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Capture, Index, Access – The Paperless Office Provides Centralized Intelligence For Small Businesses

Every business, regardless of its size, needs to have a solid understanding of its customers and business-related documents in order to make good decisions. Unfortunately, business owners don’t have a central intelligence agency to provide insightful advice or enable management to make proactive, informed decisions. However, small businesses can have access to their own version of a well-informed “CIA” that does the work of intelligent search and retrieval behind the scenes, provides them with real-time information, and helps them to succeed. Capture, Indexing, and Access give a company’s pre-designated individuals and groups the right to access, view, annotate, and/or act upon all of an organization’s mission critical business information that is needed to perform tasks accurately and efficiently. It helps staff to maximize productivity, and ensures that each person’s skills are used wisely rather than for the endless paper chase.
Ready access to information becomes the springboard to enhanced customer services, greater efficiency, and better decision making. This article explains these and other fundamental business benefits of electronic document management. It introduces four distinctly different methods (scanning, fax/email management, online forms, and adding bar codes to forms) to help businesses gain control over their paper and information. Finally, it provides several tips to maximize the value of the easy, yet secure access that a well-conceived, Web-based electronic document management (EDM) system provides.

Fundamental benefits of electronic document management

Capturing and centralizing business information
In order for any organization’s staff to be effective, information needs to be accurate, detailed, complete, timely, and easy for the right people to access. In a paper-based system, this can be difficult. Even in a small office, each person has specific duties, and may handle separate document types. Some may require information from specific forms that differs from the needs of other colleagues. Useful information may be trapped in a staff member’s software application, unknown to others who need it. Some information may be trapped in documents that are stored off site; files may be housed briefly in someone’s office or in transit; or pages from a document may be inadvertently placed into the wrong file, or even lost. Files temporarily pulled from storage by one member of staff may result in data needlessly being recreated or recollected by someone else who needs it, wasting time and creating the possibility of errors or redundancy. The level of thoroughness on standard forms that are completed by staff or customers may vary greatly, resulting in insufficient or incomplete information. This can result in unnecessary follow-up calls, mail, or email as missing information is chased and then added to the appropriate file.
A document management system puts flexibility and control into the hands of the company that deploys it. Regardless of whether data comes from postal mail, email, photos, voice messages, or other formats, an EDM system enables a business to centralize all of its information in one place. It allows a company’s designees to specify which information is imperative, which data needs to be searchable, the format in which it needs to be entered to achieve the desired data consistency, how it needs to be categorized, and much more. Rather than having to search paper files for historical documents, perform queries in an accounting or other software system, dig through boxes of photos, or listen to archived voice mails, everything is available digitally to those who are granted access.
An EDM system also increases efficiency by allowing data that is common to multiple forms, and which would normally be rekeyed upon the receipt of each form (such as document numbers or customer names), to pre-fill fields automatically based on specified information such as customer IDs. This eliminates time consuming and unnecessary manual data entry, reducing both redundancy and errors. Staff productivity and services improve, and the headaches of regulatory compliance and audits are removed. Management gets the real-time information it needs to make better decisions.

Indexing data for easy retrieval
Capturing information electronically has little value to a company unless staff can locate what they need efficiently. Thorough indexing, as well as knowledge of the terms on which diverse staff search for the data, is vital. Customer IDs, policy numbers, contact information, document type, and receipt date are some typical examples of searchable fields, but any field can be configured for efficient search. The nature of your business will dictate what is logical for you.
Indexing and electronic search dramatically expedite data retrieval and processing. Some typical benefits include:
Queries of the EDM database enable staff to view new applications, forms, and other documents and transactions on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis based on the date and time of receipt.
Payroll staff can view employee and subcontractor payments that are due based on contractual information and pull the data from a due date field directly into their accounting system for action.
HR staff can review expiring contracts by simply querying the EDM software by date, ensuring that deadlines are met and actions are taken promptly. Anniversaries of hire can be queried to prompt timely reviews of performance and cost-of-living or other pay adjustments.
Management can query the document management system by date to ensure that service level agreements and other important deadlines are met. The software can return a list of items to the appropriate staff member that require action.
Not only must you take into consideration the types of information each worker will need, but also how each of them needs to search for it. Indexing with too little detail can result in searches that produce unsatisfactory returns of data. If someone on staff will need to search for documents by their due dates, then that information must be indexed when the document is entered into the electronic storage system. If a member of the HR staff will need to pull documents by staff members’ date of employment, the hire date must be indexed for search. Soliciting the input of all types of workers is critical to providing a complete and accurate picture of information that is stored.
Indexing with too much information – more detail than a company will ever need – can be equally problematic. Just as indexing each recipe in a cookbook by every ingredient within it would be far too cumbersome to be practical, indexing with too much detail can result in frustrating system slowdowns. Each organization should aim to index thoroughly all of the information the business needs – no more, and no less.

