A company recently gave me a copy of an internal document. It described image and work management technology, and more than a dozen applications already installed in their company, using various image and work management products. Based on their internal publication and the number of systems installed, they certainly seemed to be knowledgeable users, maximizing the potential of the technology.
Another company, in the insurance industry, invited me to meet with some of their managers. As they introduced themselves, they described how they didn't understand image and work management, but had been reading about the benefits the technology could bring to their company. Each described how they thought it could improve their service and reduce their costs, and hoped that we could help them understand what was involved. This continued through underwriting, policy service, accounting, agency, personnel, and so forth, until the last person to introduce himself described how his department - several hundred people serving the same customers - had been using an image and work management system within their company for several years.
These companies are fairly typical. Most have heard of the technology, which is 10 to 15 years old. Many have some type of image or work management system in place. But few have taken advantage of the technology's great potential to change the way they do business - to improve the service to their customers and agents and to drastically improve the efficiency of employees, thereby reducing costs or increasing the amount of business the existing staff can handle.
Looking down the list provided by the first company, several of the installed systems had fewer than 10 users, and most had fewer than 50 (in a company with tens of thousands of employees). Had the company really learned about imaging? Did they really have an effective image and work management solution? Did the second company have a good solution if it only served one department, and the other departments weren't even aware of the system?
In the early days of the technology, many companies found a small test group - 3 or 4 people - who had a filing problem. This seemed like an ideal place to install a pilot image system to learn about the technology and measure its effectiveness. A technician was hired, an image system was installed, and the executives stopped by to visit. Certainly the technology was impressive, but it seemed a little like the emperor's new clothes - who was going to tell them that the job could have been done just as well with a $100 filing cabinet? Access? Everyone sits near the cabinet. Organization? The best filing clerk would have been cheaper than the image technician. Security? A lock on the cabinet - or a machine gun for the filing clerk - could provide inexpensive protection. No need to roll this technology out to the rest of the company!
Of course, thousands of users accessing millions of files have a different problem to solve - you can't buy another filing cabinet and have everyone sit next to it. Another file clerk - in addition to the hundreds you already have (whatever their job titles) - can't organize the millions of files and eliminate missing documents. The technology tested with a half dozen users is not the same technology that can support thousands of users. Many companies assumed that "image doesn't pay" even though they based their decision on the results of using a different technology to solve a different problem.
How might the image technologies be categorized?
Personal image systems can be based on a personal computer. A fax machine or a scanner can be added for a few hundred dollars. The fax machine generates an electronic image that is received by the modem in most of today's personal computers. Or the low-cost scanner, connected directly to the personal computer, can capture the image (picture) of a page in well under a minute. Each page can be stored on the PC's disk. A word processor or other simple tool can be used to organize the several pages into a document, and manage the display and printing. The pages can be shared across a network or sent via electronic mail. This may have been the technology that was tested in the example above. However, a simple system like this has no controls, disaster recovery, or structure to the documents, so is impractical to extend to a larger group of users. A page in a word processor may require 2,000 bytes of storage, but that same page captured as an image may take 500,000 to a million bytes or more. Extending a system that keeps images in this simple form to a large group of users would be prohibitively expensive.
Departmental systems include special hardware and software to organize the images and compress them for more efficient movement and storage. Using compression techniques optimized for images, the system can typically store the image of a page in 50,000 bytes - still very large, but manageable. When the images are shared by several users, the disk requirements may be greater than reasonable, even with today's very large magnetic disks. The logical answer is optical disc storage - the technology that made image systems practical and cost effective. High volume users often need special displays so they can view the information on a whole page of a document while entering (or comparing with) data in the business computer system. Special image software can hold the several pages of a document together, with an index to describe each document (so you only have to get the documents you need, not "all" the documents). Departmental image systems are effective for as few as 5 or 10 users, and can be expanded to 100 or more users. Many vendors offer these systems.
Documents can be processed on paper and put into an image system at the end of the process, much like paper was often microfilmed after processing was complete. An image system like this works, but misses much of the potential benefit that can come from a complete electronic document management system. Capturing images right from the start provides many advantages:
Instant access by the professionals processing the documents
Several users can access the same document at the same time
No army of clerks to sort, deliver, track, find, or file the documents
Documents will not be lost or misfiled
Tracking systems can be eliminated
New documents can automatically be matched with other documents waiting to be processed
Customers can be served while they are still on the telephone -- no call-back, no phone tag, no delays
But how do you know who has to work on a document if it was put into the image system when it arrived - if there is no stack of paper to put on someone's desk? That is where work management comes in. A work management system may be very simple: just tell the system who gets the document next, like a routing slip on a paper file. It can be very sophisticated: mapping every possible path a document will take through an office, depending on values and decisions. It can direct several people to work on a document at a time, then wait for the "next" step (rendezvous) until the several parallel steps are completed. It can prioritize work, and warn management if the backlog is building and deadlines might be missed. It can ensure an equitable distribution of work.
Can you have an image system without work management? Probably yes, but not realistically - even if the documents are all captured at the end of the process, there will be a work queue of images waiting to be indexed, or other "image only" processes. Work management is used in many ways.
Can you have a work management system without an image system? Some people call a work-in-process tracking system a work manager. A true work management system also optimizes the assignment of work. Telling someone to process a form from Ms. Smith may be optimal, but not if the person spends the next half hour looking for the form. If you already have a paperless office, an image system isn't required. But if you still receive documents on paper, an image system brings out the strength of the work management system. Image makes work management better, and work management makes image better - real synergy.
What kind of benefits can you expect from an integrated image and work management system? Eliminating most of the mail clerks and file clerks, and the savings in filing supplies, office space, and microfilm systems typically saves enough to pay much, but not all, of the cost of a system. If your workflow is already efficient, it is common to achieve 20% to 30% improvement in the productivity of your professionals. If your workflow includes tracking steps and worksheets, or if you have lots of missing files, or if you need expediters to locate documents and solve problems, you may experience an improvement of 50% to 100% in the productivity of your professionals - perhaps doubling the work they can handle. Since most of the system's cost was covered by the savings in clerical staff and filing systems, this certainly makes a system cost effective. In addition there are intangible benefits - where a value cannot be established - like better service, access control (privacy), or disaster recovery.
So how should you get started? Don't bother with a pilot program to prove that this 10- to 15-year-old technology, which is already in place throughout the world, will work. Instead, select the biggest, hardest to solve problem, like new business or policyholder services, not a little problem that can be solved with a filing cabinet. Choose a comprehensive enterprise image product, not a toolkit to build it yourself. Work with your vendor as a partner to build a plan. Include expert consulting, to ensure that you get started on the right foot. Don't try to install a complete new system all at once, and don't expect all the benefits on the first day. With a good business partner, you can expect to run real live customer mail within six months. In most cases, the system will pay for itself in two to three years or less. And plan a party for the implementation team at about the seven-month point - there will be plenty to celebrate!
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©1996 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. You may license additional copies of this document through a nominal royalty payment as specified on www.plesums.com.