When two decades ago Xerox announced that by the year 2000, we would live in a paperless world, many sceptics doubted this statement. The sceptics were right. But are we doomed to deal with piles of paper forever? Will Garside reports.
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The concept behind the paperless office is sound. Essentially paper forms would be replaced by electronic equivalents and stored in huge, fully indexed databases. Where paper was used, it would be photographically scanned and smart software would turn the output into editable documents. In the paperless office, instead of documents being pushed around internal mail systems or via postal services, email would rule with high quality printers reconstituting the original documents from their electronic form when necessary.
"To some degree, we are seeing the fruits of this ideal now, with the growth and acceptance of email", says Nick Turner, marketing director of Mandoforms - a specialist in electronic forms. Turner adds: "Even now, many of the barriers that prevented a total switch over to electronic media are starting to be removed. With the electronic signature finally becoming law, many more documents can be electronically processed without the requirement of a secondary paper copy, a legacy of our archaic law."
But even if the paperless office can actually become a reality, what are the benefits for businesses?
"One of our customers, Alliance and Leicester, is using our electronic form software to create smart forms." states Turner, adding "If you consider a typical mortgage form will have over 100 different questions, the possibility of entering incorrect data is very high. As a legally binding document, even accidentally putting in the wrong information could be deemed as a attempted criminal act."
Mandoforms' developer tool has built-in validation software, which checks if the items like dates and amounts are structurally correct. The software will also alter a form depending on the person filling it out. "For example," explains Turner, "If you are filling out a car insurance form and you specify that you're over 65 and the sole user of the vehicle as the first couple of questions, any questions related to additional insured drivers or aimed at under 25 drivers would be removed from the form."
This type of smart form is on the increase. Alliance and Leicester alone has sent out over 40,000 forms this year and have reported high levels of user satisfaction. The main problem with forms is that someone normally has to read them to decide what action to take based on the content. However with technologies like XML, forms themselves can become smarter.
"By using XML, we can now make our Mandoforms almost intelligent. For example, if you filled in an expense request form, which claimed money from various departmental budgets, the form itself would be aware of which departmental finance systems it would need to transfer the relevant contents too. The form effectively delivers itself."
Mandoforms is still constantly developing many of the advanced functions for its system, and plans to incorporate XML next year.
The prime mover behind the paperless philosophy has always been Xerox. Though its approach is less evangelical than previously, it is still working toward the need to make all business communication - whether electronic or on paper - as efficient as possible.
Andy Muskett, a senior solution manager at Xerox, says "Maybe the totally paperless office is not a viable solution but we are helping several large corporate companies to use the Internet and document management technologies to help manage paper."
However, Xerox has not admitted defeat just yet. Considering that Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) had a hand in developing the photographic scanner, fax machine, Ethernet networking and the graphical user interface (some years before the advent of Windows), its track record is impressive. Xerox currently spends in excess of a billion dollars per year on R&D. With a large portion of this spending going towards document management solutions it is in a good position to speak about the future.
One project currently under development is to create "placeless documents", which are identified by content as opposed to location. These documents would fit nicely with prototype data interfaces more appropriate to their environment than computers (including electronic books and programmable 'data boards' instead of paper). The ultimate conclusion of this research could see documents that flow from person, to organisation and groups and adapt themselves to the device on which they are displayed.
Xerox is also working on making document management highly interactive. The Presto system is a prototype document management system providing what Xerox researchers term as "rich interaction" with documents. Essentially this allows documents to be sorted and ordered according to more user-specific document attributes, such as "Word file", "published paper", "shared with Jim", "about Presto" or "currently in progress". Recognising the multiple different roles that a single document might play, these attributes allow users to rapidly reorganise their document space for the task at hand.
The Presto system is still under development although some of the technology has been released for Xerox Workflo document management software, which allows the implementation of company-wide policies for managing the movement of documents between departments and individuals.
Another academic project known as "haystack" (as in 'needle in a...') has been occupying researchers at MIT for the last 2 years. It involves a method of indexing content, irrespective of location, and then learning from user searches to create a flexible indexing process. The fruits of haystack are starting to be seen in Internet search engines that can now index billion of web pages using more than just the meta tags.
Both these projects assume that paper documents are not going to be around in the distant future. But Robert Packington's advice for businesses that want to manage their growing paper mountain is simple: "Don't try and change everything overnight, take one department and work out what you want to achieve." As a director of Image Integrators Ltd, one of the UK's oldest document management companies, Packington has a long history working with both small business and large retail companies such as McVities and Bernard Matthews. "Many of the elements needed to both manage paper and electronic documents are often already within a business. What we provide is the glue to create a solution," he adds.
Most electronic documents already contain space for additional information required for a document management system. Microsoft Word documents for example can have a complex set of properties to define author, revision number, attachments and file links that can be used within a document management system. Many scanners already ship with OCR software while the majority of enterprise databases such as Oracle 8I and Microsoft SQL can quite happily index and manage whole documents as opposed to just text and numbers.
Packington is naturally enthusiastic about a total document management solution. "We have customers, such as Bernard Matthews, that have switched the majority of their paper invoices, POD, and delivery notes completely to an electronic equivalent but if you visit these companies you will still see quite a bit of paper on each person's desk. Essentially, they still print out paper, not out of necessity but for situations when it's more convenient then having to logon to the document management system - essentially the permanent version is always indexed on the system."
The idea of digitising paper and switching to electronic forms is perceived as expensive, and for the small business trying to gauge the value of a new system it is also difficult. "As an industry we need to be more accessible to smaller business and the Internet offers us a method of providing document management for a wider audience," claims Packington.
Image Integrator and several other document management companies are starting to offer ASP services to cater for both SME and larger enterprises. In the ASP model, the customer can rent all the scanning, software and communication equipment required to run a document management solution on a monthly basis. After document scanning or electronic form creation, documents are sent to the ASP's data centre via the Internet or leased line. Within the data centre, the company's documents are stored, indexed and served up on request. Each time a document is processed, a small payment of a few pence is deducted from the customer's account. This ASP model makes it very easy to discern the cost of the solution and provides a very scalable option for those testing the water of the paperless office.
But does Packington believe that even with the ASP option, the smart forms and the electronic signature, that the paperless office is ever achievable?
"Personally no," he admits. "Even though we are a document management company, my desk always has a few pieces of paper on it - correspondence and reports mostly. Paper is a great medium and although we may see less of it then before, the completely paperless office is defiantly a pipe dream."