Lots of tools are becoming available to build image and work management systems. Microsoft has recently added image processing as a standard (free) feature in Windows 95. This gives the impression that there is "nothing to it" - that images are just another type of data and work management systems only consist of a few routines called from any application program.
Certainly it has become easy to scan a few documents, and to store them as files on a personal computer. The new long (descriptive) file names help documents to be found among hundreds stored on a system. An E-mail message to someone to view the image of a customer letter and to fulfill the customer's request could be considered a basic work management system. A small number of images are unlikely to saturate a network, no matter how they are handled. The tools are not only available, but are finally available to everyone. The image and work management technology has certainly come a long way in the last 10-15 years.
These tools allow an image system to be assembled for personal use, or perhaps for a small work group or demonstration. However, if your organization receives thousands of letters each day, processed by multiple work teams, a very different type of system is required. Just like a spreadsheet may be fine for many of the financial records of a very small business, it is not adequate for the general ledger of a large company. Something much more is required for a production image and work management system.
How can you distinguish between a few image tools or a personal image system and a production system for large groups of users? A production system has many components available, even if the initial application is simple. It is not constrained to a single network or processor. Special software is available to efficiently handle and store the very large image "objects," and the work management tools can assign, track, and document the processing of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of items of work, through multiple teams, in different locations. The system performance will remain high, and the workers productive, even with a heavy workload on the system.
Listed below are some of the features you should look for in an image and work management system. Although not all of these features will be needed in every system, it is nearly certain that requirements will change over time. Therefore it may be wise to select a vendor that has a wide range of tools available for optional future use.
Flatbed scanners are good for personal use, publishing, and bound or damaged documents, but have little application in a production image system. A medium speed scanner for a production system may be a few seconds for each side of the page, and high speed may be several pages per second. Medium speed scanners allow quality control during scanning, so be sure the image can be displayed as fast as the operator can run the scanner (expect less than rated scanner speed). The higher speed scanners need to have controllers that compress the images fast enough to keep up with the scanner - it doesn't do any good to have an automatic feed, full duplex scanner, that feeds 100 pages per minute if each side of the page takes 2 seconds to compress.
Sometimes it is appropriate to identify the documents before they are scanned (where special cases need to be handled, or where stacks of documents can all be the same (e.g. a one page application). Sometimes it is best to identify documents while they are being scanned, either manually or through bar codes or OCR. Sometimes it is best to identify documents after scanning, from the image. But most of all, requirements will change. Choose a system that can handle several ways of indexing. Be sure your system also has a variety of ways to both check and report on quality and productivity. Be sure users can correct both scanning and indexing errors, but be sure there will be a full permanent audit trail (to be sure legality is not compromised).
A document is scanned, viewed, and printed a page at a time, but is generally indexed, stored, and used as a multipage document. A system that stores each page separately is probably not a production image system.
A fax is, in fact, an image of a document. Therefore if part of the workload is received as a fax, it normally pays to store that fax directly, not print it and then scan. If there are more than a couple users, the fax should come to a common queue - a fax server. With a fax server and a work manager, the critical fax that is just arriving won't be sent directly to the desktop computer of someone who just went home sick! The fax server technology is advancing rapidly, so an excellent approach is to select a best-of-breed fax server, with an external interface to the image and work management system.
Casual users of an image system can use almost any display with almost any performance. However, people using images all day, and entering data from the image or comparing the information on the image with data in the computer system, need to be able to see a full page of image at the same time as they are using their regular computer system. This typically leads to the requirement for a large (19-21 inch) display. A special display adapter is required to get the full advantage of the display. The display adapter often has special facilities to accelerate the image display or improve the image quality. The application software should take advantage of this hardware.
When working with a document, normally the entire document (whether 2 pages or 20) are brought to the user's workstation. Normally a one-second page turn is adequate - faster than turning a piece of paper on the desk. If you feel you need to turn pages much faster, is it because lots of images were brought to the desk, and you are searching for the one you need? Consider whether you are taking the best approach to indexing and delivering documents.
To maintain personal productivity, any document that is currently being processed should be delivered to the user, with the first page displayed, in five seconds or less. The work management system should recognize which images are active and store them (normally on magnetic disk, in the same location as the user) so that they can be delivered quickly.
