The Odd Couple: Relationship between Born Digital and Paper Documents

By Chris Riley, ECMp, IOAp posted 03-03-2011 16:37

  

There are two primary drivers for document capture, paper reduction is the most mentioned, but more often organizations want to link paper business process with digital ones.  Today most companies are forced to have two separate business processes for both physical and digital documents.  This more than doubles the cost, and effort associated with the documents.  Not only that, the effort to find a paper document, its risk of damage, and the overall cost of it, is substantially higher than that of its digital counterpart.  In this post, I will discuss the methodologies of linking physical documents with born digital.

What strategy a company takes to integrate physical with digital is highly dependent on the volume of documents that exists.  If they have just a handful of paper documents perhaps a manual process is most cost effective, if they have a warehouse of documents, then technology is best used to gain control of them. There are three ways to attack physical records:

  1. Capture physical documents to digital and shred the physical.  Many companies simply cannot do this for legal reasons.
  2. Capture physical documents to digital, and relocate physical to lower cost real-estate.  This seems to be the most common.
  3. Keep physical, physical, and digital, digital, but link the two.  This should soon be a need of the past.

Each of these approaches forms how an organization should review technology and more importantly how they configure it.

  1. If you are capturing physical documents, and destroying the original, it’s very important to have a tried and true validation process.  In this scenario, there are the biggest potential cost savings, but also the greatest risk.  If you shred a document that was improperly scanned there is no going back.  Additionally, if you scan a document at poor enough quality, resulting in say poor OCR, you have not given yourself a chance to re-run the image for better results.  Therefore, it’s important for organizations to consider verification, scan quality, and the possibility of saving a high quality scan for future conversion if necessary.  This would result in two files for everyone inputted, but act as a sort of insurance policy.
  2.  For the second method, a lot of considerations have to be put into how paper documents are linked to digital copies, if at all.  Linking documents can be done with barcodes, labels, or process of cataloging and recording catalog data as meta-data in your ECM system.  Even more advanced systems will use RFID technology to track the location of a physical record in a warehouse.  Knowing which method works best for your organization depends on its volume, and the frequency and complexity of retrieving physical records.
  3. Like the second solution, barcodes, labels, RFID, or even manual entry of document location can be used to link the physical records with the digital.  In your ECM system, you will setup a list that associates the meta-data of a list item to the location of the physical document that contains all the data.  This is the least likely scenario as most organizations will find that with some additional effort, they can get to the second approach and get much greater value.  The process and frequency of retrieving physical documents will be super critical with this approach as it is the most costly aspect.

All three of these approaches share two challenges.  The first is the challenge of disparate business processes.  In all these scenarios companies will tend to silo imaged documents from digital.  Storing like documents in two different locations.  There is rarely a case when this should be necessary.  The risk of doing this is that the business process for say a born physical invoice and the business process for a born digital invoice are the same, but with the silo approach executed separately.  This diminishes the value of the overall business process and could introduce risk of duplication.  Ideally once imaged, documents should be treated exactly the same as the born digital ones.  The second challenge they both share is the execution of retention schedules.

In approaches two and three, retention schedules have to be applied to two locations, both on the physical document, and digital.  It’s most convenient to trigger retention on the digital document using technology, but this flag also needs to indicate to personnel that a physical document must be destroyed.  The system for accomplishing this should be effective, and mitigate the human error as much as possible; otherwise the retention period is useless. 

The challenge for documents that are imaged is in determining retention periods.  When you scan a document, for example, the day it was scanned is assigned as the “created date”, if your retention period uses “created date” it would be incorrect because the physical document was created some time earlier.  Sometimes it’s a piece of data on the document such as “termination date” on an agreement, that determines when the retention period lapses.  In either case the company needs to utilize manual data-entry or some form of automated data-capture to get this piece of information and store it as meta-data.

The longer paper documents live before having at least a digital counterpart, the more they are costing the organizations in time, efficiency, and risk.  Organizations need to consider what approach they want to take in linking the physical and digital documents together that is both effective when storing the documents, but also effective in retrieving them. 



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