Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Information Overload – July 2017 – Digitising Will Solve Everything!

Shirley R Cowcher

Drowning in paper

You would think, as we now live in a world of cloud computing, mobile technology, the Internet of Things and Big Data, that we would have reduced our paper consumption and paper records.  Take a look around in your workspace and that of your co-workers.  How much paper do you see?  Research in 2016 reported that an office worker uses approximately 10,000 sheets of paper annually and an average document is copied 10 times . Paper and paper-based records just don’t seem to be going away.

Scan it

I spend a good deal of time talking to clients about the volume of paper based records they have and how they find hybrid records management systems very frustrating.  It’s all very well that they can view those records that are born digital but they hold their heads in frustration when it comes to having to access the paper record.  They believe that the solution is staring at them, in the form of the Multi-Function-Device (MFD) (read – printer, photocopier, and scanner all rolled into one).  It’s simple, they say, we just scan all the paper records and put them into the systems we use for managing all the electronic records.  That would seem be the best solution for the users but before making that decision the organisation really needs to do a cost benefit analysis and a needs analysis.  The questions listed below are a small sample of those that form the basis of the analyses.
• How do users use the paper records?
• How often do they use them?
• Would users be more efficient if they could access these records electronically?
• Do users just need to view an image or will data from the record need to be entered into systems as metadata?
• Could a whole process be automated requiring very little human intervention if the record was digitised?
• What are the record retention requirements for the records?

In answering these and other questions you may find that it is not cost effective to scan some records. Yet there may be massive savings in processing time when other records are digitised and data from the record is automatically entered into existing business systems and integrated into a workflow process.

Do you know how much it costs?

If you think that scanning paper records to get rid of the paper is cost effective for the business, then think again.  An article in IDM by Mark Salmon (2016) calculated that organisations which digitised paper records with a retention period of 7 to 30 years gained little return on the investment in the activity. “However, organisations can expect to receive a return on investment for digested records that are required to be retained for long periods of time, roughly 30 years or more”.  Mark’s calculations based on the cost of 8 cents per sheet to digitise gave a cost of $88,000 to complete 440 boxes each box containing approximately 2500 pieces of paper.  Whereas the cost of storing those same 440 boxes with a commercial storage provider would cost $4,800 per annum requiring a storage period of 19 years before you would recoup the cost of digitising.

However, if you are digitising to gain process improvements then there is the possibility of great benefits.  It could be that paper-based invoices are scanned and the data from the digitised image is automatically entered into the accounting system, by passing the need for human data entry, or that clients are able to complete an online form and the data goes directly into the business system with no paper-based record ever being created and no human contact with the client.  In these cases we are considering digital disruption where technology is being applied to change the processes and make organisations more competitive and efficient.   A McKinsey article (2014) estimated that  …by digitizing information-intensive processes, costs can be cut by 90 percent and turnaround times improved by several orders of magnitude.  There is also the additional benefit of capturing data that can be used for real-time reports on business performance and future demands.  This means that the organisation gets greater value from the information that it captures.  The operational value of the information may be retained for far longer than would have been the case if it had been captured on paper.

Are they still records?

The scanned image of a paper record is a copy of a paper record.  If the organisation has a process in place to ensure the quality of the scanned image against the original source and scans to a standard that will ensure longevity then they may choose to destroy the original paper record and in which case the scanned image becomes the only source of truth for the organisation.  The scanned image is a record.
However, what of a process which captures information through online forms that automatically feeds into a business system. Is that one row of data within a table, within a database considered a record? Or is it the complete database that is the record?  Or is it the data from one or many business systems which when brought together in a particular form make a record?  If the information captured through an online form goes directly into a database does that mean that we become less accountable, as the information is accessible but not the form in which it was captured?  When you consider the definition of a record, as specified in ISO 15489 (Information and documentation – Records Management- Part 1: Concepts and principles) is, …information created, received and maintained as evidence and as an asset by an organisation or person, in pursuit of legal obligations or in the transaction of business, then the answer to all of the questions above may very well be yes!  Well, perhaps not the one I asked about accountability, but then again!

Will they last forever?

That is the million dollar question. 
If organisations are going to digitise all records then there has to be considerable thought put into the accessibility and preservation of the records.  Organisations need to put in place processes to manage technological obsolescence.  For example, organisations may have, in the past, stored digital records on floppy disks, CDs or tape. These storage formats degrade over time or the hardware and software required to access them may no longer be available.  Records may be archived off the main system and not migrated across when the associated software is updated making them inaccessible in the future.  Records held in legacy systems that have been retired from use may become inaccessible as the software and the hardware become unavailable.  Even if records are migrated across formats and systems regularly consideration needs to be given to the degradation of the data each time they are copied to a new format or system.
Increasingly organisations are facing digital disruption to their ways of working and conducting business. In concert with this they are presented with the challenges of managing information and records in digital form. Let’s not forget that these challenges are not just associated with managing information that is born digital (for example, Word documents, email, spreadsheets etc.) but also information that was converted to digital form from hardcopy, for example scanned documents. The challenge with addressing the latter starts with a business analysis – to digitise or not to digitise – and both forms of digitisation must address how best to maintain access to and preserve the digital record. This is not a situation that is going to get easier with time. Ongoing digital change will ensure that.