Managing mayhem

Von Chee Sing

Firms large and small look to the next level for automated document management and sharing to enhance productivity and efficiency.

The fax machine spews out junk uncontrollably while the photocopier groans with printouts as--without supervision or monitoring--it ceaselessly churns out costly color documents. Welcome to the often chaotic world of the whirring paper hub and engine room of any given office: the print room.

Whether in hard copy or electronic "soft copy," documents are essential to our work. But managing these documents effectively is a challenge that many companies have yet to face squarely.

Many firms have deployed multifunction printers (MFP) from vendors like Fuji-Xerox, Canon and Ricoh--convergence devices that incorporate print, scan, fax and copy functions. But relatively few have taken steps to use these devices with appropriate management software to automate manual processes or to enable better document management and sharing practices.

At a recent seminar and panel discussion on the topic of document management, it was found that 70 percent of the attendees at the discussion had not implemented any formal document management software. The firms represented were not all SMEs either--large local and multinational firms were among those not implementing document management.

Step by step adoption

What constitutes document management? At the most basic level it refers to the use of devices that enable the digitization of documents such as faxes or print outs, invoices and contracts. Traditionally jammed into folders, then filed away and impossible to retrieve, such documents are often subject to old and inefficient retention policies. By scanning and storing documents in an indexed and searchable archive, staff can keep track of all documents in a shared and secure environment.

Although this sounds basic, it?s not something that is widely implemented. Firms often do not leverage the technology built into their MFPs.

For example, faxes can now be received by MFP machines and distributed via a fax server directly to the recipient or to the trash--without printouts. MFPs can scan documents directly to email or a file folder within a user?s directory. Staff can be assigned access rights to the devices to improve security and monitor device usage. Existing log-in rights and passwords from Windows or Lotus Notes directories can now be extended to MFPs, enabling easy network log-in and user administration for any device.

These are all initial steps that companies can take to get a better handle on their documents and reduce their paper loads, saving costs and easing the burden on Hong Kong?s already overstretched landfills.

Time, space and cost

This phase--digital archiving and reducing time spent on document handling--is the early stage of document management adoption. Particularly now in Hong Kong, where the cost of human resource is on the rise, firms also want to address productivity issues and seek to reduce the time required by manual processes, noted Aaron Yim, managing director at Ricoh Hong Kong. "Scanning documents into digital form and storing for easy filing and fast retrieval is very popular right now," said Yim. He said firms with high volumes of document handling, such as accounting and financial services firms, are keen users of such systems.

The digital archiving process is critical in achieving more streamlined document management, said Louis Wan, product manager for Office System Solution Division, Canon. Wan said that since basic office space in many Hong Kong companies is a rare commodity, the move would save companies money on storage space alone.

After digitizing their documents, the next step is for companies to index all the data and apply simple search tools for future retrieval. Setting up a document repository allows users to access and manipulate documents. In simple environments, a firm?s existing Windows directories can be used, while in more advanced firms, a dedicated database is used to serve a particular process.

At this point Wan expects the company to be ready to implement more document sharing functions and automated workflow.

Process automation

Ricoh?s Yim said, "document management encompasses the entire document lifecycle from creation, to formatting, storing, sharing and deletion."

Once companies achieve efficient storage and indexing of documents, they then need find ways to share that data to derive better use of their documents. Yim highlights the rising number of firms with China subsidiaries who all seek ways to share and access documents from a central repository. Savvy firms with mainland offices make digital records that stored in Hong Kong and shared via the Web or email, rather then sending physical documents. A shared system allows users to securely retrieve and access critical data.

Security can be applied in different ways to different documents. Access rights can be assigned, encryption can be added and documents can be locked to prevent changes being made.

"Many companies are looking to secure documents and secure communications," said Yim. "Security is now part of the document management requirements."

Another development is workflow management-seen as the next major trend within document management. Once data is indexed and stored efficiently, using document management systems to improve workflow and specific processes is where companies will see real return.

"Many users find it difficult to justify ROI for an archiving and retrieval system," said Yim, "as you need volume and scale to gain real return." A firm with only 50 people is unlikely to gain a huge return by having an electronic archive system, admitted Yim. However by identifying work processes which involve heavy document use, users can utilize workflow tools to help them better manage the flow of documents through each step of the process.

For example, a process requiring edits and changes by multiple parties can be improved by removing the manual aspects of passing a physical document between relevant parties. Steps can be automated and prompts for action can be implemented. So as a form is completed by a user, it can automatically be routed for checking and approval, then on to another for signing off. Version control on documents can also be applied more effectively to help reduce errors.

Horizontal data flow

According to Debby Chan, marketing director for Fuji Xerox, such systems are usually utilized by individual departments of companies or single businesses units addressing a specific process. She said that with larger enterprises, this is an area where further steps must be taken to deliver more benefit to the organization.

Many larger firms have implemented document management systems that automate workflow and help share information. However this often takes place within departments and specific processes. "Many (firms) deploy document management in silos and have not yet considered enterprise-wide implementations," said Chan. She added that this next step of creating enterprise-wide information sharing and collaboration requires driving from C-level executives who can drive adoption across departments.

Information and documents gathered by staff can also be further integrated into existing back-end databases such as CRM and ERP systems. "Enterprise-wide projects that link basic document management and sharing systems with company portals and intranets should happen, but rarely do in the market," added Chan.

Canon?s Wan said that, in the past, firms had to install client software, put in dedicated servers and consider bandwidth implications. Today most document management solutions use web interfaces and take up few network resources.

The key issue for businesses is to evaluate their current needs and what the ultimate objectives are, and fit the corresponding document solutions to those needs. But it?s clear that document management solutions today comprise much more than merely a printer/copier. The goal is to maximize the use of MFPs to capture and distribute data, narrowing the paper flow and improving productivity.