Digital documents drive business benefits
1 April 2005 | 0
As absolutely everyone learns very quickly about IT, change is constant. That even extends to terms that start off with a self-explanatory or well defined technical definition but then
have a weaselly habit of transmuting into something else over time. Look at RAID—Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, a splendidly simple data security technique in which ‘Inexpensive’ duly became—’Independent’ when the industry saw the thing catching on. Then of course there’s OEM or Original Equipment Manufacturer which practically reversed course, especially since basic manufacturing became more and more outsourced to countries further east.
So when we come to ‘Document Management’ its simple and sensible origins are easily obscured. Paper documents are scanned on arrival in an organisation and all subsequent work is done on-screen. This was originally and indeed still is one example of what we mean by Document Management and a process that is still one underpinning element in all our attempts at automated administration. There are still masses of paper out there in all business and official administration, so to make it electronic we have to digitise the
contents in some way.
But of course since the word processor and spreadsheet and especially since the mid-90s a ‘document’ can be wholly electronic, in other words a file that is only ever worked on in its soft form. To that first step in all-electronic document management has been added universal e-mail, that vast, exponentially growing mass of ‘documents’ that range from the banal and trivial to—as recent scandals have shown—essential corporate information and Semtex-quality information on the murky dealings of individuals.
In parallel with our increasingly successful attempts to halt paper at the door but welcome its contents into our databases has been the ongoing challenge of indexing or tracking all of the information in the organisation but hidden from humans in all the bits and bytes.
The entire history of computer databases has been based on progressive technologies to achieve all of that, from indexing and metadata to data mining after the event through masses of heterogenous content in multiple and often huge databases. It was the application of smart technology to the management of Web sites that brought the usefully simple term ‘content management’ to the forefront.
These days the international consensus seems to have settled on Enterprise Content Management as the overall term, of which Document Management could be regarded as a traditional sub-discipline with a solid core of commonly agreed elements because there has been a healthy number of companies active in this space for well over a decade.
For good measure more recently we have ‘Records Management’ emerging as an approach or architecture to achieving some of the objectives shared by these various strands in attempting to grasp and wield all of the information in an organisation, notably to link
non-document information—the time and duration of a phone call, a financial transaction, a temperature reading or time/date stamp—with orthodox ‘content’ and ‘documents’.
There are certainly new drivers other than ensuring consistency of information, notably regulatory requirements like Sarbanes-Oxley, Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and stock-exchange rules, security considerations and many Best Practice models for specific
industries are imposing new disciplines on information that require new tools.
Documentum, for example, one of the leading names in ECM and Document Management, has product versions tailored to specific industries and their unique regulatory environments such as health care, pharmachem, financial services, etc. In almost every kind of organisation today, taking e-mail and its contents firmly under the
secure wing of an overall management system is now seen as essential to ensure against expensive (ultimately) wrongdoing from sexual harassment to corporate malfeasance.
Some sections of the industry like ‘Information Management’ as the top level term, although it strikes this writer as exceptionally woolly and even the esteemed 60-year old Association for Information and Image management (AIIM www.aiim.org) has adopted the term Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and describes itself today as the ECM Association. Since it is only the content of documents and files that actually matters to any organisation it is natural that ECM should constantly interact with things like business processes and workflow.
The overall objective of all applied IT, after all, is to automate everything that can be and to present information quickly and accurately where human decisions are required. Put it like that it sounds simple, doesn’t it? The AIIM defines the territory as ‘the tools and technologies that capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content in support of business processes.’ ECM is now a rapidly growing software sector that is aimed at what Computerworld aptly called ‘Controlling Content Chaos’ and enjoyed sales of $2.7bn last year according to IDC.
There is a surprising number of Irish software companies in this broad area, notably Docosoft, eXpd8, Fineos, SoftCo and Zarion plus specialist distributor and service bureau Digiscan. On the world stage the big boys are Adobe, Documentum (now owned by storage
specialist EMC), FileNet and some others with the likes of Oracle and other multi-product companies developing technologies or working through strategic alliances.
‘What has happened is that imaging, OCR and the basic elements of document management had their origins in technology and that has continued to develop over time. Today’s systems are very smart indeed,’ said Gerry O’Connor, managing director of Zarion.
