Workflow automation: How printers are solving the paper problem

Incorporating paper-based processes into digital workflows may no longer be a roadblock to full automation.

chalk workflow chart
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Better productivity is a goal of most IT projects, typically through automating manual processes. Productivity gains often stop when a paper document is introduced into the process. At that point, someone has to manually enter relevant data into a system of record and then store or destroy the document. In some cases, the document needs to be routed to someone else for more information or approvals.

Solutions to scan and analyze paper documents have been available for years, but they still required some manual intervention, weren't easy to use, and integration with workflow software has been limited. Now, more fully automated, user friendly options are coming on the market from an unexpected source: printer and copier vendors, or as they now prefer to be called, document imaging companies.

The idea of Xerox, Canon, Konica Minolta and other well-known brands owning that “first mile” of digitizing documents and automating workflow makes sense. They and their channel partners have decades of experience helping customers manage their paper documents. They have deep knowledge of how those documents fit into workflows and how they are generated, processed and archived.

So why are companies that were built on hardcopy volume suddenly helping their customers move to digital documents? Hardcopy output is dropping and document imaging brands have simply accepted that they need to look elsewhere for growth. “Customers became aware during the recession [of 2008] just how expensive printing can be,” says Charles Brewer, president of Actionable Intelligence, a market research firm that follows the document imaging industry. Page counts have consistently fallen each year since.

That led to a focus on services such as managed print services (MPS), which helped companies manage their output devices and associated costs. “What you are seeing now is MPS 2.0, where you can further build out workflow and business processes that you can do with your capture device,” says Brewer. “The printer/copier guys have the hardware in place. They have the relationships with the IT teams. Because of the way they sell MPS, they have relationships with CFOs. They are at the C level, and the corporate officers realize that you can use your copier for a lot more than copying.”

“The traditional office device—the multifunction printer (MFP) in particular—has become a much more centralized component in different types of application workflows that you find inside the general office,” says Dennis Amorosano, vice president and general manager, Canon Business Imaging Systems Group (BISG) and Canon Information and Imaging Solutions (CIIS) Professional Services. “We’re at a point now where customers are much more educated in terms of the office technology that’s available and are using that technology more frequently than ever in key workflow processes.”

Fitting into the enterprise IT ecosystem

The document imaging vendors see their products as complementary to enterprise systems. Canon, for example, sells its Therefore information management and workflow solution, which takes what Amorosano calls a “bottoms up” approach. “Without an ERP system, a business can’t run. The types of workflow systems we’re putting in place have a dramatic impact on productivity in particular business processes, but the business can still operate without the discrete application workflows we’re involved with—with the exception of the accounts-payable workflows,” he says.

One area where Canon is complementing ERP is with its AP workflow solution. “The ERP vendors and systems integrators who implement those systems tend to focus on the core business process. They are driving implementation activity that is capturing maybe 80 percent of the workflow. Oftentimes the paper-based aspects of the processes are not as well automated and integrated,” says Amorosano. “Canon has all this imaging expertise and heritage, and we’ve been able to look at the process that our customers are driving from an end-to-end perspective. We’re automating the ‘first mile’ of the process—the most paper intensive and the most manual.”

“We do not compete with ERP providers,” says Pavan Gourisetty, senior director of product management at Xerox, which sells its DocuShare Flex content management software. “We know that we are not the only enterprise software company in the IT ecosystem. They use applications like SAP, Oracle Financials or Workday. All of those systems are treated as systems of record for batch-specific use cases. We want to be the system of record for content management systems capable of integrating with other line of business applications. We like to be known as an ecosystem platform provider”

Enterprise application software vendor SAP offers its own end-to-end, workflow-enabled content management solution with partner OpenText that work across its entire application suite. “A lot of our customers are running massive operations that have to deal with content in many shapes and forms,” says Harald Nehring, vice president product marketing, middleware, at SAP. That includes paper-based content or content from various business communications. The suite of solutions SAP is building with OpenText “deal with every stage of content management be it paper-based and scanned, which we call digital content processing, or be it archiving and accessing documents at the right part of the business process, or specialized like invoice processing. We’ve been building tightly integrated solutions with OpenText that address a lot of these scenarios.”

SAP also partners with Canon for its Therefore solution. They are certified on interfaces and integrations, mainly with SAP’s core ERP S/4HANA solution. That certification gives them the ability to use facilities within the ERP system to, for example, trigger content for document archiving. “Integration is really important when it comes down to a coherent user experience. If you look at invoicing or purchasing scenarios, it’s important that workflows and screens people are using are integrated,” says Nehring.

Automating the “first mile”

A paper document might require manual intervention for a number of reasons before the information on it can be incorporated into a workflow. Most commonly, data from fields in a form needs to be entered into a database where it’s accessible to systems of record. Less structured documents, such as correspondence or contracts, need to be scanned and digitized so they're searchable. In some cases, someone may have to read the document to select and enter specific data into a system.

