless office, how about an office that is more efficient with less paper?
The reason we want to limit the amount of paper in an office environment to its absolute minimum is because information on paper requires a lot of manual steps to produce, file and retrieve. Even the best-organized system of filing cabinets, staffed with people who take filing seriously, has no fighting chance to make information available at the speed of the electronic competition.
But the right document management system (DMS) can combine the convenience of paper with the speed of new technology.
In the past, DMS vendors pointed out the tremendous savings potential of their software. It is still true that you can save money on preprinted forms, postage and manual labor. The true benefit, however, is the way a DMS allows you to produce your business-critical documents and to store and retrieve information from these documents very quickly.
A fully integrated DMS is the best tool to reduce the amount of paper in today's business world. If your existing enterprise resource planning system produces company-external documents (invoices, purchase orders, shipping documents, checks, etc.) that are not ready to be distributed to your customers or suppliers, you can deploy the electronic forms functionality of the DMS to electronically produce these documents.
The DMS should also enable you to print, fax, e-mail or Web-enable these documents. A true, full-function DMS also offers the ability to store these document files in an archiving system by adding index values of your choice for subsequent retrieval.
This, however, covers only the papers that your company produces. Therefore, the DMS also needs to offer options to add incoming documents to the archive. This is an easy task for documents that are received electronically, such as those that arrive via e-mail or a fax service that routes incoming faxes to an e-mail address. The DMS can route these documents into the archive after it scans them to retrieve textual information to be used as index values during the archiving process. Paper documents can be treated in a similar way by using scanning devices to turn them into electronic files.
Once all documents related to a given business transaction have been moved into the archiving system, the retrieval function enables you to easily find all related documents for a specific transaction, regardless of the document's origin.
However, using index values as the sole method of retrieving the information poses a new challenge. You need to know exactly what you are looking for.
Without a customer or supplier number, without a PO number or invoice number, you won't be able to find the documents you seek. This is where full text search capabilities become an important feature. By simply typing some known information, such as the item number or customer name, the DMS can present a list of all documents that contain the search criteria.
Although the paperless office will probably never become a reality, there are numerous DMS on the market that can bring you close to the dream of a paperless business environment.