Magazine Article | February 1, 2003

Can You Afford Not To Automate Forms Processing?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

As automated forms processing solutions become easier to implement and afford, organizations adopting that technology are realizing shorter payback periods.

Integrated Solutions, February 2003

Forms are crucial to enterprise business processes and expensive to process manually, but many organizations are concerned that the costs and challenges of a forms processing solution could outweigh the advantages. "When an organization is evaluating forms processing vendors, they have to look for products that reduce costs and lower their risk of failure," says Bob Fresneda, president of U.S. Operations for ReadSoft, Inc. (New Orleans). Advances in the technology can help organizations reduce labor for even the most challenging forms applications.

Reduce Implementation, Upgrade Costs
Aside from the cost of the software itself, factors such as prolonged implementation periods or the need for outside integrators can drive the price tag even higher. "The pressure is on the vendor to produce applications that can be up and running with less programming time," says Fresneda. "If you choose a product with a validation wizard or a GUI [graphical user interface], you can add applications that would normally require lots of programming and coding of 'what if' statements in far less time. The more of that you can do in-house, the less likely it is that you'll need to call in an outside integrator and pay for their professional services."

Like many document imaging solutions, a forms processing application has a tendency to grow beyond the scope of the original installation. Once it has proven successful for one kind of form, it just makes sense to get the same advantages for other forms. As a result, the costs of scaling a solution should be factored in to the initial decision to buy. "A good product has to have the flexibility to add new applications without having to add excessive additional costs," says Fresneda. "It's important to find a vendor who's willing to talk to you even if you only want to do a pilot. Some vendors can only handle small projects, and others only want to go after big ones. Companies need a forms processing vendor with the resources and the willingness to let you start small and then grow."

"Users are also seeing the benefits of working with a single capture platform," says Reynolds Bish, president and CEO of Captiva Software Corp. (San Diego). "By standardizing on products and solutions, an enterprise has one investment that can be scaled rather than a set of components they or a systems integrator cobble together." Not only does integration potentially add to the cost, it also increases the risk of failure due to interoperability issues, possibly lengthening the payback period.

Your road map for forms processing technology must also address where your documents will come from in the future. As more organizations begin to accept data from sources such as e-mail or e-forms, there has to be a strategy for incorporating that data into the system. For instance, if an organization is currently accepting credit application forms that may one day be offered on its Web site, a paper-based forms product may have to be scrapped.

Increase Accuracy, Reduce Labor
The main reason for implementing a forms processing solution is to reduce the cost of labor associated with manual data entry. However, that strategy only works if it combines automation with accuracy; otherwise there will be unanticipated labor costs. "A lot of times people don't realize that accuracy isn't always what it should be," says Jim Terry, director of Total Recognition Services at Parascript, LLC (Niwot, CO). "Ask how a vendor is defining accuracy. For instance, if you have 100 phone numbers and an accuracy rate of 90%, does that mean that 10% of the characters could be bad or 10% of the fields? It's most effective to compare on a field basis and then validate that by running side-by-side comparisons using your own documents with current or potential systems."

A user may focus solely on the gains to be realized by automating the capture and overlook the costs of verification, fixing exceptions, and manual data entry for invalid fields. "When people identify the cost of processing a form, they consistently underestimate. They work out the cost of the keyer and how many strokes, but they always leave out other costs like overhead and errors," adds Terry. "Humans have a capacity for pattern recognition that machines just don't have, but when it comes to data, they are far more likely than a machine to make a mistake, especially when it's an alphanumeric source code that a person can't know is correct."

Post-processing using VB (Visual Basic) script can take some of the labor and accuracy concerns out of some forms processing applications. Terry cites the example of a form that asked respondents to provide the name of a college. Perhaps the piece of information needed is actually a code associated with that college. If a solution simply uses OCR (optical character recognition) to capture the field, a key verifier would still have to look at each form and provide the correct number, possibly keying it in incorrectly. Instead, the application could automatically match the number and apply it to the appropriate database.

Choosing solutions that incorporate image quality into the forms capture process can also reduce the amount of labor necessary by improving recognition rates. "We have an ROI calculator which suggests that if a customer has a 150 ppm [page per minute] scanner running constantly, improved recognition technologies like threshholding reduce the number of rescans and improve OCR rates," says Don Jones, VP of sales for TMSSequoia, Inc. (Stillwater, OK). "Over the course of a month, the improvement could reduce FTE [full-time employee] head count by as much as three, depending on the scenario."

Sometimes forms processing inaccuracies are the result of an overwhelming volume of form types. "A credit card form, for example, could have five different variations and create difficulty finding the field you're after," says Terry. "They could be manually sorted, but there may be batching requirements that prevent that [e.g. all have to be processed by store]. We've seen situations where an organization is using OCR to capture data and still manually keying because the system can't identify the form." Having to collect separate forms into batches for scanning and possibly include slip sheets between the various types further increases the labor costs associated with forms processing.

"The coming together of semi-structured and template-based forms processing technologies will speed processing and cut costs," says Jones. Semi-structured forms are those that, unlike a Word document, have fields that identify them as forms, but the information placement may vary from one to another. Template-based forms processing depends on the information being at the exact same location in all cases. "When you have the ability to compare document images based on content with thousands of templates, you can bring in one never seen by the system and set it up rather quickly," says Elspeth Bloodgood, product marketing manager at TMSSequoia.

A successful forms processing project involves much more than OCR. If you don't consider the complementary technologies and future strategy of your organization, you're risking more than a failed implementation.