Use of documents after initial processing depends on the type of business. Often, after processing is complete, documents are retained in the office for a year or two (so they can quickly be accessed) before they are archived to an off-site records center. Those "stored in the office but not on a desk" documents can be stored on lower cost (slower) storage such as optical disc. Instant access is always nice, but is expensive. One study showed that, if a document cannot be delivered immediately, a telephone service representative can still be productive, without calling the customer back, if the document is available in less than 35 seconds. Most optical disc systems can provide 10-20 seconds access, but are slower as they are more heavily used.
It should be possible to remove the optical discs holding the oldest documents from the juke box for even lower cost storage. The system must keep track of the contents of the disk, and allow the disk to be remounted in a different device when a user needs a document from the disk. Performance depends primarily on operator response, but the system should allow the documents to be temporarily activated for quick access when the customer is called back. The "mount on a different device" is also important for disaster recovery.
Image systems need to be able to print, but normally this is a low volume operation, since routine use should be from image. Images must be decompressed to be printed, so either special hardware is required in the printer or the decompression must occur in the server or user's workstation. Parallel printer ports are fairly slow, so few printers can run at rated speed if connected through this port. The other alternative is network connections (such as the HP JetDirect card). The load of print images on the network must also be considered.
A common output requirement is facsimile. If a fax server is used for inbound fax, the same server can often also be used for outbound fax.
Documents that are in use are stored on the user's workstation in practically all systems. However most workstations are not secure, with logging and disaster recovery. Therefore the copy on the user's workstation should be a working copy, with the primary copy stored on a secure computer system.
Magnetic storage should be used for active documents. It should be in the same location as the end users, or must be connected by a high speed communications link (at least 256,000 bps). Back-up and recovery needs to be considered, which can be significant since the images are typically very large and very active (leading to very large log files).
Optical storage is often used for inactive documents. If it is written when a document arrives, it can serve as the back-up copy of documents on magnetic storage. Can the optical disc be removed. What provisions are there for back up discs? Can the images be copied from an existing optical disc to a new technology storage (if an old disc needs to be replaced after a disaster, does it have to be copied back onto an old type disc)?
Systems need to keep some users from even knowing that some documents exist. Other users may be allowed to know a document has arrived, but may not be allowed to view the document. Others still may be allowed to view a document, but not process it. Various levels of security are required.
In evaluating a work management system, it is helpful to consider the business requirements and the product functions at four distinct levels:
Work should be identified sufficiently to move it to the right department(s). Enough tracking must be maintained at the enterprise level to locate the work if an inquiry is received concerning the work. For (high volume) production workflow, the assigned workflow must be based on simple templates - the person opening the mail must be able to say "I believe this is an order, this is how orders are handled," without examining the details of the workflow. For administrative workflow, such as handling an expense report, it may be useful to examine the workflow. For collaborative workflow (e.g. ad-hoc, publishing, office automation), the workflow may be individually generated, with negotiation about willingness and timeframe to perform the tasks.
The goal at the department level is to balance the work between employees, to make best use of the staff, optimize quality and quantity performed, and to meet deadlines and service levels. Basically the job is to get the right work to the right people. Often this means keeping the work in a departmental queue and assigning it close to the time when it is performed; systems that immediately assign all work to an individual often have a very high overhead tracking that work, and reassigning it if someone falls behind or is out.
Once work has been assigned to an individual, that person must select the work to be performed. For routine transaction processing, it is often best handled by the system "pushing" work to the individual each time they need something to do. For knowledge workers, who may handle low priority work associated with a case while they are working on a high priority aspect of that case, the individuals need to see the work assigned to them and "pull" selected items from the system. If either type worker has a time commitment (call at 3:30), the time should drive their work. Someone who starts some work and cannot finish it immediately should normally have the option of getting the same work back from their personal queue - pulling the work even if they normally have work pushed to them.
Once an item is selected for processing, what tasks must be performed? In practice, most processing can be performed with a series of existing programs. The newest technology intentionally creates small reusable pieces rather than large comprehensive programs. The detailed task manager assures that all the necessary steps are performed, and logs the progress of the work. The most sophisticated task managers allow an experienced user to perform the task in the most convenient sequence, and then simply checks that all the required steps were done, while allowing a beginner to request guidance through the steps.