Accessing what you need, when you need it
One of the greatest benefits of Web-based electronic storage is the ability to search for information wherever you are, and whenever you want it. Whether you are on an extended business trip or working from home, your virtual office keeps you informed and lets you keep vital projects moving. Instead of having to return to the office to pull files manually, intelligent electronic search delivers a ‘hit list’ of all documents and files that meet the stated conditions. If, for example, you are searching for all customer policies that were created in the last six months that have a transaction value over a specified amount and specific supporting documentation, you would receive a list with all of the requested files within seconds. No more digging for information. No more asking if anyone has a file. Your hands are always just a few mouse clicks away from whatever you need.

Four methods for gaining control over paper and information
Nearly all businesses struggle to organize incoming mail, email, invoices, contracts, and customer requests for information. Easy access to a company’s existing marketing, product, and other research can be difficult to provide in a paper system, where content is easily buried and forgotten. Items like employee and subcontractor payroll, pending contracts and renewals, and court subpoenas require action, but deadlines can be overlooked or missed. Compliance with regulations and audits is difficult to prove in a paper system, where a detailed trail of who has accessed each file, when, and under which conditions is nearly impossible to provide. Penalties for lack of compliance can be grave enough to put a company out of business, making electronic storage and access not only a more efficient choice than paper, but also a logical, and even necessary, move.
The influx of existing and incoming data can make an employee who is frantically searching for information feel like he is guiding a rudderless ship through an endless sea. Information that is needed might be stored on standardized forms, post-its, pictures, in letters, drawings, faxes, emails, and even voice messages, making it nearly impossible to gain managerial oversight. Materials may get unintentionally stuck to the wrong forms, or they might be misplaced, lost, or simply inaccessible. Furthermore, critical customer communications may be trapped within a staff member’s email and may be unreachable for the person who needs it.
Document capture is the key to getting all of your business-critical information from diverse sources into one location that is searchable. The best method to capture your data depends on the sources of information as well as the manner in which you interact with your customers and obtain information from them. Four basic methods from which small businesses benefit most are outlined below.

1. Controlling everyday paper flow: scanning
Gaining easy and secure access to incoming information is a huge challenge for many businesses. Locking down sensitive documents, yet ensuring that pertinent data is available to those who need it, can be difficult. Scanning papers as they are received and converting them to digital storage provides real-time access to information as soon as it is received. Furthermore, scanning software integrated with a good EDM system allows management to ensure security of sensitive information. Management can predetermine which forms, and even which information on each type of form, should be available to which members of staff, in accordance with their company’s document management policies.
Archived documents present additional challenges that can also be addressed effectively by scanning. As an organization grows, older files may be moved off site, making access inconvenient. Scanning and indexing back files enables staff to retrieve less frequently needed information from the convenience of their desktops, laptops, and other hand-held devices. Furthermore, scanning and electronic backups proactively address the risks of file damage, destruction, or inaccessibility if a disaster or other unforeseen circumstance arises, and the process of creating backups is less expensive and more efficient than in a paperbased system.
Although network, centralized, and departmental scanning are all valid options for any business, a small company is likely to benefit most from desktop scanning of routine documents. This puts the control of the scanning process into the hands of the user, standardizing and expediting the capture of routine data and making information available instantly to those who are preauthorized to view it. A receptionist in a small medical or claims office, a worker in a financial aid department, an administrator in a school, an assigned staff assistant in a small law firm, and even customers are examples of people who use desktop scanning. Regardless of who does the scanning, the entire company benefits from quicker and better access to information.
When a business makes the decision to store paper electronically, it is important to specify a period of time for which documents will be scanned (such as the last three years, as well as incoming documents). After the most urgently or frequently needed files have been scanned, back files should be added. Without historical files, companies lose their oversight of customer history and other transactions that are invaluable to making informed decisions and providing good and consistent service.

