John Hancock examines electronic document management and finds a system that can save a business time and money in the long run.

The "paperless office" has been a recurring theme in plans for a more efficient working environment ever since Xerox researchers first coined the term.

There are now electronic databases capable of recording and recalling the facts relating to any transaction or client relationship but a client relationship consists of more than bare facts.

In most circumstances a contract remains a paper-based document. Also, as Roger Clark, sales and marketing director of the August Group, explains: "The London wholesale insurance market is still face-to-face and document intensive."

The challenge is to bring all correspondence into one format whatever media

In his book "Document Management for the Enterprise" Michael J.D. Sutton explains that only a small part of any company's information is contained in electronic databases.

Most is in the form of documents such as invoices, legal records and correspondence that need to be stored and retrieved in a database format.

Customer expectations
Nobody wants to have to assemble information to answer a customer's enquiry or generate a quote from two or more systems. But in today's climate of consumer expectation, that type of delay might just lose a client who is used to instant answers from call-centre-based businesses.

What is needed is a system that can place all documents on an equal footing whether they have been generated electronically or on paper.

That is what modern document management achieves. Instead of printing out the electronic records and filing them in a paper file, modern document management systems create electronic versions of paper documents and file them in a database.

Most businesses nowadays have the components required for document management. What they need is the means to create electronic files with equal or better convenience and access than paper files, with all documents together and with the capability to add notes or record amendments without losing the original wording. Also to display the stored information in a way that will support other systems such as customer relationship management. There are such systems called document management systems and they work to a familiar pattern but using electronic files rather than paper as the carrier medium.

Electronic document management systems allow paper files to be scanned or faxed in to the system and stored in an electronic folder.

Once in the document management system, the electronic image of a document will be allocated its own reference within a subject folder to make access easy and identify different document types. An additional facility available in most systems is to transform those scanned documents, through Optical Character Recognition software, into editable text or to allow "on image" notes to be added.

This means that not only may the image be stored but also it can be added to or amended just as a paper document might be updated.

Search criteria can be tailored to suit any business. Folders can be grouped according to some basic criteria for easier access.

Outputs can be to screen or through a printer and, when on screen, several documents can be displayed at once. Also, the output can support client relationships both on a long-term basis, by providing the data for marketing campaigns, and on a single event basis, by providing, on screen, the information about the client that makes them feel that they are a valued client rather than a file.

And, of course, electronically held data can be applied more extensively including through the internet when sharing data.

The price
Of course, brokers considering using document management will wish to know the cost but, because the market is immature, there are few pressures on price as yet. Be prepared to invest from between £10,000 for a fairly simple system, up to £250,000. But cost is not everything. Potential users should consider the staff savings that such a system could permit and the saving of being able to store all paper originals in a manner that considers space rather than accessibility because day-to-day access is through the document management system. Consider also the advantage of being able to bring to screen all relevant material about a client, however it came into the system.

There are a number of options available to brokers who are unsure of the best option. Companies such as Cincom offer free trials to those wishing to explore the value of document management. Datacore provides consultancy to demonstrate its Procession software

In the context of all the other developments which brokers need to consider, document management systems will ensure that the vital information held by the business – what some would call the lifeblood of the business – is held in a manner that will allow its maximum use in support of all business systems in a virtually paperless office.