OCR: Paper’s Biggest Threat

As digital transformation continues to catch on, some folks still can’t let go of paper — evidenced, among other things, by IDC’s MaturityScape Benchmark: Digital Transformation of Document Workflows in the United States, which revealed that 65 percent of businesses are still reliant on paper. But all this stubborn affinity to paper yields insane costs and an inherently slow and inefficient medium to drive business processes. An infrastructure built on paper is an infrastructure with inefficiency baked in.

And for the businesses that jumped ship for digital alternatives, they’re still stuck handling paper because their vendors, suppliers, partners, customers, or any stakeholder you can think of is likely still using paper. Now, these businesses need to find an efficient way to merge information trapped on paper with their electronic documents into their business software or enterprise content management system.

It looks like paper’s long death is creating some interesting problems for all of us.

OCR and file conversion solutions are integral building blocks for businesses trying to corral the barrage of incoming paper and electronic documents into line-of-business applications, business process automation solutions, and enterprise content management (ECM) systems. Businesses can leverage these against existing scanning investments, or embed the solution within other key software investments, to capture paper and electronic documents to the file types their businesses run on — many in searchable, editable form. Capturing documents in this fashion is beneficial for use downstream, as it can be indexed and searched for easily, and worked into automated workflows.

Today’s OCR and file conversion solutions are intelligent and can be tailored to automate OCR and conversion processing. For instance, some business documents have complex structures which can be confusing to scanners. But a robust OCR engine can recognize and maintain charts, graphs, tables, images, headers, footers, page and Bates numbers, hyperlinks, email addresses and so on, so users don’t have to spend time evaluating and touching up captured images. Barcodes are typically supported as well to streamline downstream processing. What’s more, administrators can train OCR solutions to recognize irregular characters or fonts that may be commonplace in a customer’s document.

And to keep work moving, many solutions support watched folders for intervention-less job processing. A system can be pointed at a designated “hot folder” and configured to kick off a workflow when documents are sent there. Some even enable administrators to create schedules or intervals for monitoring folders. So, for example, businesses can monitor a network folder where scanned documents are sent to, and kickoff an OCR/conversion workflow at a scheduled time–such as overnight when there is little network traffic.

These solutions are quite portable, too. Using SDKs and APIs, businesses can integrate OCR capabilities into their custom-built web and mobile applications, like a customer-facing application or pointed at e-forms hosted on your website, to facilitate self-service operations, a growing trend that is leaving customers satisfied. Many solutions support a native mobile application, which allows users to capture, cleanup, and OCR documents and images using a smartphone or tablet.

For global businesses, OCR eliminates language barriers. Today’s leading OCR engines can detect nearly 200 languages and differentiate between multiple languages on the same page. This can help businesses standardize on a language, as administrators can employ the OCR’s API to dovetail with a translation application.

Recently, document comparison features have found their way into OCR solutions, which can compare two versions of the same document and highlight differences for users. Instead of reading line by line — which is very time consuming and doesn’t ensure accuracy — businesses can quickly and assuredly approve or publish documents.

The importance of PDF

PDF is among the most widely used file types in the business world. And given its prevalence, any decent OCR solution should offer tools to create, work with and manipulate PDFs. In fact, it is an imperative for team environments where multiple people work together on the same documents.

Everyone knowledge worker handling PDFs have access to basic PDF manipulation, like the ability to rearrange and delete pages or merge documents — even those saved in different formats — to a single file. Users should also be able to comment on, annotate, markup, manipulate and reorder elements and images within a document. Particularly handy is the ability to sign documents digitally, or use stamps, which can streamline approval steps without sacrificing document security.

PDF editing tools also offer handy security features that protect information at the document level — for documents with sensitive information, users can use redaction tools to hide sensitive text and images before publishing or sharing a document, or save documents as encrypted PDFs to keep unauthorized users from accessing sensitive information. PDF/A is often supported too, for efficient long-term storage.

The path to digitization

Paper is slow. We have the ability to do everything we are used to doing on paper in digital form. And guess what? It’s so much better. OCR solutions can be the first step in digitizing your business. It’s faster, it makes fewer mistakes, it saves money, it makes your customers happy and your life a little less hectic. And even for the paper-free or paper-light operations, an OCR engine can improve the communication between your disparate systems and standardize your business documents in dynamic file types.

is president and senior analyst for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Ames has worked for prominent consulting firms including KPMG and has more than 15 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors. Ames has lived and worked in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and enjoys being a part of a global industry and community.