A Sharper Image

We all know how important image is. How we look, where we live, what we wear, are all important in creating and maintaining the business and social contacts that travel with us through life. So why should business be any different? With vendors using everything in their power to attract - and please - customers, surely image is as important a factor as any.

At Mercantile Mutual the key to "image polishing" is the very word itself, as the rollout of a workflow system based on imaging technology promises improved customer service, cost savings and the freeing up of floor space Sydney-based financial services organisation Mercantile Mutual recently completed the implementation of an imaging and workflow solution through its Retail Funds Management operation, which it hopes will result in a better image for the company overall.

Handling such products as rollovers, unit trusts and investment bonds, the Retail Funds Management area deals with high volumes of both incoming and outgoing paper documents, most of which require archiving. A combined colour imaging and workflow solution from Tower Technology now automatically tracks documents as electronic images, routing them around the company's network until they are properly processed.

According to Bruce Appleton, Mercantile Mutual's manager for the imaging and workflow project, client service and cost reduction were the two primary drivers.

"Under the category of cost reduction you have productivity - making it easier for people to do their jobs," says Appleton. "If you eliminate file retrieval activities that take up time, it reduces a whole series of costs.

"The second category is less tangible - but more important - and that's customer service. That's getting into issues such as, if you're a client and you call Mercantile Mutual, can we answer your question on the spot because we have access to all of the information related to you? If we can, then that's a better service. And customers notice the difference between organisations that can't answer the question, versus the ones that can." Appleton says Mercantile Mutual saved floor space, by relocating its physical document storage site out of its Sydney CBD office. Overall, the implementation will also enable Mercantile Mutual to reduce employees' workload, allowing the company to maintain current staffing levels even as the business continues to grow.

The returns are emerging, but realising the full benefits of the system is still a ways down the track. While the imaging component technically went live in November 1995, it was not fully rolled-out until the firm's backlog of relevant images was processed. This took in total six months, ending in August 1996. Although imaging was available as soon as the scanning commenced, automated workflow only began this past December.

"The costs savings issues will be predominantly through the long-term effects of workflow, not any instantaneous impact," says Appleton, who adds that the early indicators are positive.

Still, to even be talking about measuring the returns is light years from where Mercantile Mutual stood when the idea was green-lighted back in mid-1995.

Appleton says that while he had some knowledge of the capabilities of imaging systems, he was not fully aware of the products and options.

To assist in the technology selection process, Mercantile Mutual called in a team of consultants from Opticon Australia who helped put together a Request for Proposals (RFP). Appleton says the request was kept reasonably open in what it asked for, in the hope of gathering a diverse range of proposals from vendors. "We didn't really supply to them what the system would have to look like. We supplied them with what our business looked like and what our problems were.

"Our RFP meant we got back quite reasonable variations in the systems. You have to spend a bit of time trying to solve which one's better - or worse. But I'd much rather do that and give the suppliers some flexibility." According to Appleton, a number of initiatives Mercantile Mutual later adopted, such as colour scanning, would not have been included in the proposals had it issued a strictly defined tender.

What Appleton was keen to avoid was a multiple vendor installation without using a systems integrator. He had seen failures at several sites he had visited and thought this was a contributing factor. "Where the inexperienced IT shop was trying to manage all of these independent suppliers seemed to be a common thread behind system failures," he says.

As more and more companies jump on the imaging and workflow bandwagon, it's not surprising to see some projects fall short of expectations. John Frost, managing director of imaging-specialist and integrator Tower Technology, says the key is knowing what parts of the business to workflow-enable, and what parts to leave out.

"It is important to workflow-enable those parts of the business that will benefit from it, not necessarily all of the dross in the business process," he explains. "There's usually a lot of processing that goes on within a business that, while it has to be done, won't benefit from adding lots of workflow and coding." He cites as an example a financial services company, which may have rarely exercised legal requirements on certain documents, so it's not worth including these documents in the workflow process.

His advice is this: "When you originally scope the workflow application project, put a boundary between what you are going to apply workflow to and what you're not going to." For Appleton, the key to a successful implementation was in automating the workflow systems, so that document tracking would not interfere with the actual work getting done. He says the move to automated workflow with electronic images has cut out much of the grief of effective document tracking.

Once the document comes in and is scanned and entered into the system, the workflow process automatically handles its movement. "You no longer have an individual doing the overhead work of moving the document and recording [its movement]. They simply categorise it; anybody outside of the process can establish where work is in the process." The benefit is simple, he says. "It's very difficult with manual, non-image-based processing to have a person at random answer the phone and take over the processing of another person's work. It may even be sitting in somebody's in-tray, and they might not have even started on it." Some adjustmentThe changes introduced by imaging and workflow can involve significant adjustment within the organisation. While an imaging and workflow implementation is bound to require some level of business process re-engineering (BPR), the size and scope are very much dependent on the user's requirements.

Not surprisingly, Tower's Frost recommends that organisations work with either a vendor or a consultant to refine what's required. "It really comes down to looking at the business problem first and foremost, and not constraining the project by the way business is done today," he says.

