A few years ago, before the World Wide Web brought to computing what Henry Ford brought to the motor car, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates outlined his vision of computing which he called "information at your fingertips".
The vision prophesied how users would be able to access almost any information directly from a variety of computing devices including their desktop PCs, hence information at your fingertips. With hindsight, Gates' vision, whether by design or accident, has become a blueprint of how we use the Internet.
"We are crossing a technology threshold that will forever change the way we learn, work, socialise and shop," said Gates in a keynote speech at Comdex Fall in November 1994. "It will affect all of us and businesses of every type in ways far more pervasive than most people recognise."
If the chaos that has arisen from the explosive growth of the Internet is anything to go by, information at your fingertips is useless without effective management. Users quickly become bogged down when presented with too much data. The consequence is information overload.
Another issue is document creation. Large documents often have several authors and word processors tend to lack the sophisticated change management facilities for tracking multiple changes to a document. In its most empirical form, document management is a clever way of storing and organising information in a company. On top of this is a host of features for checking documents in and out of the system and recording changes and who made them.
Generally speaking, information is held in any number of different formats.
Customer data from the accountancy or payroll department would be held in a structured, tabular form but there is a whole raft of other information which is unstructured. Such information includes letters and faxes received from customers, pictures, catalogues, Word and AutoCad files. A document management system acts as a repository for all of this information.
Most document management systems include some kind of optical character recognition (OCR) software for converting scanned images, letters, forms and faxes into raw text files which can be indexed and searched. According to Colin Blount, technical manager at Xerox Imaging Systems, OCR software has evolved to the point where the majority of scanned documents can be converted. "The only documents that cannot do (OCR) today are hand-written ones," he says.
But success really depends on how the document comes into the company.
Faxes, for instance, vary in quality immensely. OCR software can have trouble reading cheap, thermal paper faxes. But crisp, laser printed ones should present little problem.
Blount believes it is entirely possible for a company to convert all its paper documents today into an electronic format. He adds that 100% accuracy is not always necessary because some search engines which use fuzzy logic can cope with misspellings. "With fuzzy logic (users) can search for incomplete phrases and selections of words, which compensates for inaccuracies in the OCR conversion," says Blount.
Typically in a document management system, both the scanned image of the document and the textural converted version are stored. Blount believes that in the future, fuzzy logic search engines could be combined with on-demand OCR software so that scanned documents can be searched directly.
A recent trend is combining workflow with document management. Karen Shegdra, senior analyst at Datapro, predicts: "Today, Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise include document management features. In the future document management will become the middleware which sits above groupware." Shegdra adds that the document management market is changing and companies need to support Lotus Notes.
Some people see there is still a lot of confusion over what constitutes document management. "The problem is that the first wave (of document management systems) were actually archiving systems," says Deibert Joerg, European marketing manager at document and workflow management software supplier NovaSoft. Joerg says that a distinction needs to be made between "live" and "dead" documents that, once generated, are read once or twice and never looked at again. An example of a "dead" document is a bank statement which is often only read once and then filed. "Live documents are touched by many individuals," explains Joerg.
This is where workflow plays a part. Joerg says that in a live document it is necessary to check and validate ideas and ensure that the document conforms to corporate rules. For critical application areas, there is often a tight lock between document management and workflow.
"In situations such as attaining ISO 9000 quality assurance certification or compliance with Federal and Drug Administration laws, workflow is necessary in order to maintain a list of all amendments to a document," says Joerg.
"It is important not to see document management as an end in itself," says Nick Kingsbury, international marketing director at Staffware. "Companies need to focus on work processes." Kingsbury says that workflow can help because it can be used to automate tasks from one person to another.
Document management has traditionally been seen as expensive because it was based on proprietary software. But costs are tumbling down as companies use commodity, off-the-shelf software. An example is the Eastman Software division of Kodak which has created a document management system based on the Microsoft BackOffice platform.
Colin Barnes, director of Eastman Software for UK and Ireland, says that by using BackOffice, technical staff in a company implementing document management can use familiar tools. "By using BackOffice, the cost of setting up the infrastructure for implementing a document management system is lower," says Barnes.
Another benefit is training. Barnes adds: "Users can work in a familiar (Windows) environment."
