Special Report on Office Automation: Trend away from paper accelerates: Adrian J Morant examines the latest steps leading towards the

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PROLIFERATION of information which has to be filed, cross-referenced and accessed rapidly is one of the reasons underlying the trend towards the paperless office. Another is the increasing tempo of business which needs speedier communications to enable it to work effectively.

It has been said that some 40 per cent of the output from secretaries has previously been typed - which shows we are still a long way from that goal of a paperless office. Nevertheless, electronic data interchange (EDI) is widely used in the health service, the motor industry and the distributive and other trades to provide standardised electronic 'documents' to speed up information flow and reduce overall costs.

Where vast amounts of documentation have to be processed and stored document image processing (DIP) is increasingly being used. DIP is effectively a modern approach to filing: documents are scanned into the system and converted into an electronic image; data compression being used to minimise disk (generally optical) storage space. Sophisticated indexing and cross referencing is used to help subsequent retrieval.

Abbey National Property Insurance employs an Olivetti FileNet system. Over one million documents have been stored and subsequently shredded (once committed to disk) and now all incoming post is being scanned into the system and routed to clerks for action with the originals being destroyed shortly afterwards.

A different requirement occurs at British Airways, where Kodak optical storage is used to archive flight reservations on its 26 million passengers annually. BA currently keeps its passenger reservation records for two years and its computer department fields as many as 1,000 requests a week for information. One moment they may be answering a customer query and then, a moment later, solving an accounting question.

However, even small organisations can store large amounts of data conveniently. New generation Floptical discs from companies such Iomega provide a read/write capacity of 21 Mbyte (roughly equivalent to 10,000 pages of text). As the drives can also read and write all the 1.44Mbyte and 720kbyte floppies that have been used up to now, they provide an ideal storage medium with separate disks being used for each major project or subject to simplify retrieval.

Where documents have to be read into a computer, a flat-bed scanner coupled with optical character recognition (OCR) software is a boon in the busy office. For example, Calera Recognition Systems, well known for its Wordscan Plus software, claims that its OCR products are the fastest and most accurate systems for the broadest range of documents including draft quality dot-matrix, typewritten, fax, laser printed and multi-generation photocopies.

While much of the above relates to smoothing the flow of information around the office, electronic mail and messaging services can deliver text and data instantaneously from one end of the globe to the other.

Many large organisations have implemented their own private electronic mail systems based on software such Lotus cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail or WordPerfect Office. However, the emphasis of these is to communicate across the organisation's local area network (LAN) rather than globally.

Even though public electronic messaging services have been available for a number of years, their widespread use has been held back by lack of compatibility between them. Today, as more of them offer connectivity to the international X400 message handling protocol, the problem is being resolved.

For example, Mercury's MultiMessage service allows users to send e-mail messages in a preferred format. These can be delivered to other users of the system or to users of other e- mail systems which use the X400. In addition, it can deliver messages as telexes or fax. Thus, a MultiMessage user is able to communicate electronically with an enormous community around the world. This is more versatile than the Mercury Link 7500 service which has been in operation for a number of years.

Similarly, BT's Mailbox messaging service is a menu-based X400 compatible development from Telecom Gold. It provides a broad level of connectivity similar to MultiMessage. In addition, BT provides its Access software package to enable users to prepare, edit and read messages off- line. The software then automatically dials into the system to send these messages and read any that are waiting. One of the benefits is that even the least skilled typist is able to peck away at a keyboard and so cope with messaging without secretarial assistance.

Thus, we discover, one of the real barriers to electronic messaging: many men cannot type while an equal number of women will not admit that they can in case people think that they are secretaries.