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Sea of paper

Sea of paper

Tsai Lun is not really one of the best remembered people in history. Yet the American historian Michael Hart in his book, The 100 Most Influential Persons in History, placed Tsai Lun as the sixth most influential person of all time.

The only Chinese person who rated higher than Tsai Lun was Confucius. The others ahead of him were Mohammed, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Tsai Lun achieved this elevated status because he invented paper. Hart argues that paper was a fundamental invention for the development of human knowledge and education.

Nevertheless, his legacy does present many IT managers with a major challenge.

Recent research in the US showed that the number of documents stored by US businesses grew between 1989 and 1994 from 324 billion to 806 billion. For many organisations this growth poses many significant difficulties. Where will this data be stored? How can information be retrieved? How can it be protected from damage or fire? How and when should it be culled?While the old promise of the paperless office has been dismissed as about as likely as the paperless toilet, many IT managers have looked to technology to try and address these issues. In particular the potential of imaging and workflow to manage the paper burden is being explored by a growing number of companies. IDC's "Forecast for Management" survey revealed that in 1993 only 12 per cent of respondents had implemented imaging solutions. By last year this figure had grown to 25 per cent with another 40 per cent envisaging that they would implement imaging by the end of 1997.

However, these take-up figures are significantly lower than IT managers had forecast in earlier surveys. In the research of 1993 some 60 per cent of organisations expected to be using imaging today. Clearly then, while IT managers can see the benefits an imaging solution might provide, they are indicating they are still uncertain about whether this technology can address these problems cost-effectively.

The research also indicated two ways that imaging solutions were being utilised. The first was as a large electronic filing cabinet where documents could be stored and retrieved. This solution applies computer search algorithms to the retrieval of paper-based information. In so doing, it allowed the information to be more readily accessed. In addition, this data now took up significantly less space and was better protected as it allowed duplicate backups to be easily made.

On the other hand, workflow seeks to address the bottlenecks that can occur in paper processing systems. By being stored electronically, the documents are more easily routed throughout an organisation. As such, if a member of staff is away work on the document need not be suspended. Instead the file could be forwarded electronically to another colleague for completion. This has many advantages in environments where a number of staff need to process a file, such as for planning applications or finance loans. IDC's latest "Forecast for Management" survey showed that nearly twice as many finance organisations had implemented a workflow solution than the national average.

However, the experience of many IT managers seems to be that to implement workflow effectively it needs to be accompanied by business process re-engineering so the business processes can be optimised. This clearly adds a greater level of complexity and is probably why most IT managers are choosing initially to provide imaging through store-and-retrieval applications rather than workflow solutions.

While growth in imaging has been much slower than was originally forecast, it is clear that it is starting to make steady progress, especially as more and more successful implementations become visible. Users are seeing that imaging provides greater security for paper-based files. Furthermore, the data can be quickly retrieved and easily shared with colleagues, thus offering productivity advantages. This in turn accelerates the processing of forms and files to offer better service for customers. In all, it seems that imaging can enhance Tsai Lun's great invention by taking it to a whole new dimension.

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