Increasingly, document management companies are turning to the web to cut the cost of their systems. With Internet-enabled software end-user companies can rollout document management systems that can be accessed from a web browser. This reduces costs because it is not necessary to purchase a site licence for proprietary document management client software, since the web browser acts as the client. Web browsers also have the advantage of being cross-platform, so users do not have to worry about whether they are running PCs, Macs or other client platforms.
Internet-enabled document management systems also provide users with remote access to servers regardless of where the server is physically located. This makes it possible to deploy document management systems globally using the Internet.
"Too many people have traditionally been frightened off by huge systems," says Peter Meehan, VP of Europe, Middle East and Africa, of IntraNet Solutions.
He says that a typical document management system costs upwards of #50,000.
"The world is getting fed up of huge, complex systems which are supposed to be enterprise-wide but have failed."
IntraNet Solutions takes the approach of cutting out some of the complex features in traditional systems and offering a lower cost alternative which combines web authoring with document management. For example, to reduce cost and complexity, the company's Intra.doc! system does not offer workflow features. It also does away with the need for a relational database, as is necessary in traditional systems. Instead, Intra.doc! stores documents in Adobe Acrobat PDF format where it can be viewed in either Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator using a freely available plug-in.
Instead of a relational database engine, IntraNet Solution uses the Verity 97 search engine to search the content of the PDF files. Meehan says that he is able to reduce costs further because there is no need to license RDBMS client software. IntraNet's Intra.doc! system costs #19,950 for an unlimited user licence and uses Microsoft Internet Information Server running on a Windows NT Server.
Clearly the future of document management lies with the web. Using freely available web browsers, cuts costs since users do not have to purchase proprietary document management software for their client PCs. This also applies to database client software. Using Internet search engines can help keep client side licensing to a minimum. Companies do not have to buy a relational database and client licences for each machine that needs to access the document management system.
The web can also benefit from some of the practices of document management, particularly in terms of tracing changes to web documents.
Banking on an intranet-based service
As part of its intranet-based Channel 1 customer service project, Swedish bank, Spar-banken Sverige is using Staffware's Global thin client workflow software in order to enhance service and response levels for its 4.5 million customers.
The primary objective behind Channel 1 is to ensure that all 11,500 staff gain access to all relevant sources of information by creating a single common way to search and retrieve information. In so doing it is hoping to increase each individual's initiative and improve employee interaction throughout the company.
The Channel 1 project is a combination of Staffware Global integrated with Email, multimedia and a conferencing facility to provide a single source for all information required by Sparbanken's staff. The decision to use a corporate-wide intranet was seen as a way of presenting uses (both customers and employees) with a familiar, user-friendly, non technical solution.
The first phase of the Channel 1 strategy is focused on delivering information to the bank's staff. The Staffware-driven intranet application was designed to handle purchasing and authorisation of all items and services across the company, from office equipment through to computer systems.
With 1,000 locations and 11,500 staff, the bank was initially faced with the problem of implementing the new system. In the early stages, an underground project team was appointed to investigate emerging technologies. During their investigations the team realised the potential of the new intranet and Internet technologies, and recommended that the organisation adopt intranet technologies as a corporate wide strategy. This in turn led the team to Staffware Global as the only intranet-based workflow solution.
The attraction to the bank of Staffware Global was that all users needed on their PCs was a web browser. With much of the functionality residing on the Staffware Workflow server, there is no need to worry about the disk and memory requirements for each desktop application, or to load new software while updated software does not need to be copied onto local servers and PCs.
Running in a Sun Unix environment with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer web browsers fronting the application, Staffware Workflow has been adopted on an enterprise-wide scale, routing information across the Sparbanken intranet as appropriate.
Initially the Staffware Global system is being used by 1,600 users for all purchasing procedures. It is intended that the application will be used by all of Sparbanken Sverige's staff at branches across Sweden in the medium term. Ultimately the use of Staffware will be extended to include all administrative procedures.
As Sparbanken Sverige's project manager, Goran Lustig states: "The Channel 1 project will bring significant benefits including improved internal controls and administrative efficiency. Most importantly it will help to achieve very high levels of customer service ... and help Sparbanken stand out from the competition."
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