Practically every computer system maintains a log of who did what to what data. A good image and work management system keeps this information in a user friendly and accessible form, eliminating the need for many worksheets and logs. Be sure the user can add comments - for example, if work was repeatedly assigned to place a telephone call, did they leave a message, find the line busy, get no answer, or why was the call unsuccessful.
One of the most valuable features of the image and work management combination is the matching of documents, sometimes called rendezvous or marriage. If a process has been suspended pending the arrival of more information (another document), the system should be able to automatically match the documents, and resume processing. If the information does not arrive in the designated timeframe, a follow-up work process must be invoked. The system should be able to find other work in the system for the same case or customer - perhaps a follow-up letter changing the initial request.
An underwriter or adjuster may be qualified to handle a line of business, but may (because of depth of experience) be limited to smaller cases. A system that cannot limit large cases to experienced staff will delay rather than expedite work.
This may be a factor separate from the level of authority. For example, someone with little experience may be subject to 100% review with no direct approval authority. Someone with moderate experience may have authority to approve small cases directly, but may require review of larger cases.
Most work management systems can add a step to the workflow to perform a quality check near the end of the process. A better approach includes an automatic quality check built into the system, rather than added on. This allows a fraction of the work (from none to 100%) to be diverted to the quality check, based on the qualifications of the individual and the characteristics of the work.
What type of data is available to allow the manager to know the status of the work in process at this instant? To allow the technician to control the system and network at this instant? Can the user assignments, qualifications, or authority be changed "on the fly" throughout the day?
What summary, detail report, and analysis information is available? Scanner operator productivity? Device errors? Amount of each type of work? Work completed by person, department, etc. Can additional reports be defined? Does that require a programmer?
Image systems should not require that the installed Local Area Network be replaced. However, images are very large, typically requiring 25 times as much information as the corresponding data. A network that could support 500 users without image may only be able to support 100 users with image. Therefore the existing network may need to be reconfigured or segmented.
Practically every image and work management system needs to access a legacy system, to identify the customer associated with incoming documents, to determine factors for work flow, or to store data collected in the process of managing the work.
Do programs conform to the conventions that allow remote program installation and monitoring - such as Microsoft Systems Management Server, or IBM's CID process?
Don't do it yourself: It is easy to add a modem or a hard disk to a personal computer - it has been done millions of times, and the technology is approaching foolproof. Optical disc drives have become readily available, but are not as easily integrated, especially when considering error recovery and performance tuning. Same for high speed scanners, high performance displays, and other components unique to image systems.
Are you buying a tool kit or a complete program? Many system on the market require extensive programming to take advantage of many of it's features. As a result, a local integrator often is involved in customizing (of totally building) a system for you. If so, who owns the programs? Is your version documented? Does the integrator provide maintenance? Will the integrator provide enhancements? Support? Is the integrator established enough that you would bet your business on the stability of their company?
If you are buying a complete program, do you have the option of customizing the program if required? If customized, can you still get support?
Is the logic of your workflow based in computer programs, or is it in tables? Can users update the tables without programming tools? If extensions are required, such as unique calculations or additional data displays, are tools are provided? Can standard development tools be used? Both?
Most image systems are effective with a few users. Many start to fail at 50 to 100 users - often because they require all work to go through a single processor/server, or require all components to be on a single LAN segment. Some vendors who claim to support thousands of users really do so through several practically separate "departmental" image systems.
How long will it take to get the system up and running? Two years is a common amount of time. A system that doesn't go into production until the second year may take another 2-3 years to break even. Some vendors provide very quick pilot systems, particularly with custom implementations. Those initial systems may be able to process your work, but be sure to check if the initial systems are robust - with error handling, performance tuning tools, and scalability.
Is your vendor experienced and respected in the marketplace. Is it a well established company, who will be around as long as your system? Are they affiliated with reputable partners and product sources?
Is there a professionally staffed help desk? What happens if your project leader quits? Is your system a standard product that will be routinely enhanced as the systems (both the hardware and the image/work management technology) evolves?
Are there training materials and professional instructors available? Is hands-on training available? Can the class be repeated for new employees or new in-house instructors?
Is there sufficient interest in the industry that a user's group has been formed? Does the vendor participate in the user's group?
Some systems are configured to offer a low initial cost, and appear very attractive in a competitive procurement. Other systems are more expensive, but provide a much more favorable return on investment. Are you looking for low cost in the short term, or the greatest value in the long term?
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