‘But in many respects that is just the commodity infrastructure, one end of a spectrum, so that companies like ourselves have moved on to the application of those technologies to business processes and problems.’
Because that demands building a deep knowledge base of customers and their industries, the trend is towards vertical markets. Zarion specialises in financial services, Qumas in pharmachem and compliance requirements, others in government or telcos and so on. ‘It is a natural maturing of a set of technologies and their application to real life business administration where the key value is process improvement and responding to the clients’ constantly evolving “Can I do?” questions and needs,’ said O’Connor.
Site Report: Media Market
Newspaper clippings service goes digital
If you are wondering how to scan simple things like delivery dockets and invoices, imagine what it is like to scan into your system the entire contents of 10 daily papers plus the Sunday, another 150 regional papers and upwards of 450 magazines every month! Media
Market (www.mediamarket.ie) is a two-year old specialist media monitoring service that does just that as its bread-and-butter routine, turning the entire content of Ireland’s printed media into digitised images and plain text through automatic OCR with a near-100 per cent accuracy rate. ‘We took an existing industry, media monitoring with old fashioned manual press clipping and transcription services, and completely re-invented it with modern technology,’ said Michael Farrelly, Managing Director.
Working with imaging specialists Digiscan, the new company installed two Contex large format (up to 42in wide) scanners that can process 30 A2 pages per minute and a pair of Kodak A3 scanners of similar speed. Each publication has a predefined scanning profile
based on its physical characteristics to ensure the best possible image for the OCR engine to work on for such high levels of recognition accuracy. The contents are then searched and analysed in plain text form by the powerful ZyImage content management system, including OCR, which is the core production system. The entire content database is fully searchable using a wide range of techniques adding proximity, synonyms, similarities and
other fuzzy logic to the standard name searches.
‘When all the contents have been processed the Media Market account Managers are notified by the server that there are clips waiting to be approved for distribution to their clients,’ explained Michael Farrelly. ‘Clients choose their channel, most commonly
notification by e-mail that new clippings have been posted to their own secure Web site because they can then easily select what they need to print or relay. But they can also simply have all of their cuttings e-mailed or transferred to their own Intranet.’
Despite the enormous volume of publication scanning, the Market Media archive is growing at a modest 150Gbyte annually because the original scanned images are actually discarded after they have been processed into the content records. The entire system
works very well and required very little tweaking after the initial set-up, according to Michael Farrelly. ‘Unfortunately, there is no similar technology for our broadcast monitoring, so we have to record and employ people to listen through. But speech recognition will surely get there someday and we live in hope!’
Site Report: NQAI
Qualifications body processes applicants digitally
The role of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI), set up in 2001, is probably still little known to the general public although it will in time affect many lives. In essence, its remit is to establish and maintain a framework of qualifications for the development, recognition and award of qualifications in the state, based on standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by learners.
The Authority works closely with FETAC and HETAC, the national awards councils for further and higher education and training in Ireland, on their validation, award making and quality assurance processes.
‘One of our roles is to facilitate the recognition of foreign or international awards,’ said Carmel Kelly, Co-ordinator of Award Recognition. ‘So far this has been primarily based on applications by individuals to have their qualifications from abroad recognised here for employment purposes or to undertake further study in Ireland. Applications are made to the NQAI by individuals which informs the applicants regarding the comparability of the award in the Irish education system.’
This is the area in which NQAI installed a new system earlier this year from Docosoft, the Irish-Japanese document management software company headquartered at the National Technological Park in Limerick. Docosoft has a strategic alliance with Ricoh, which
manufactures scanners as well as other hardware, but in the NQAI the system is currently working with a general purpose scanner that was already on the network.
‘Our volume is running at about 500 applicants a year and is likely to grow,’ said Kelly, ‘so our Docosoft investment is principally aimed at efficiency and speed in storage and retrieval. Each case can gather a surprising amount of documentation, from obvious things like copies of certificates to translations, responses to queries and so on.’
The time scales in individual cases vary widely as well, Carmel Kelly explains, so being able to automatically associate every document with the specific application and retrieve on-screen with a couple of clicks is invaluable. As the database builds up, cross-referencing
previously recognised qualifications and having information to hand regarding education systems and institutions in different countries will become a valuable tool also. She believes the system may be extended to cover other aspects of the NQAI’s work now that
the value of comprehensive document management software has been demonstrated in this specific area.
