Magazine Article | July 1, 2003

Shifting Forms: Drive New Returns With Existing Data Capture

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

An automated forms processing solution has cut your labor costs and increased process efficiency for your most commonly used forms. Are you going to settle for that?

Integrated Solutions, July 2003

Several years ago, my grandfather had a hip replacement. When asked how he felt a few months later, he would respond, "The hip feels great, but now my knee hurts." His doctors believe the knee always hurt, but the pain of the arthritic hip kept him from noticing. Organizations that implement forms processing often have the same experience. They embark on a project to address a specific pain point, and once it's alleviated, they begin to experience new pains they hadn't had time to focus on. Fortunately, a forms processing installation that is well planned from the beginning doesn't require major surgery to address ongoing needs.

"The key to a scalable forms processing installation is early involvement from everyone in the enterprise," says Stacey Mason, director of marketing at AnyDoc Software, Inc. (Tampa, FL). "There may be a number of people who can use the data once it's collected. Bring in all the departments and department heads, throw down a wish list, and let people say 'I would love to be able to ... .' Most importantly, involve the IT department at the very beginning." When the solution grows (and it will grow), the IT staff needs to understand how it is put together and will affect shared databases or other complementary processes.

You Got What You Want, Now Ask For More
No matter how thorough the needs analysis and other pre-implementation planning, new ways to further reduce labor, gather additional data, or gain a competitive advantage will present themselves. "Take a walk around your building and look at what is in people's inboxes," advises Mason. "There may be only small levels of forms such as time sheets or employee vacation request forms, but consider the people perspective. How many people are tied up processing those forms?" After all, what could be better than driving additional value from a purchase that has already been cost-justified?

Automating processing of even small volumes of forms can help address labor management issues. "Time cards, for example, aren't necessarily high volume," comments Mark Seamans, CTO and VP of business development at Cardiff Software, Inc. (San Diego). "A company goes all week with nothing and then everybody is in a panic. The pressure is the short amount of time." Businesses that experience peak volumes of documents can eliminate some of the issues involved with either overwhelming the existing staff or having to lay off people or hire temps.

Of course, any solution that focuses on reducing or eliminating labor creates fear on the part of many users. "Manual data entry workers have to buy into the improvements and be prepared for the change," advises Mason. "We worked with one service bureau processing HCFA [Health Care Financing Administration] forms that just wanted to automate to be more efficient, not necessarily reduce operators," she notes. "In fact, the operational improvement allowed the service bureau to accept more business, and an additional scanning station was actually added."

Jan Charvat, product line manager for Mitek Systems, Inc. (Poway, CA), agrees that for many companies increased productivity is the payoff, not reduced labor costs. "Many organizations don't capture all the data they'd like to have because they simply don't have the labor," he observes. "While this data isn't strictly necessary, it still gives value to the enterprise." For example, a company may be scanning checks for a financial application. In addition to capturing the vital information such as the amount, the system could also be set up to collect contact information printed at the top. The company then has addresses and phone numbers for marketing or other customer service applications.

Before rushing to gather every piece of information, however, it's important to realize that there are limits. Charvat points out that image quality, the type of text, and marks such as stamps can affect recognition rates. "Not all companies have the luxury of designing their own forms," adds Seamans. "But updating the designs can improve read rates."

Even if an organization isn't experiencing labor issues or other problems, simply accelerating processes can have financial advantages. "One healthcare customer had implemented a solution to capture data from patient charge sheets," says Seamans. "Eliminating the backlog of charge sheets at the nurses' station improved cash flow because the hospital got paid sooner."

Become A 24/7 Operation
Just because an organization has adopted an in-house forms processing solution doesn't mean the process has to take place on-site. Despite the fact that forms processing will greatly reduce or practically eliminate manual data entry, some applications still require human verification. Using the remote verification capabilities of a forms processing application, any necessary key verification can be routed to third party, offshore verifiers. Often located in countries where labor costs are much lower, these outsourcing services can process documents overnight and have the data ready for use in the morning. Remote verification capabilities are also suitable for companies with a business model that includes home workers.

Integrate To Improve Accuracy
Once a forms processing application has been adopted, organizations can use integration and programming expertise to improve the accuracy of data with less human intervention. "Business rules can be applied to fields to validate that information is correct," Mason points out. "The more applications you can interface to the better your success rate will be." Dictionary matching, Visual Basic scripting, and range checks can be applied to fields to ensure that the information is relevant. "In catalog applications, for instance, an item number, a catalog number, and a price are captured from the order form," says Seamans. "That process works better when integration with the back end system supports checking and validation of data before it is exported."

Simply ensuring the accuracy of the data isn't enough. There has to be a plan for what to do if the system finds a field that falls outside the acceptable range. "Think about how you're going to deal with these exceptions that hadn't existed before," advises Charvat. "If a document is mis-identified, the image quality is bad enough to require a rescan, or XY is not a state, what then?"

Though forms processing can address many of the issues plaguing an organization, it is not a panacea. Clearly articulate your goals and assess your capabilities prior to moving to the next level. "Before you move ahead, make sure you are comfortable with what you are doing right now," warns Charvat. "Don't hope that something more complex will work better."