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Imaging and the Myth of the Paperless Office

September 1, 2002

5 Min Read
Imaging and the Myth of the Paperless Office

The future of paper-based records management and storage seems safe indeed for the near and midterm future. This article discusses the need for paper, imaging applications for commercial records- management companies and new insights into the "myth of the paperless office."

The storage and destruction of paper documents and records should continue to grow for the foreseeable future, perhaps 20 years or more. The growth of paper documents flies in the face of the development of new technology. The common misconception that technology will do away with paper is purely and simply a myth. There are several important reasons for this misconception. But first, a few words about imaging.

Imaging is the digitalization of paper documents into a bit-map form displayable on a computer screen as a picture of the document imaged. It does not become usable in application software, such as Microsoft Word, until another optical character recognition (OCR) is performed on the document. Today, there are seamless ways to perform both activities at once, but generally with less than perfect results. The resulting translated document will usually require some clean-up, which means human intervention.

Imaging and Commercial Records Management

Years ago, when I was developing records- and document-management products for Xerox Business Services, the outsourcing division of Xerox Corp., I had a saying I would use with the company's sales staff: "Imagin, smimagin." I got so tired of going to the annual AIIM conference and seeing 10,000 solutions that "always fit your company perfectly." (AIIM is the Association of Image and Information Management, a major trade organization. Its tradeshow exhibits thousands of products and services relating to imaging and document management.)

The fact of the matter is imaging is not generally considered a records-management solution but a document-management solution. People are generally confused by the difference. Imaging applications are abundant, but the use of imaging is purely and simply application driven. It is good for some things and a poor choice for others. Business records are supposedly proof of the completion of a business transaction--meaning the transaction is finished. Business records are maintained for regulatory compliance, litigation avoidance and sound business practice. This is still generally done in the form of paper files and documentation.

In a world with a zillion solutions to anyone's problem, imaging certainly has its place. Where it fits in a commercial records center is the real question for us. Here is my best shot at an answer after 25 years of experience in the document-management industry:

1. Scan-on-demand applications are the easiest and best fit. They are easy to use, cheap, and work for some retrieval requests. Scan-on-demand means that after a paper document is retrieved from its box or file, it is imaged as a document on demand only. Then it is attached to an e-mail and forwarded digitally to the requesting client. It may include OCR or simply be in a bit-map or PDF format.

2. Archival imaging applications are for the purpose of saving important archived documents to a CD-ROM on a very selective basis. Be careful to only sell what is of long-term value to the client. This service requires a bit more by the way of hardware and software. It is a good solution for a small subset of the files you have in hard-copy storage.

3. Imaging projects can be great short-term money makers when a commercial records center has a grasp for production management and understands what its costs are. I have done projects of millions of files with more than a 50 percent mark-up. But you better know what you are doing! And be able to measure performance against cost continuously.

4. Back-file conversions are generally a service-bureau job. There are many companies in this market, and bids, for the most part, are won based on price. This is a separate business opportunity. I have always said that imaging is "transient technology." Why? Current technology allows us to create, use, maintain, archive and dispose of documents electronically. But to quote John Philips from his article titled "Paper is King" (newsletter of the Institute of Certified Records Managers), "The idea of a paperless office is now a universally accepted joke."

John Philips is considered one of the gurus of the movement to digital and electronic records within the Association of Records Managers and Administrators and the broader records-management community. I hope this helps some of you who may be considering imaging opportunities for your business. Remember the old adage, "You've got to be who you are, because if your aren't, then you are who you are not." Whatever you do in your records-management business, know who you are.

The Myth of the Paperless Office

A new book by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper titled The Myth of the Paperless Office discusses in systematic detail why the paperless office has not yet happened and probably will not in the near future. Sellen and Harper are scientists who take a much studied approach using a concept termed "affordances," i.e., the activities an object allows or affords. For example, the properties of paper are that it is thin, light, porous and opaque. These attributes afford the human actions of carrying, folding, writing and others.

According to the authors, it is when we determine how we can create devices that afford these qualities to digital documents that we may begin the transition to a paperless environment. In their book, Sellen and Harper state, "If the computer is the canvas on which documents are created, the desk is the palette on which bits of paper are spread in preparation for the job of writing." It is quite simply the way we work.

Paper will be with us for some time into the future, of this we can be certain. It is a sociological issue more than a technological one. I recommend this book to anyone who still thinks we are marching toward a digital future and a paperless office in the short term.

Regular columnist Cary McGovern, CRM, is the principal of FileMan and FIRMS (FileMan Internet Records Management Services), which offer full-service records- management assistance for commercial records-storage start-ups in self-storage operations. For assistance in feasibility determination, operational implementation or marketing support, or for questions on the FIRMS Sales Manager, call 877.FILEMAN, e-mail [email protected]; www.fileman.com.

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