Site Report: EBS
Building Society rebuilds data around individual customers
The EBS Building Society took a major decision about its administrative strategy in 2002 which involved re-organising its business processes to centre around its customers. The society went to tender for a CRM system with document processing, a contract won by Irish financial services software firm Fineos. The new system has now been live for just over a year and has successfully created for EBS the ‘single view of the customer’ that was the objective.
‘The major point is that there is a single electronic record that is linked to everything related to that individual customer,’ said Lynn Dennison who was the EBS business analyst working with Fineos to match the new system to the business processes in the company. ‘Everything from the account basics to products, requests or queries, outgoing correspondence or even promotions—it’s all there for staff in the branches or our contact centre to see, on screen in a couple of clicks.’ She stresses also that in EBS the line of business management owns the process, which needs minimal IT involvement when it is set up.
Paper applications are normal for any EBS product but do not enter the system. Paper documents are scanned and recognised at point of entry and the information enters the workflow system. It is automatically routed to appropriate departments or executives by
customer, type of document, etc. The system works along a set of chains, with successive actions and tasks triggered along the line. There are Service Level Agreements in place in terms of timing and other elements, so that exceptions or delays are flagged and can be escalated to a team leader.
The FrontOffice 3 system from Fineos is deployed over the EBS branch network, so it has close to 1,000 users although central administration is naturally the most intensive.
Although the overall aim is to provide better Customer Relationship Management (CRM) the project has involved the extensive automation of work flow systems in EBS. ‘It now incorporates 55 specific business processes, with business rules and intelligent routing tools,’ said Derek Finnerty, Fineos director of customer accounts. ‘All of the content is integrated with the EBS centralised scanning facility, the document repository and a high performance EMC Symmetrix storage array.’
An upgrade currently in its final stages will see a new and very user-friendly Web browser interface. According to Lynn Dennison: ‘The combination of browser and Websphere links behind makes it all extremely easy to use, fast and flexible in practice when we need to make changes.’
Site Report: Gaffney Halligan, Solicitors
Solicitor digitises client and case files
Everyone knows that legal practices generate lots of paper but the sheer scale may surprise many. Gaffney Halligan is a firm of Dublin solicitors that has grown by merger and now has three offices (Artane, Raheny and Dundrum) and seven solicitors and other fee-
earners plus eight administrative staff.
‘A very rough reckoning suggests that we could have between 80 and 90 thousand pages of documents in current case files between the three offices,’ said managing partner Tom Halligan. So although the firm is by no means entirely paperless, adoption of the eXpd8
Professional document management system some years ago means that client and case files are entirely electronic. This means that a potentially serious paper, print and copying overhead is in fact kept at a very modest level compared to practices of a similar size—and
courier runs between offices are very rare. An Irish developed product aimed at professional practices, eXpd8 now has over 1,600 users in Ireland and the UK. It is a sister company of Business to Business Solutions (BBS).
Gaffney Halligan upgraded its eXpd8 system last year and now has a centrally managed desktop service for the entire practice plus the partners and financial controller working from home when appropriate. ‘The key points are that we can all work on any file from any office,’ said Tom Halligan, ‘and my partner or myself can review any client file to check progress or whatever. Another benefit is that any of our specialist staff can work on a case, regardless of which office the client is dealing with.’
The system embraces e-mail, now a major part of all activity since most solicitor to solicitor/barrister communications are now electronic. Incoming postal mail is scanned while payments received or made are recorded on the relevant file. ‘I can read perhaps 80-
90 per cent of incoming post without leaving the PC, and send perhaps 30 letters a day or more without ever fetching or opening a physical file.’
Every law firm has to deal with queries that arise from time to time concerning old files. Gaffney Halligan has its archives and register of wills held on behalf of clients up on the system, so it just takes a few moments longer than with current files to find the answer onscreen or the index reference and location of an old paper file. ‘The whole document management system adds up to a much higher level of efficiency because time is not eaten up by retrieving and re-filing things,’ said Tom Halligan. ‘All in all, we can handle and manage more work with the same number of people.’