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The "paperless office" revisited.

Several years ago there was much talk about how the computer would result in the "paperless office." That phrase soon dropped out of favor as users learned that computers often spew out as much paper as they replace. Now, a new form of information technology promises to achieve the goal of the "paperless office." In many offices, electronic images may soon replace hard copies of handwritten forms and applications, text, signatures, pictures, x-rays, fingerprints and other documents.

Imaging systems allow users to electronically store, manage, retrieve, display, distribute and print images and associated data. Like the first data processing systems, earlier imaging systems often were based on costly mainframe computers and could generally be justified only in large production-type environments. Today, costs are dropping dramatically, as imaging systems are based on increasingly powerful, inexpensive personal computer (PC) workstations.

Some potential benefits offered by imaging systems include:

* reducing physical document storage space;

* allowing a document to be shared by different users simultaneously;

* reducing or eliminating time spent filing, searching for and retrieving documents;

* facilitating the off-site backup protection of vital records;

* reducing or eliminating misfiled or lost files;

* speeding the flow of documents which are processed by multiple people or work groups;

* providing tools for measuring paperwork processing productivity; and

* allowing work processes to be reengineered to increase productivity.

How Imaging Systems Work

The image management software is the heart of an imaging system allowing for the storage, manipulation and routing of the images. Image management software can reside on the imaging workstation, as well as the central image server. The server can be a PC, minicomputer or mainframe.

Images are first captured using scanners attached to workstations. Scanners may interface with optical character recognition (OCR) software which "reads" the contents of a document; however, OCR works most effectively when reading predefined document codes or key fields. Significant advances in OCR technology still are needed before systems can easily read all incoming text. At present, an OCR cannot be expected to read all handwritten or even typed text (e.g., a police officer's typed narrative could not be reliably scanned and searched using existing technology).

Imaging systems often are referred to as optical disk systems, because they usually include these disks to efficiently store large image files. Images also can be stored on traditional magnetic disks. Some systems store images on magnetic disk when the image needs to be accessed frequently, then move them to optical disk for archiving. Disks usually use WORM (Write Once Read Many) technology, although rewriteable disks are now available. Multiple disks may be stored on a mechanical "jukebox." Because of the mechanical process used to change disks, image access time may average 15 to 30 seconds, compared to 5 seconds or less for images stored on traditional magnetic drives.

A standard architecture for multi-user imaging systems is the use of a high-speed Local Area Network (LAN) to connect system components. The LAN provides greater band width than terminal-type connections and is more suitable for data intensive transfer of images. "Image enabled" workstations are PCs with high resolution display capabilities. While some vendors are able to use asynchronous communications and high-end terminals (such as X-Windows), this does not represent a standard approach. This means that older minicomputer and mainframe terminal networks will likely need to be replaced with LAN-based PC workstations as imaging is implemented.

Imaging systems often employ a fax gateway capability. This allows an image already in the system to be sent directly to another fax system or for an incoming fax to be entered directly to the imaging system. This streamlines the typical fax workflow, which is not integrated with standard information systems. The fax gateway approach is also an economical alternative for transmitting low volumes of images to remote locations. Exhibit 1 gives an example of an imaging system configuration.

Where to Use Imaging

Imaging systems can be employed in several different ways. The most basic approach is to consider the imaging system as an electronic file cabinet. Paper files and filing cabinets are replaced by image files stored in the computer. The emphasis is on archiving documents needed for a particular function, often by a small work group. This approach does not include integration with other work groups or information systems. Thus, costs are lower, although careful planning still is required.

A more comprehensive approach is to design an integrated system which automates the workflow of documents in a department or organization. Integration with existing data processing systems becomes an important consideration to avoid redundant data entry. This approach offers greater potential for achieving significant increases in office productivity than the electronic file cabinet and may avoid the proliferation of incompatible stand-alone systems. Programming is likely to be required to provide integration among systems. Ideally, the user of the imaging system would be able to display at his or her workstation traditional character data in one window and the associated document image or images in an adjacent window.

Some of the most common imaging applications that are being implemented in public-sector agencies include:

* ticket processing and court case management;

* city/county clerk records;

* community development document tracking;

* police and sheriff records, including mugshots; and

* material safety data sheets for fire departments.

Justification of Imaging Systems

As in any justification process, specific examples of cost avoidance, cost reduction and increases in productivity are the most effective arguments for new investment. The following are examples of areas to consider.

If microfilming is currently used, imaging could replace it and its associated costs for supplies, processing and personnel.

If significant staff resources and costs for phone calls are currently required to get back to callers with answers because the paper files were not accessible, cost reductions are very plausible.

Determine whether physical storage space is at full capacity or whether there are costs for storing records off-site. A "soft" approach to identifying the current cost of using paper file drawers is to determine the number of square feet of file drawers, multiplied by the current cost per square foot for office space.

Identifying improvements in productivity and service, over and above cost avoidance, requires careful analysis of work flow. Improvements that can be anticipated include more timely response to requests for information, increased workload capacity and higher quality of information for making decisions or responding to questions.

One study of imaging system implementations found:

* 25 to 50 percent increase in transaction volume per employee;

* 30 to 40 percent reduction of clerical staff;

* 50 to 80 percent reduction of storage space;

* 100 percent decrease in transaction times; and

* for private business, 2 percent increase in market share, 8 percent increase in repeat business and improved customer satisfaction scores.

While these results should be viewed cautiously, they do show the type of real results that information systems projects in the 1990s could provide.


As with any new, fast-moving technology, there are many questions which must be addressed in order to achieve a successful implementation. The following list represents some of the major issues that need to be addressed by agencies preparing to move into imaging.

* What applications are suitable for imaging in the organization?

* What is the priority of converting applications to imaging?

* How can existing information systems be leveraged to provide imaging capabilities?

* How can existing information systems be integrated with imaging systems?

* Does it make sense to add image capabilities to existing business processes, or should processes be redesigned?

* How much, if any, historical information should be converted?

* What risks are there and how can they be minimized?

* What vendors should be considered?

* How much will it all cost? (Includes onetime and recurring costs.)

As in all complex technological projects, careful planning is required to identify the anticipated results and ensure that they are achieved. Many users first perform feasibility studies, then implement pilot projects to test the system results before committing to a large work-flow project.

JOHN ARNSTEIN, a manager with The Warner Group, a management consulting firm located in Woodland Hills, California, has extensive experience developing long-range information systems plans, system selection, contract negotiation and implementation management projects for many local government agencies. He holds an MBA degree from U.C.L.A. with an emphasis in finance/marketing. This article is reprinted from MicroSoftware News with the permission of the International City/County Management Association.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Arnstein, John
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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