"I'm not necessarily advocating that you need to do BPR. A lot of businesses run quite well and will get a lot of benefit quickly by implementing this technology without the expense of a complete re-engineering process. But imaging and workflow systems bring in new freedoms, new capabilities, and new ways of doing things. If an organisation is too rigid in its thinking it can lose those benefits." Appleton says the BPR exercise for Mercantile Mutual was a minor one, leading to the staggered roll-out of the system. "Some organisations do all of the BPR and development work in the background and release everything in one day," says Appleton.

"For very large organisations it's not always the best approach, because you take a long time before you get anything into production. And by that point your business might have changed so dramatically that what was analysed at the start is no longer relevant anyway," he says. "That's why we introduced a staggered approach," says Appleton. He was confident the firm would see a return on investment earlier in the process by doing it that way.

Appleton says he took comfort in the knowledge that imaging and workflow implementations are becoming part of the corporate landscape. "Unlike five years ago where you really were seen as leading edge, it was a situation where some of our major competitors had already implemented imaging and workflow and were seeing some benefits. It was not as if there was any risk or we were doing anything unusual - it's becoming the norm." After all, when it comes to comparison with your competitors, the image you project can never be too good.

An Invaluable Resource

The NSW Department of Mineral Resources has a collection of information on NSW's geology and mineral resources that can only be termed as priceless.

The department's collection of unpublished geological reports comprises over 18,000 folders containing more than one million documents from private and government geological surveys. Known as the GS Report collection, it includes aerial photographs, maps, charts, and reports ranging in size from A4 documents to drilling results that are 50 metres in length.

"It's really a geological database of information relating to the State," says information services manager Geoff Brookes. "And it goes back over 100 years.

Geological information doesn't go out of date - rocks don't change.

"But we've only got one copy of all these reports," says Brookes, "and we're sending these reports out to the regions and handing them out over the front counter." If a document is lost, it's expensive to again do the work that's required to replace it. Moreover, some documents are so old they are literally disintegrating. "We've got a $2 billion asset, so we knew we had to do something to preserve the collection," says Brookes.

An initial feasibility study was commissioned in January 1991, followed by a 1992 investigation of copyright issues associated with the collection. (The DMR now obtains a copyright licence from the exploration companies.) In 1993 a full investigation of the possible technologies was launched. "What came back was that imaging was the most suitable," says Brookes. "We actually tried microfiche earlier on, and the industry didn't like it, especially for large maps." The final project is called the Digital Imaging Geological Survey System (or DIGS).

The largest documents the DMR holds require up to 480Mb of storage to maintain true resolution. Adding more capacity solves the storage problem, but the issue was in displaying such a file on screen. The answer was in data compression, and the DMR now keeps what it calls working copies of all its documents in a JPEG format for easy viewing.

Brookes says the largest files now are only 4.5Mb. The working copies are good enough for most people's needs, he says. "If they really want to get a pristine, good copy they can go back to the full resolution archive image." The DMR is currently three months into the scanning process, which by its own measure will take three years to completely image the entire collection.

Secure in Its Image

The Australian Securities Commission (ASC) would be hard pressed to imagine how it could function without an imaging system.

One of the ASC's key requirements as Australia's corporate regulator is to maintain information on the 800,000 or so companies that operate in Australia.

The ASC registry is comprised of two databases.

The first is a summary database known as ASCOT, containing about 30 to 40 pieces of information about each company. The second is a document database that contains primary information about companies, such as annual returns and changes to address, major shareholders or directors. Companies supply the information, and roughly six to seven million documents are added to it each year.

Information in the document database must be available on request, says Jeff Liewenburg, imaging projects consultant to the ASC. And as it undergoes around 2,000 searches per day, the only technology capable of handling these requirements is imaging, he says.

The document database went into development in 1990 using Kodak to create and implement what has become the ASC's Unix-based Docimage System. "At that point most systems around the country were using paper or microfilm, but the advantages of digital imaging were immense, because it's not an archival system, it's a very actively used database," says Liewenburg.

Liewenburg says the implementation was remarkable in itself. "Kodak's implementation of the image system from the point of detailed planning to implementation was about three months, which is quite unusual for a system of that size." Indeed, the project was completed just in time for the ASC's birth in 1991.

Since its implementation, the technology surrounding the database has changed, but Liewenburg says good planning meant the database has remained technically up to date. "The main changes were making the system more robust, increasing the capacity and making it go faster. The intrinsic nature of what was done was remarkably constant." One evolution change is the acceptance of electronic documents as well as paper documents. Forty per cent of annual returns for 1996 arrived in an EDI format.

They are easily accommodated though, and are stored as Group 4 facsimile files - the same bitmap type used to store the paper documents. "Whether it came in electronically or by scanning, they look the same," says Liewenburg. The present challenge lies in delivering information via the Internet. Currently searches of the document database can either be conducted at the ASC or through an authorised information broker. In the past, information delivery was limited to mail or fax, but Liewenburg says that the capability to deliver images via e-mail will soon be added.

Soon visitors to the ASC's Web site will be able to access the document database and conduct limited searches, a capability Liewenburg says is certainly not afforded by paper or microfilm-based systems.

Copyright © 1997 IDG Communications, Inc.

Security vs. innovation: IT's trickiest balancing act