By Cassandra Carnes
Businesses face an onslaught of communications daily. Documents and data are incepted and managed through a number of mediums, both paper-based and electronic. Ideally, this information is controlled in a way that is secure, easily accessible, and up to date. An organization’s mail center is a ripe area for review. Are documents being extracted, sorted, and captured at the onset? If the answer is no, it may be time to weigh the benefits of an automated, or digital, mailroom.
Organizations struggling with high volumes of paper-based workflows are key targets for digital mailroom technology. If issues in the mailroom aren’t vast enough to invest in a new workflow, consider the big picture. "While sorting mail is certainly one part of the value proposition for digital mailroom solutions, the ability to organize incoming documents in case folders, identify which documents are present or missing, and extract important business information from the right documents significantly raises the value," says Sean Baird, senior manager of product marketing for EMC Captiva, content management and archiving division, EMC Corporation.
The idea of any investment is a tough decision in a challenging economy, but some changes are necessary to raise an organization’s ability to compete in a fierce marketplace. "We all know too well the current business climate, but organizations recognize that there are reasons to make changes that will endure beyond today’s issues," says Terry Doeberl, director, global products management, Pitney Bowes Management Services (PBMS).
Doeberl details the advantages to businesses open to new processes, employee self-service, and shared services, noting that most companies view such changes necessary to move forward. He cites a study by the Telework Coalition’s report, The Mobile Workforce and Enterprise Applications 2007-2012, that states 89 percent of the top 100 corporations offer telecommuting; 58 percent consider themselves a virtual workplace; only nine percent of employees work at headquarters; and 67 percent for all workers use mobile and wireless computing.
Businesses everywhere are tasked with optimizing business processes to improve productivity and efficiency. A variety of issues are bound to occur with disconnected systems. In addition to conjoining soiled processes, privacy issues must be considered. These challenges are addressed with internal or outsourced digital mailroom solutions.
The Necessary Components
There is a lot more to digital mailrooms than scanning mail. A range of capture capabilities, automated recognition and intelligent extraction, payment processing solutions, indexing and categorization software, email archiving, and a Web-based portal and server to access documents are important elements to an automated mail/capture platform designed to enhance and streamline incoming mail management workflow.
A structurally sound digital mailroom implementation rests on a Business Process Management (BPM) framework as a core platform for automation and control of the end-to-end process. "BPM provides real-time business monitoring, control, and tracking of documents," says Ian Painter, product marketing manager, BancTec.
Incoming documents from a digital mailroom must often integrate with established workflows. Annemarie Pucher, CEO, ISIS Papyrus, explains that the integration between digital mailrooms and existing content management, customer relationship management, and legacy data systems is easily one of the biggest implementation challenges. This is especially true in organizations with limited IT resources. "Many of these systems require programming to develop connectors, but the best solutions offer standard software adapters that help your organization ‘plug in’ with existing systems and ensure maximum access to incoming documents as they are processed," she says.
Support for both centralized and distributed capture ensures all incoming mail is input into the system. "Customers find that only a fraction of their important documents are received through a centralized mailroom; most are received through field offices and require additional shipping to a centralized mailroom," says Baird. "Eliminating the cost and delays associated with this step allows customers to realized much greater value."
A document’s lifecycle begins at its inception. In a mailroom setting, a document can shed its physical form and take on a digital presence that is much easier to manage and track.
The digital mail process starts when a document is received. While many organizations rely on a centralized facility for incoming mail processes, mail is often accepted in a variety of locations in a range of formats. Physical documents are often subject to post-scanning activities such as warehousing, management of the retention period, destruction, or return to customer.
Regardless of a mailpiece’s original format—faxes, email and its attachments, Web form, or mail—all documents are captured, identified, organized, and processed upon receipt. This is often done using dedicated, high-speed scanners in a centralized location. Distributed office capture may lead to connectivity challenges, so scanners must be able to connect to users outside of the local area network.
The capture system should be able to control document processing. The document is imported from various input channels and is automatically gathered and fed into the next steps, where they are registered with a unique identification for future accessibility. A centralized management process ensures that the image and data of imported files are sent to the correct location.
With recognition software, documents are automatically classified. Classification is typically determined by the layout of a document and/or keywords and context within. "Recognition software engines are used to classify the documents. They have programmable and configurable classification rules and optical character recognition and image character recognition capabilities. Some have built-in advanced self-learning intelligence," explains Painter.
The most effective systems use both graphic- and text-based techniques to identify document type. "Graphic techniques rapidly identify standard forms and readily identifiable documents based on visual clues. Text-based techniques intelligently identify documents with less visual structure by analyzing the text content of the document," adds Baird.
Document data is then extracted using data recognition engines to help drive business processes or allow document access from a content management system. Some engines combine recognition, classification, and extraction functions. Extraction is executed according to defined rules that relate to the type of document and transaction service.
Extracted data should pass a validation step. "Most capture engines extract content originated from printed characters with high accuracy. However, the same does not apply to content originated from handwritten documents," says Painter. He explains that manual extraction is sometimes necessary to ensure correctness.
After data extraction and validation, the document is most often exported or archived. "The digital image of the originating inbound document is exported into archiving, document management, or content management repositories. The image stays secure during the required retention period to stay in compliance with the applied regulations," notes Painter.
Digital mailroom solutions use both document type and extracted data to route the document to its proper destination.
Once a file is delivered and archived, digital mailroom technology manages the business transaction further to control and improve processes such as account opening, claims handling, loan origination, and accounts payable. "Throughout the entire process, effective digital mailroom solutions provide the capability to handle small, departmental volumes, but scale to handle the volumes typical at many enterprise installations, which could exceed a million pages per day," Baird adds.
Security and Compliance
Digital mailrooms help organizations meet regulatory compliance goals by providing a searchable records database. Organizations must be able to differentiate communications that were generated internally from those that arrived on location. Companies also face the need to store, manage, and retrieve information within specific time frames according to set regulations.
There is a heightened demand for control over all official and unofficial communications that enter or exit an enterprise, brought out by strict regulations such as Sarbanes Oxley and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. "A digital mail solution can help organizations meet regulatory compliance requirements for all business documents—including mail—by providing a searchable, digital records database," says Doeberl.
"At a basic level it provides confirmation of what arrived, evaluates the type of information and the volume that arrives, provides information on the content held within the documents, and controls and manages where the information is sent within the organization," says Painter.
Digital mailrooms provide the ability to monitor and track documents, identify the transaction time; and retrieve documents within any stage of the capture process.
Mail accountability is essential in terms of regulatory compliance. "Digital mail solutions turn ordinary mailpieces into an accountable mailpieces once the envelope or its contents are scanned," says Ted Ardelean, director of segment and product marketing, Océ Business Services.
Traditional incoming mail processes allow documents with legal or regulatory significance to enter and exit organizations without leaving a trail. "In today’s environment with strict accountability, that is unacceptable," he says.
Whether it’s to adhere to regulations, increase consistency across an organization, placate telecommuting employees, or track processes, advanced digital mailroom solutions provide clear benefits to an organization.