Digitization Means Different Things to Different People

The digital transformation is on and it is affecting everyone. For some industries, it has created total disruption (can you say Blockbuster and Kodak?) For others it has been an irritant. But it is gaining momentum. Yet a McKinsey study showed that, on average, industries are currently less than 40 percent digitized. As the digital wave is at least a decade or more old, this is somewhat surprising. Some industries, like automotive, are less than 32 percent digitized. Trying to put percentages on this transition, however, is difficult and made harder in terms of how we define digitization and what areas of a company we are focusing on.

The digital transformation is affecting how we make our products and offer our services, how we market and distribute our products and services, the ecosystems within our organizations, and the processes used throughout the organization and its interfaces as well as the supply chains.

Though there has been a lot of change in how we handle and transmit information such as paper and digital files, the most disruptive aspects of this change are actually embodied in the processes and supply chains integral to all companies. This digital movement is increasing economic pressure on all companies, no matter where they are on the performance curve.

Paper is Not Dead

For many of us, the most tangible aspect of this revolution is the amount of paper documents we see and handle and the ways we currently use paper. Many of the older requirements for using paper output, such as for audit and compliance, for backup, or for signatures have gone away. But there are many processes in which using paper still makes sense, especially if the documents can be integrated smoothly into the digital processes of the organization.

Notwithstanding the fact that many older generation employees still prefer using paper documents and drawings (some even refusing to use digital versions), there are some areas where paper is still relevant, and printing, copying and scanning are still pertinent operations. Add to this the much-reduced cost of paper and printing and you can see how paper is around for the foreseeable future.

Large format drawings still don’t look great on small screens like smartphones, or even 14-inch computer screens (yet they are much, much better than only a few years ago). Regulatory and legacy processes still require manual signatures, which can only be applied on paper that is subsequently scanned into appropriate systems. Markups and redlines can be made on digital screens but the creative process of using a pen or litho pencil is still often easier and faster than using digital painting tools.

But Everything Else is Going to be Digital

Where increasingly the amount of information and files are digital, the level of security for these digital assets has also become significantly elevated. The securitization of documents and drawings is now of paramount importance to all IT departments. According to a Forrester study, 93 percent of data security professionals report persistent technical challenges in protecting data, and 62 percent have no idea where their most sensitive unstructured data resides. This leads to huge vulnerabilities, some even catastrophic, as recently demonstrated by the hacking at Equifax. Instead of Social Security numbers, think of manufacturing specifications for your products or design drawings for new construction.

It turns out one of the most secure media for our intellectual property may be paper. Locking file room doors may now be easy – and more secure – than getting hacked. (Haven’t heard of hackers penetrating file storage areas quite yet.)  So, until we feel totally secure with our digital files there will continue to be a use, and need, for paper.

Leveraging Paper

As long as paper is in use, we’ll need to integrate the data on the paper into our existing legacy systems. And the faster and more accurately we do this the better. Fortunately, scanning technology has improved immensely, including very intelligent OCR (optical character recognition). The speed and accuracy of scanners now provides a seamless integration between paper documents and drawings and the digital systems that now manage the data.

Systems now exist that allow for almost complete digitization of documents and all the information contained in them, whether invoices, technical drawings, pictures, etc. Even handwritten information can be assimilated through significant developments in artificial intelligence (AI).

There are still situations where large format printouts are still the most desirable means to review and examine a drawing. Whether on the production floor or at a construction site, the use of larger format printouts is easier than attempting to crowd around small display tablets or laptops. Being able to roll out a drawing on two sawhorses not only allows for many individuals to participate in the discussion but provides context about scale and location. Printers and plotters to create large format drawings have become considerably more affordable, much faster and of higher resolution quality.

Digitization: A Two-Edged Sword

No one will deny that the digital transformation is an irresistible force that will not be stopped, though it will likely lurch forward in inconsistent spurts. The movement has given managers and workers considerably more information and data to use in decision-making and in completing their daily tasks. Increasing search and find speeds and accessibility allows for workflows to be completed with greater velocity and with higher levels of accuracy. This is all positive for business execution and outcomes.

Similar to the beginning of the computing age, there has been a rush to incorporate technology as fast as users can implement it. In this information age, this means the rush to cobble up every bit of information available and store it for potential analysis. Thus, the beginning of the big data generation, where all data is viewed as useful and must be captured.

The eventuality of this effect is we’re now capturing unstructured data, including, for example, emails, videos, websites, etc. (I haven’t included the transcription of verbal communications just yet, but be assured it is being done and will soon be routine given speech recognition technology.)  Every two days the world creates as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, and by 2020 the amount of digital information in existence will have grown from 3.2 zettabytes to 40 zettabytes.

This amount of information and data is overwhelming, and despite the development of big data tools, the majority of legacy systems can’t accommodate this volume. As well, much of the information is outside the capabilities of legacy and contemporary systems (though this gap is clearly being addressed by the fantastic number of information analytics startups). Unless organizations are prepared to train employees in appropriate analysis techniques and decision-making we will see more “paralysis by analysis.”

The Smart Combination of Digital and Paper

The digital transformation movement is ongoing and is only going to accelerate. We also believe paper is not a dead media, though offices are moving to more paperless environments. The combination of digital and paper is going to survive for the foreseeable future. So, what is the “smart” combination of digital and paper from both an efficiency and cost basis?

Bringing the various elements of the paper-based processes closer to the digital systems promotes faster and more accurate information movement and helps to reduce overall cost. This means the systems managing the digital files should integrate well with the scanners and printers used to interface with the paper documents and drawings in the office and making sure the input to the digital systems (primarily through scanning) is easy to set up and maximizes the identification of needed data. Use of sophisticated OCR and AI can increase the speed of data collection through to data usage.

On the printing and plotting side, using solutions that recognize the value of strong printing/plotting features and are easy to set up, especially as new equipment is installed, minimizes the cost of paper and ink while providing exceptionally high-quality prints for production, the field, sales and customer support. Solutions that can select appropriate paper sizes, image quality, and set development can increase printing speeds substantially, often the complaint of many of the end-users of the output.

Paperless Office Depends on Digital Transformation

The paperless office is still a conceptual idea and may never be reached in its truest sense. But the digital transformation has clearly reduced corporate reliance on paper documents and drawings. But this transformation has been uneven across industries, in different parts of companies, and by company size. And the increase in total information collected and stored is making the focus on reducing paper less urgent. We need to start focusing on the overwhelming amount of digital information we maintain and how to actually use it logically versus just hoarding it.

Offering integrated solutions — scanners and printers along with the digital file management systems — only makes sense from the customer’s perspective as they see easier and faster implementation and greater holistic ROI for their paper-based workflows. Rather than segmenting the various elements of paper-based processes, create an image of an integrated, efficient system that flows data from input through to analysis and output and gives users a greater sense of how contemporary, paper-based processes should work.

Scott Brandt

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel

is president and CEO of eQuorum, a leader in cloud document management technology.