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Postal Process

24 October 2007

Implementing a digital mail room solution is an effective means of tracking business communications and processes that ensures compliance with regulations designed to protect consumers and ethical business practice, and promote efficiency, as Ashley Keil explains

ORGANISATIONS AROUND THE GLOBE have made great strides towards minimising paper handling in an effort to increase efficiency, reduce costs, improve customer service and become environmentally friendly. The majority of these projects have been implemented at departmental level with many human resources, accounts payable, transaction processing and account opening applications achieving great success.

However, the Digital Mail Room (DMR) has remained something of an enigma, despite widespread adoption of electronic communications. Manual mail handling procedures are slow and costly. In recent years DMR development has been fuelled by systems integrators and outsourcing bureau as well as by many large commercial and government organisations expressing fervent interest in hybrid mail handling solutions. Visionaries view the mail room as a paper beast waiting to be tamed. They relish the idea of handling vast daily volumes of incoming paper-based mail items in an automated manner using digital techniques.

The DMR concept involves capturing and classifying all information entering an organisation, then automatically routing it to an individual person, department or process, in real-time. A DMR eliminates all geographical limitations of traditional mail handling systems. Items entering the DMR can be viewed by any authorised personnel, whether they are located centrally or in a remote satellite office, or even when mobile.

DMR systems must automatically identify, route and store a vast array of physical documents and items, such as a postcard or envelope, as quickly and efficiently as a standard A4 form. They must also process thousands of multi-part documents in one pass with minimal preparation. They extend beyond the realms of most current document management applications, which typically handle uniform, predictable documents and transactions such as claim forms, bill payments and account openings. DMR systems feed enterprise-wide content management systems, which encompass a hybrid mix of documents and files of both electronic and paper origin.

The use of email, electronic forms, e-business and other forms of electronic communication has dramatically increased information flows. Despite this, many organisations find that paperbased documents and correspondence still dominate core processes, and volumes look set to rise with business growth.

Virtually all departments and staff, wherever they are located, will benefit from electronic mail handling. The right DMR solution can:

....Consolidate mail processing costs and increase efficiency
....Convert mail into a more usable and flexible format
....Initiate business processes in a timely manner and improve customer service and responsiveness
....Effectively track the progress of correspondence and reduce misdirection or lost mail items
....Meet regulatory requirements, achieve compliance and improve accountability to customers, senior management and the authorities
....Increase security by identifying confidential documents at point of capture and encrypting them for transmission
....Ensure business continuity in the event of disaster.

When the DMR vision became fashionable around five years ago, no truly robust solutions were available. The classification and routing technologies of the day lacked reliability, accuracy, functionality and speed. They were incapable of effectively processing a diverse range of mailroom items, certainly not in real time. Departmental implementations of DMR have become more commonplace in recent years. Nevertheless, these systems often use mid-range classification systems and scanners that are selected more for their compact size rather than their intelligence, tolerance and speed. Many have not been extended to enterprise-wide use due to technological or practical limitations. From a technical standpoint the vision has, to an extent, been more achievable for organisations dealing with more consistent, predictable forms whose format is pre-defined and controlled by the recipient.

Record keeping
What has changed now is that most organisations have embraced email and other forms of electronic communications, and many are working with traditional document management systems at departmental level. They are used to this way of electronic working and customers understand that electronic record keeping generally leads to improved customer service.

Incoming items from electronic sources are relatively easy to process as they have the advantage of being in electronic format from the outset. Incoming paper-based mail, which has been the historical bottleneck, can now be processed quickly and intelligently because capture, recognition and auto-classification offerings from both software vendors and specialist scanner manufacturers (such as IBML) have been greatly enhanced. These pioneering technologies have become stable, accurate, fast and tightly integrated to form effective end-toend solutions.

