Business computing has evolved a great deal since the phrase "paperless office" first appeared many years ago, yet the paperless vision remains an almost mythical ideal. Unfortunately, it's likely to remain so in the wake of the new federal "e-Sign" law, which went into effect this past Oct. 1. A more accurate description of the new environment in which imaging, document management, electronic signatures and digital signatures will operate in 2001 is "less paper."

Nonetheless, some truly remarkable technology exists for streamlining both business-to-business (B-to-B) and in-house business processes, enabling faster, more convenient interaction with customers. During the past few years, companies have witnessed a rapid evolution in imaging and document management solutions. Today, the rate of evolution accelerates because the Electronic Signatures in Global Commerce Act-the official name of the e-Sign bill-almost eliminates concerns about the legality of electronically consumated transactions.

All manner of electronic signatures have become an integral part of imaging and document management technology. Even the definitions of terms such as "imaging" and "document management" are becoming obsolete as businesses integrate overlapping technologies in an electronic age. Indeed, you can expect to see the phrase "content management" more frequently this year in product and vendor descriptions.

What has occurred is the transformation of the entire document-handling process, from initial inquiry to forms and transaction capture, creation of correspondence, processing and-now that e-Sign is in place-the execution of contracts. While technological developments of the past several years have put more and more "paperless" pieces into place, it's the Web and remote- transaction capabilities that are sparking today's rapid changes.

These latest developments are more readily understood in an historical context. Companies started out by capturing documents in electronic form by scanning them. Indexes enabled quick access to individual files, and just as importantly, electronic storage allowed for simultaneous and remote access by anyone who wanted to view the information. Companies no longer needed to hire people whose principal job was to roam the building in search of file folders in use elsewhere or possibly misplaced. Instead, files became immediately viewable at anyone's desktop. Later, the use of standard Web browsers, rather than special client software, to view documents made widespread access even more affordable.

Once documents were captured as images and organized in electronic file cabinets, it became possible to move, or route, them to specific personnel or operations based on a set of user-defined rules. Companies found this workflow technology to be a useful way of making sure the right person took action on the right file at the right time. Instead of attacking a stack of paper files, the employee simply accessed a queue of electronic files, did his or her job, then sent the file on its way to the next person in the process. This also allowed the company to have an audit trail, indicating where the file was in the business process.

Steady improvements in the technology brought greater and greater efficiency to a wide variety of business processes. And with each new development, organizations recognized opportunities to provide enhanced security through limitations on access to a file and actions that could be taken on it.

Many companies today are still putting this technology in place. Once they do, they normally realize cost savings in the areas of printing and distribution as well as the amount of office space needed to store paper files. Efficiency gains almost always include faster processing and improved customer service. Given time, of course, more and more of these companies will tap the newer and more sophisticated technologies that have become available only recently. For example, today's character recognition software can capture handwritten information from an image of a document, such as a form or remittance slip, and move that information into a legacy database system with search and reporting capabilities.

Meanwhile, the technological developments continue. Currently, the National Automated Clearing House Association (NACHA) is conducting check truncation pilots to allow billers to take physical checks and automate the process of turning them into electronic banking transactions. Most companies know that paper checks will not go away immediately; they're looking for ways to speed up the payment process, reduce check clearing costs and realize improvements in cash flow.

Of course, the ideal in this pilgrimage toward the paperless business is the capability of receiving payments and other information electronically-that is, to move beyond scanning and data capture to electronic character recognition. For instance, when a consumer accesses a bank's Web site and fills out an application for a loan electronically, the bank saves on processing costs. The data entered on the electronic form is automatically captured within the bank's business systems. There, the information can be stored as data, rather than as an image, but it can still be called up as an image for viewing by bank processors. These same workers can, in effect, pour the information into various correspondence and requests for additional information about the applicant. In short, content management technology allows the information to be stored in a compact, digital format but re-created almost instantly as a viewable image.

Which brings this discussion back to e-Sign. Banks, securities firms and credit card companies have led the way in making information available online, but much of that activity has been backed by ink on paper-in other words, a customer signature that has been mailed or faxed to the institution. With the passing of e-Sign, however, these business contracts can be handled, from start to finish, electronically. Rather than stacks of forms, such commerce in the future will involve graphics tablets that display whole document pages, electronic signing pads, laptops, handheld devices and smart cards.

It's happening now in fact. This past October, just as e-Sign was taking effect, Ericsson introduced its model R380 smart phone, a voice phone with a digital display and electronic handwriting signature technology from Communication Intelligence Corp., or CIC, of Redwood Shores, CA. Devices such as Ericsson's R380 will become increasingly common, says Guido DiGregorio, president and chief executive of CIC. He believes banks will do million-dollar deals via cell phone before the end of this year.

"The implication," he says, "is that you'll be able to do transactions, or at least interact with your account, from the palm of your hand, wirelessly."

CIC's technology, in addition to digital certificates and signatures, already can be found within-or connected to-desktop PCs. Now that the federal e-Sign law has made it legal to handle business deals through solely electronic means, financial institutions may well step up the pace of their efforts to build genuine links between data input by customers and their internal business systems.

True, banks tend to be conservative in their approach to new technology. But, when it comes to the latest innovations in imaging systems, institutions may be less inclined to postpone the leap. The dramatic gains in efficiency and reductions in processing costs that were brought about by the imaging technology of yesteryear could make the latest developments hard to resist.

Debra Haverson is a business writer in Baltimore.

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