Why the scanning industry must turn to the cloud

The document scanning industry must embrace the cloud or be left behind according to industry insider Harvey Spencer.

Speaking to a large gathering of solution providers and scanner sellers at this year's Fujitsu Imaging Channel Conference in Monte Carlo, the man behind Harvey Spencer Associates - which has been analysing the document scanner industry for more than two decades - told delegates that they should "ride the wave" of changes to the way we all deal with paperwork.

It has become clear in the past decade that the paperless office is - and probably always will be - a myth. Although an increasing number of the millions documents we create every day will never see a piece of paper, the world still produces a mountain of made-from-trees documents, and managing that mountain becomes simpler on a daily basis as new technology is introduced.

Scanners that can intelligently digitise huge stacks of documents in minutes with minimal human intervention are now commonplace in even small offices, but the next stage is to move storage and access into the cloud.

Many people see the cloud as just another word for Software as a Service (SaaS), or a way of using the Internet as an almost unlimited storage and access space for digital assets - but Spencer claims it is much more.

"It empowers the individual knowledge worker or corporation to work more efficiently and with more resources wherever they are located," he said. It means that a company can free up some of the 80 per cent that IT is typically spending on maintenance to drive more innovation. "It means that systems can be more interactive and understanding of customers."

Spencer says the cloud technologies enabled by the Internet have the potential to create seismic changes in the world of computing.

"Electronics, which affect more and more of our total economy, cause an ever-increasing speed of doing business. We expect and demand immediacy in our customer relations, but there is still a huge paper residue and we will continue to have paper involved in business for the foreseeable future," says Spencer.

"The fact is, the value of any business document is higher if the user can process and understand it very quickly. This helps to reduce risk, make decisions more quickly and be more competitive while gaining good will. To do this you have to be able to understand a document and its content as quickly as possible, preferably in seconds."

Spencer's company tracks and forecasts the need for capture solutions - which automatically turn paper and images into human-readable business information - and predicts that the scanning industry is set to grow in double digits, at least for the next several years.

"I find that vertical markets that purchase capture solutions are somewhat different from traditional ECM (Enterprise Content Management) purchasers," he said. "Although financial services, government and insurance are important buyers of capture, manufacturing is also a major buyer, despite not being a paper-intensive industry."

And the reason why manufacturing concerns are such big users of scanning technology ultimately boils down to invoicing.

"The companies who are the most automated electronically are the ones who are working in just-in-time manufacturing. Paper is a drag on the company, and the immediate response is to convert to electronics. Invoice processing makes paper invoices act like electronics."

Historically, scanning has been a departmental operation in large companies - purchased locally and installed locally. Each department within a company is likely to have installed its own systems which rely on transporting documents for centralised scanning. Even those companies which have installed enterprise-wide ECM systems more often than not silo document capture and indexing on a departmental basis.

But Spencer says this is starting to change under a few different influences. Mail room scanning, optical character recognition (OCR) in multiple languages, automated database integration, increased bandwidth and skyrocketing transportation costs have all paid their part.

"All this is happening while the velocity needs of business are continuously increasing. We don't have time to move paper any more," says Spencer. "We don't have time to look at pages and decide who needs to see them. We have to automate this."

And Spencer says the way forward is what he calls enterprise capture.

"Basic Enterprise capture with distributed scanning solves several problems, he says. "You don't have to pay for expensive movement of paper for centralised scanning, risk is reduced as management controls can be placed on the paper as soon as it is scanned, the cost of preparing documents for scanning is much reduced, and maintenance and operational costs are reduced."

Many US banks, for example, are cutting massive courier costs, reducing risk and increasing business velocity. "I'm surprised that this has not been adopted earlier in Europe as transport is so expensive, says Spencer, "But this could be down the the shorter distances involved and the number of different types of documents - over 80 classifications is common ."

Spencer believes that revolutionary changes in the way we deal with documents through technology are on the horizon.

"The next wave is to move the understanding of paper documents - the meta-data, the contents of the documents - to the point of entry. The point of scanning. Companies need to jump onto this next wave which leverages cloud technologies before it buries them."

Although many industries can benefit from automated scanning technologies, Spencer uses banking as a prime example.

"A customer who wants to apply for a loan brings all of the documentation needed to support the loan: wage statements, lists of assets, tax returns and other bank statements. When he meets the loan officer, he hands over the documents which are put into the scanner's feeder. The scanner knows that the officer is working on a loan, so it also knows that the documents to be scanned are support documents. The software validates all of the documents and flags any exceptions - all while the customer is there. This is cloud computing in action."

In the near future, according to Spencer, centralised mail-rooms in large corporations will use high-speed scanners; smaller outfits will use low-volume desktop scanners; and remote workers and road warriors will use mobile scanners - or even their smartphones - to get paper-based documents into the cloud.

"We are living in a faster and more complex global economy. Technology and the cloud bring some huge opportunities... but they also bring risk and change. We all need to embrace and ride the wave of these changes."