Magazine Article | March 1, 2005

Clamp Down On Data

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The "virtual mailroom" may be a heady concept for future consideration. That doesn't mean you can't benefit from the technology right away.

Integrated Solutions, March 2005
When you strip away all the flowery marketing descriptions, most IT implementations center on managing data more effectively. And that typically falls into two categories: capturing data into enterprise systems and, subsequently, providing access to that data. The unspoken element is speed - both the capture and the access have to happen quickly and flawlessly.

In this environment, the advancements in unstructured forms processing solutions should gain the attention of enterprise IT buyers. Companies have handled unstructured forms (e.g. credit card applications, loan applications, subscription cards) for years in an automated fashion. Since all the forms are identical in structure, it's a pretty straightforward process to use OCR (optical character recognition) and ICR (intelligent character recognition) to recognize and extract data from these documents. Then, of course, you still have to worry about unstructured forms, which account for the majority of the paper your enterprise handles. Invoices, warranty and insurance claims, and checks pour into your offices. In each case, these documents are processed manually - employees extract data from the documents and input it into enterprise systems. There goes the quick and flawless part of data capture.

AUTOMATION FREES UP HUMAN ASSETS
The hype surrounding unstructured forms processing has long exceeded the practical application of the technology. There's long been talk of this technology driving "virtual mailrooms" which would serve as a clearinghouse for all documents that flow into a company. Mail is opened, documents are placed in high-speed scanners, key data is extracted, and actions are taken automatically, ranging from routing a press release to the marketing department to processing payment on an invoice. Human handling is greatly reduced, and extracted data serves to archive the documents.

The concept of the virtual mailroom may still be reserved for hypothetical discussions. But, there are portions of this concept that can be acted on today. Processing invoices, for instance, doesn't have to be the labor-intensive process that currently exists. Right now, employees spend their days pulling invoices from stacks of mail and then manually inputting pertinent data into the accounts payable system. While they may process hundreds of different invoices, almost all have a similar structure. Logos are imprinted on many invoices and word like "Invoice" and "Total" are found in common locations. Understanding these similarities is the key to unstructured forms processing. The software allows companies to scan stacks of invoices. The ACME invoice is automatically recognized along with the amount due. This is extracted and reconciled with information residing in the accounts payable system. And, voila, the invoice is processed without human intervention.

Forms processing is not perfect. You may be able to redeploy most of the human resources around your current invoice processing setup. But, you'll still need human intervention to check quality control and do some verification of data when needed. After all, you're going to have to process invoices that don't follow any of the common design principles. In the end, however, it's a small price to pay. You'll be freeing up employees to focus on your company's core competency, which is not processing invoices. Even though, at times, that seems to be the case.

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