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Over the last 20 years, there has been a radical transformation in the way that businesses manage their information. The vast majority of correspondence is done by email, databases are used to hold customer records, and web-based software services are allowing companies to automate many of their key business functions. As a result, the efficiency and accuracy of business process has been greatly enhanced.

Despite these advances, companies are still faced with an overwhelming amount of paper documentation. Official and legal correspondence is still largely physical, orders and invoices often come on paper, and other industries such as healthcare and financial services rely heavily on traditional documentation as well. Sectors such as telecommunications, construction, engineering and architectural services have also struggled to move to a completely digital approach, particularly when it comes to site drawings and related documentation.

Increasingly, companies are turning to digital imaging to bring the same level of efficiency and accessibility to their unstructured information – primarily paper documentation – that they enjoy with their other digital records. However, many document digitization projects turn out to be disastrous, failing to provide any of the anticipated benefits. The problem is that effective document digitization is about much more than scanning documents – it requires an end-to-end process that guarantees quality and usability.

One of the most basic areas where projects fail is image quality. By their nature, original paper documents vary substantially in brightness, paper reflectivity, color and other characteristics. It is cost-prohibitive to make manual adjustments when scanning each individual document, but using standard settings inevitably results in large numbers of illegible images – making the entire collection of images useless. This is harmful in any industry sector, but is catastrophic in areas such as financial and legal services – for instance, undecipherable digital documentation is not admissible in court or during financial audits. For similar reasons, other factors such as maintaining the original order of documents during imaging is also essential, making the digital image production process extremely challenging.

Because of this, firms that have major digital documentation imaging requirements need to engage a document digitization specialist, rather than trying to do things in house. Without this experience – as well as appropriate in-house technology – companies will make serious mistakes with their digitization efforts, resulting in significant lost time and unnecessary risk. Businesses should ask vendors how they are going to guarantee the quality of the services that they deliver, and demand to see evidence of best practices. If this quality focus is not evident, then it is time to talk to a different vendor.

Moving beyond the imaging process, unstructured digital documentation needs to be adequately described so that it can be retrieved easily. For example, it must be possible to instantaneously access all documentation related to particular customers, and documentation should be further classified based on time frame, type of document, subject matter and other criteria. This requires implementation of appropriate up-front business processes, as well as automated document tagging. Again, companies should work with an experienced digital documentation firm to put this in place – implementing simple, scalable and reliable processes requires extensive experience, and is not something that should be tackled alone.