Digital mailroom

15 November 2011

John Mancini of the Association for Information and Image Management reveals the benefits of a digital mailroom.

The digital mailroom, which is used primarily to mobilise documents for electronic access and information sharing, is the biggest driver for investment in scanning and capture. As a 'soft-dollar' benefit, this may not be the primary justification cited in most business cases, but once systems are installed, members of the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) report this to be the strongest long-term benefit.

After considering electronic access and information sharing, users frequently cite the additional benefits of scanning and capture. Improved process throughput is usually ranked much more highly than the more direct savings obtained from reduced keying for data entry, indicating a more comprehensive improvement than that of simply removing the keying process.

"Reducing the logistical cost of posting and transporting paper is a key benefit for every company."

Reduced physical storage space is a readily quantifiable benefit and, in these days of pared-down offices and hot-desking, is likely to relate as much to local office space for short-term filing as to longer-term archives, which can frequently be stored offsite in warehouses.

Customer service is another strong driver, as customers expect help-desk operators to see and discuss their most recent correspondence, prompting the need for some organisations to undertake daily electronic conversion of all inbound mail. Records security and compliance takes next place as the underlying impetus for most scan-to-archive projects.

Less printing and photocopying is good for the environment - and saves money - but reducing the logistical cost of posting and transporting paper is a key benefit for every company, particularly for larger organisations.

No more paper power

According to AIIM research, the consumption of paper and number of photocopies is still growing in 27% of responding organisations; however, there are signs of progress. In 39% of companies surveyed, the consumption of paper is starting to fall. The most recent AIIM capture survey marks the first time we have seen an overall net reduction in the use of paper, although in the largest organisations it is still equally balanced, with no net increase or decrease.

Among those companies with more extensive scanning and capture operations, 53% are seeing a reduction in paper use, reflecting their reduced dependency on paper, particularly photocopies.

"In 39% of companies surveyed, the consumption of paper is starting to fall."

Despite the fact that 82% of respondents undertake coordinated scanning, just 16% are capturing data for use in a process, rising only to 27% for even the largest organisations. This does not necessarily mean that documents and forms are not being workflowed through processes, but that data is either being manually rekeyed or is not fundamental to the process.

Of the 66% of companies scanning to archive, half are not using data capture to assist with indexing and are manually applying metadata, although a significant proportion are capturing full text for subsequent blanket searches.

The digital mailroom is a good example of the power of combining scanning and capture technology with business processes. Most companies find themselves dealing with incoming correspondence in both paper and electronic formats.

Although the character recognition process itself becomes unnecessary with an all-electronic file (as opposed to a scanned document or fax), these documents are frequently unstructured
or semi-structured, and capturing data from the file for indexing or further processing will still require an intelligent capture process.

According to AIIM surveys, central scanning of incoming mail is also set for strong growth, moving from a 20% adoption rate to around 40% - although it should be noted that these responses represent strategy intentions, not actual planned purchases.

Digital challenges

"Central scanning of incoming mail is also set for strong growth, moving from a 20% adoption rate to around 40%."

As organisations consider digital mailroom solutions, should they be aware of any particular issues or obstacles? The first thing they should realise is that the challenges lie not so much in the technology itself - which is mature and battle tested - but in many of the 'softer' issues associated with a technology implementation.

For example, a consistent challenge faced by those trying to implement a digital mailroom solution that ties together capture and business process management is that the former is frequently seen as a front-end, physical handling task akin to the postroom or the printroom, and the latter is viewed as the province of process owners and line-of-business managers.

Further confusion arises as the scanned documents may be part of a content or document management system, which is the realm of the records manager or compliance officer, or may be in the remit of the IT department, particularly if SharePoint is involved.

Obviously, organisations need to make a joined-up decision on this. It may be that capture and process management projects are worth implementing initially as a point solution to solve an urgent business process issue; however, this should be done with foresight as to
how other content management and collaboration requirements can be drawn together further downstream, perhaps by expanding a scanning and capture solution into a full enterprise content management (ECM) suite.

"Adoption of a standard capture platform would greatly ease problems."

In addition, as would be expected for any project that involves changes to long-term work processes, user resistance to change is the most prevalent issue, emphasising the need to consult users in advance, keep them in the process definition loop and train them appropriately.

The next element is the lack of understanding of what process management and the digital mailroom means and what it can achieve. This often balances against a lack of knowledge in IT of what the company processes are and how they should be mapped. As soon as process ownership extends across departmental boundaries, the issues of cooperation and executive support are sure to arise.

A lack of IT resource and the technical difficulties of integration with other enterprise systems are also holding back expansion of capture-to-process projects. Adoption of a standard capture platform, with distributed scanner connections and standardised interfaces to downstream systems, would greatly ease these problems, as well as improve the amortisation of the initial investment.

Real benefits

The digital mailroom is a great place to start down the path of driving out of the business process. The short-term cost savings are very real.

In addition, starting down the path of standardising information processes from the moment an item comes into the organisation will yield dramatic compliance, process automation and customer service benefits.

As the quest for paperlessness continues, the digital mailroom is fast becoming the key gateway to cutting storage space, lowering costs and automating business processes, as well as reducing the carbon footprint.
John Mancini is president of the Association for Information and Image Management.