Intelligent Document Recognition (IDR) is no longer simply a classification system. It has become an eclectic mix of OCR, ICR and other advanced recognition technologies that enable the capture of documents that are structured (e.g. application forms), semi-structured (e.g. standing orders, change of address, purchase invoices) and unstructured (e.g. letters and faxes), as well as email and many other electronic data streams, such as XML.

In addition, a new breed of innovative, fast, high-volume scanning platforms with exceptionally high transport tolerance levels has emerged, and they are well-suited to the DMR. These scanners are capable of capturing tens of thousands of items a day using just one unit, so it makes sense to migrate all departmental document and correspondence management systems to a centralised DMR. In addition to saving floor space, curtailing operating and maintenance costs and handling disparate document types, these scanners have a range of features that enable the DMR vision to become reality:

....High transport tolerance minimises manual preparation. The best specialist high-speed scanners are now capable of handling all kinds of highly unstructured documents while eliminating the majority of manual prepreparation. This saves a huge amount of time and cost

....Tight integration with advanced recognition engines. Documents of the same type are identified 'on-the-fly' from a mixed mail bag, at the same speed as the high-volume transport can scan them, and batched together automatically for physical and electronic routing

....Record date of receipt at point of entry. Manual mail handling systems often record receipt a day or more later than the true arrival date, which impacts accountability and audit trails

....Scan multi-part mail without jams. Typical desktop scanners can't handle multi-part mail (e.g. envelope, cover letter, form). By capturing the envelope, however, organisations can record the date stamp for better audit trails, use the envelope as a separator between incoming mail items and achieve regulatory compliance

....Use envelopes as separator sheets. By eliminating a dedicated separator sheet and using the envelope instead, paper usage is dramatically reduced. Intelligent scanners recognise the envelope as a transaction item and pre-defined business rules allow the equipment to perform as much of the pre-preparation work as possible

....Vacuum-based transports minimise jams. Unlike conventional transports, specialist scanners feature a vacuum that sucks each mail item, holding it flat and in position. This allows the effective movement of hybrid document types within the same batch

....Open hardware systems for rapid recovery. Rejected mail items can be removed without opening the whole scanning mechanism, so paper jams are cleared very quickly.

Interdependent processes
Despite these advances in technology and mindset, not all end user organisations are suited to DMR implementation. DMRs require an extensive range of hardware and software to operate effectively, from one or more high-speed production scanners at the front-end to sophisticated content management at the backend. Because of the investment required, customers receiving 10,000 or more incoming mail items daily, such as government, utilities, insurance, banking and financial services organisations, stand to benefit most from an inhouse DMR. Many of these organisations have already invested in high-volume scanning and ECM technologies. They are in a position to leverage their existing infrastructure and knowledge to implement DMR. They typically have interdependent processes that rely on data being accessed by overlapping functions, and they rely on rapid, easy information sharing to ensure efficiency and profitability.

Many organisations enlist the services of experienced system integrators to evaluate their current workflows and select appropriate technological tools, and they often begin by implementing the DMR one department at a time.

In addition to end user organisations and system integrators, outsourcing agencies and full service bureau are reporting an upsurge in DMR interest, as their clients look to them for centralised off-site DMR services. By outsourcing the DMR function, end users reap the benefits without having to negotiate the learning curve, bear the cost of buying and maintaining capital equipment, accommodate the DMR on-site, employ operators and upgrade systems as they become outdated.

There is clearly a heightened demand for more accuracy, less waste, cheaper labour and better efficiency in all aspects of government and corporate enterprise. DMR implementations go a long way towards meeting these requirements. The enabling software and hardware technologies are at long last available, so effective solutions are now possible. For DMRs to become commonplace, manufacturers and suppliers must work closely with customers to deliver tightly integrated solutions that are scalable, fast, accurate, robust, reliable, easy to use and cost effective. The vision can finally become a reality.

Imaging Business Machines is exhibiting at Documation UK, the dedicated end-to-end content, business process and information management event held at Olympia, London from 17-18 October 2007

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