The latest generations of printers and copiers have the embedded processing power and software to automate those tasks, and most of the manufacturers also sell document management applications designed to integrate with enterprise workflow systems and core applications. That includes adherence to popular standards such as AJAX and REST, and strong API support. Document imaging vendors bring a couple of other advantages to the workflow table: ease of use and content analytics.

Copiers and printers have very simple touchscreen user interfaces that even the least technically savvy user can understand with minimal training. Those are the same people responsible for digitizing paper documents for use in workflow. The workflow solutions that the document imaging vendors offer are accessed through that same intuitive UI.

“Having features and capabilities that are part of that user experience that customers really demand now as table stakes — having integrated viewer capabilities, search engines, separate integration with capture tools all that within one user interface — is really important in terms of providing these platform solutions at the document content management layer,” says Wasim Khan, head of global workflow automation at Xerox.

For its AP solution, Canon built its Enterprise Imaging Platform. “This is a server-oriented architecture platform that ties directly into Oracle and leverages Oracle’s Fusion middleware as a way for us to integrate Canon’s imaging capabilities with the Oracle ERP systems,” says Amorosano. He adds that Canon is in the process of scaling the Enterprise Imaging Platform to SAP.

Getting the document into the system is step 1. Step 2 is making sure the information in those documents is stored in the right places. That’s where content analytics come into play. With it, the software analyzes the document looking for word patterns or text placed in specific areas such as a field in a form. It then populates the data in the appropriate places in the system based on preconfigured rules. For example, data from a customer invoice might go into a CRM and accounts receivable systems.

“With Flex, you’re going to get a more integrated imaging capability in one simple user interface. It’s less cumbersome, less clunky,” says Khan. “When customers are using various Oracle systems or different back-ends, Salesforce or CRM systems, we have all those connections already built.”

Content analytics potentially can do more, especially around the decision making that occurs throughout a workflow. The results of research done at its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) facility are on Xerox’s product roadmap for its DocuShare Flex software. “We work with a large healthcare provider, and some information is sitting in its databases around certain areas that from a security perspective they need to highlight,” says Khan. “Does it have the right permission levels? Does it have the right security level access? Are the right people viewing it? That’s where we hold that content, but we need tools to understand what’s in that content whether it’s a keyword or an understanding of meaning behind the actual word.”

Canon hopes to apply artificial intelligence and analytics to its solution soon. The company currently partners with email collaboration solution provider MXHero and cloud storage and collaboration provider Box. Amorosano says that Canon is looking at ways to incorporate its imaging technology into those solutions. “When you start to put content into Box, you’ve got to be disciplined about how you tag content and where you put it to be useful with a particular business application or process,” he says. “Data stores can get so big, that if you haven’t architected your systems well you get to a point to where it gets more and more challenging to get the content you need out of the system.”

Using AI, Canon can alleviate that problem with what it calls “context management.” “We have technology that allows us to recognize not only documents, but also the context of the document and the content itself,” says Amorosano. “The system gets smarter over time. The system almost becomes intuitive in terms of knowing what you want to do. We’re looking at how we can apply that AI technology to the way in which customers are placing content in and using content within the Box ecosystem.”

The ability to integrate well with core enterprise systems is key to fully leveraging the value of content analytics. “If all you have is the document processing, you lack a lot of contextual data,” says Nehring. “You might be able to handle an invoice, but you have no idea if it’s been paid if you’re not integrating with the place where the payment actually happens.” SAP recently applied digital invoice management for its own procurement and was able to speed the process for what was already an automated process by another 50 percent, according to Nehring.

Automation sets professional staff free  

Paper documents were becoming a barrier to Family Service Toronto (FST), a government-funded non-profit, being able to provide its services. “We have existed for more than 100 years, so we had a lot of paper,” said Vani Visva, who has led FST’s digital drive as director, finance and business technology. What prompted its decision to digitize that paper and start automating some workflows, however, was moving its offices to a new location. The cost of moving the paper and rent for a space big enough to store it was prohibitive.

“That’s when we decided to purchase a digital document management system,” says Visva. FST went with DocuShare from Xerox, which had been supplying its copiers. The first phase of the project was to digitize all the paper records it needed to keep and integrate DocuShare with its main systems. ”All our multifunction printers are integrated with DocuShare. All our receptionists have scanners, so when clients come in and sign their forms, they go directly into the file system and our home-grown client management system for case management,” she says.

Now, all documents are searchable and accessible directly from the core applications. Lifecycle management allows them to migrate outdated documents off the system.

Phase 1 was simply setting up a basic digital document management system. Phase 2 is where FST is seeing benefits from automating workflow for its developmental services division, which serves about 3,200 individuals or their families. Those clients purchase services to live independently for which they apply for reimbursement through FST. “We get thousands of invoices and receipts every month. They could be paper, electronic, email or fax,” says Visva. Each family is assigned a barcode that contains basic information about their account and is required to use those bar-coded forms when sending invoices.

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