2. Capturing elusive information: fax and email management
Email communications contain some of a business’s most valuable information, but the information stored in them is generally only available to the specified individual, and trapped within that individual’s personal email storage system. Employee turnover, illness, vacations, poorly performing employees, and other situations can result in staff needing to re-contact people for information that is already in the company “somewhere”, but inaccessible. A document management system with the capability of storing and searching emails does not replace an email management application; rather, it provides centralized intelligence from email communications, making the information searchable by those who have been authorized to access content.
Storing faxes is not unlike storing other paper documents, but there are additional challenges. Members of staff may not be immediately aware of documents that have been received, and may thus make decisions or provide service based on old or incomplete information. In addition, there may be missing or overlapping pages, requiring manual follow-up. Periodically a company may receive notification that a fax was not received at all. If the paper source is depleted, the “fax not received” message may not reach the recipient, and the sender may remain a mystery. A document management system has the ability to capture faxes electronically, eliminating paper and ink, verifying that every page of a fax has been received, and making the content immediately available to everyone who needs it. Storing faxes and email in a document management system ensures that an organization has access to all of its business information, not just the electronically stored paper documents.

3. Eliminating paper at the source: online forms
After back files have been scanned into the EDM solution, the volume of paperwork can be further reduced by introducing electronic, Web-based forms that are accessible via your company’s secure portal. In addition to eliminating paper at the source by creating the information electronically, Web-based forms enable you to demand information consistency (similar to mandating date formats) as well as completion, facilitating and ensuring successful search results. In many cases, online forms result in people providing information more quickly (from the convenience of their desktops at work or at home) rather than waiting until they have time to mail documents or stop by your office. Although electronic forms may not be an option for every customer or for every type of information, customers will appreciate having a convenient choice. Paper production, ink, and toner costs will decrease, too, helping to keep expenses in check.

4. Managing outgoing documents that will be returned: bar code recognition
As a small business grows, so does the volume of incoming and outgoing documents. Although some industries mandate that certain materials must be sent in paper form rather than electronically, a company can still reduce data redundancy, expedite processing, and increase efficiency with the addition of bar codes to their outgoing paper documents. Companies with high volumes of routine document types (such as applications, loans, or claims) can benefit by adding bar codes with encrypted customer data and other pertinent information to their outgoing mail. As documents are returned to the office and the bar codes are scanned, the specified data encrypted within the bar codes can be stored electronically and the incoming paperwork can be matched to the correct electronic files quickly. This eliminates the need to re-enter customer contact and other basic information as forms re-enter the office, as well as searching for related files that need to be stored together, lessening the chance for errors and reducing processing times.
Maximizing the value of information access: more than just finding documents
Ready access to corporate information goes far beyond being able to query a system for the data you need. Some of the additional benefits include:
Quicker processing: By storing all of your documents digitally, you can email them to their intended destination rather than relying on traditional mail. This expedites processing and eliminates shipping costs, while leaving a transaction audit trail that is unquestionably clearer than paper or faxes allow.
Better service: Electronically capturing, indexing, and accessing information will help your staff to provide better service and more accurate, up-to-date information to your customers and other constituents.
Managerial oversight of productivity: EDM helps managers to gain a better overview of work volumes and productivity. Reports can be generated to show how many documents have entered the system in a specified time period, or how many transactions have been handled by a specific person, and staff adjustments can be made.
Real-time business analysis: An EDM system can be queried to show transaction amounts above a specified monetary value, specific types of transactions or purchases, or any other information that is important for management to make informed decisions.
Easier compliance with regulations and audits: Auditors can electronically view specific files, types of files, who accessed them, when, etc., making the audit and electronic discovery process significantly easier and faster.

Summary
Small businesses don’t have to make a large investment in multiple technologies in order to gain control over their information and managerial insight that helps them to make good decisions. By complementing the information they already have stored in diverse media with the fundamentals of an electronic document management system, they can leverage the information they already have and make it far more accessible and useful to those who need it. EDM gives businesses their own internal central intelligence agency, using electronic capture, indexing, and access to provide real-time information. It enables management to make proactive, informed decisions that help them to remain competitive. Electronic document management puts a rudder under your ship, delivering the centralized intelligence that you need to navigate the seemingly endless sea of information and reach your business goals.

Laurel Sanders
Director of Public Relations and Communications

Laurel Sanders joined OIT as the Director of Marketing in August, 2004 and was named Director of Public Relations and Communications in January of 2008. She previously served as the executive director of The Muse Machine in Dayton, Ohio, where she was also a consultant in the planning and launching of a collaborative arts education program in Beaufort, South Carolina based on the Dayton model. Laurel was the development director for Dayton Opera and subsequently taught music and English in Germany. She holds a Masters in Arts Administration from the University of Cincinnati; a Bachelor’s in Voice, magna cum laude from Ithaca College and the London Centre in England; and pursued business studies at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio as well as vocal studies at the Hindemith School in Switzerland. She chairs public relations for the State College Downtown Rotary Club, assists with communications for the United Way, and is a member of the board of trustees for the Junior Baroque Music Festival in State College. Laurel is a published writer and is fluent in German.
Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Laurel_Sanders

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