posted 1 Dec 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 3
The problem with paper…
Robin Smith on digitising corporate records and information to deliver corporate integration
Since the invention of the Gutenberg press in 1495 there has been a permanent information revolution. In every year since there has been an exponential increase in the amount of information in the world. For example, in 2010
The information society continues to struggle to adapt to this exploding universe of information. Paper and digital records are constantly produced during every part of our working and private lives. This overload of information has many affects, including reducing the amount of time that individuals are prepared to spend on searching and accessing information that might be locked in paper records.
At work, predictions about the paperless office have been made ever since the IBM produced the first operational personal computer in 1954. Individuals within organisations continue to deal with a deluge of paper and digital records. Information that is ‘born digital’ is being managed by organisations, which still survive on a high-paper diet. This divided ‘information estate’ presents an array of risks and threats to the efficiency and operational ability of organisations to deliver high performance.
The case for enterprise digitisation
Digitisation is a term often poorly defined by information professionals but can be defined as being the conversion of analogue items into digital format for the purpose of improving access.2 It can also provide crucial support to assist with preservation of records, where appropriate. Digitisation in its widest application will include any analogue-to-digital transfer. For example, digital imaging of physical records, photography, sound and video recording and transfer.
Digitisation has many facets and the following are the main benefits of implementing enterprise digitisation projects:
Access – to enable current and potential information users wherever they are to use the organisation’s collections and to open up collections that cannot always be accessed physically by the public or regulatory bodies;
Enhance services – to satisfy end-user expectations, as the world wide web is often the first resort of users and to create virtual collections and ‘restore’ dispersed collections through cooperation and partnership with other bodies;
Preservation of materials – to preserve the original materials by making the digital copy available and by reducing physical handling.
There are many sound business reasons for digitising paper records. By digitising something, images for example, information professionals open up a whole new world of analysis for an organisation. By creating a digital version of any enterprise content it is possible to share that information across an organisation so that anyone can use and add value to this business knowledge. For example, the Mona Lisa held in the Louvre museum in
Digitisation also enables reduction in wear and tear on content, particularly physical documents that might be very fragile and damaged image. Many public bodies hold documents that were created in a physical medium and are suffering from age and usage. Digitising physical documents can allow the original physical document to be archived ? for example, within the
Previous promises to relieve the burden of paper records in offices were poorly supported by e-records technologies; this has changed. All organisations are in a period of transition with new digital technologies offering cheaper alternatives to the retention of all physical records including expensive paper records. There is now a critical decision for organisations to make ? to digitise or not? The demand to digitise is growing. The new ‘digital natives’ are a powerful group of customers and staffs expects information to be available in a digital format immediately. Digitisation is not an activity that can be seen in isolation. It is linked to all aspects of services provided by information and records professionals. Digitisation enhances the potential for synergies within business services with other digital collections through shared descriptive information in consolidated or federated online databases.
There are some significant additional factors driving the need to introduce new approaches to digitisation within an organisation.
The expanding information estate
A recent IDC research report outlined the diverse nature of the digital universe, noting that in 2011,” the amount of digital information produced in the year should equal nearly 1,800 exabytes, or 10 times that produced in 2006. The compound annual growth rate between 2006 and 2011 is expected to be almost 60 per cent.”3 The ‘information estate’, the aggregated of business information and data held across all formats, is growing and will a critical point where the amount of accessible information is dwarfed by out-of-date or redundant data held by an organisation.
Digitisation is now racing up organisation’s agendas as a key element of information strategies as formats become obsolete and litigation requirements increase. Within public and private organisations that deal with petabytes of information each year, digitisation of physical documents makes it easier to share with colleagues across networks for quicker review and re-use.
The hangover from the analogue age of physical records in a range of formats presents a series of threats and risks to organisations. The lack of implementation of records standards has been the nightmare facing information professionals for a number of years, with formats abounding and retention poorly applied. Organisations have ignored the expansion of in the information estate, with resources provided to house increasing number of physical documents alongside digital networks for content that quickly filled every available kilobyte of storage.
New strategies for tackling legacy records are urgently required to enhance access, support preservation and reduce the costs of living with a hybrid information estate. A digitisation strategy allows for links to be made across information systems and digital collections to be consolidated and linked by federated search techniques. It also covers the legal aspects of the technology and what staffs need to consider when updating storage strategies.
Benefits of enterprise digitisation
Enterprise digitisation is not an activity that should be seen in isolation. It is linked to all aspects of services provided by the information professionals as part of a corporate information management approach.4 The links between digitisation, records management and information governance need to established in order to gain a greater range of benefits from enterprise digitisation projects as possible.
The benefits of digitisation relate to the following:
Increasing access to information and knowledge.By creating a digital representation of an image, information professionals can easily share that content around the world for anyone to view so that they may experience the image and examine it. This enables value to be added to content that was previously semi-active in storage systems that were only presenting a cost to an organisation;
Minimises storage, retrieval and work flow management. Accessible digital content can be accessed and retrieved in a fraction of the time a physical copy can be retrieved, for example compare the cost of using a browser to search and retrieve a document with the time taken to remove items from an organisation’s physical archive;
Cost savings on data entry, filing and personnel management. It costs £20,000 per year to store a four-drawer filing cabinet. Contrast this with just £250 to store up to one hundred gigabytes of digital storage on a server. This highlights the difference in ongoing costs arising from organisational storage of information;
Operational efficiencies (minimises errors, quick retrieval, and is not labour intensive). Freeing staff from unnecessary bureaucratic tasks including the accessing of physical files, often not located near offices, is one major benefit to an organisation from digitisation. In addition the application of quality to digitised content can drive up accuracy of records and reduce duplication of content;
Sharing of information quickly and to several individuals at once. Information and knowledge transfer is a new area of concern to organisations that want to reduce costs. Sharing digital content is instant compared to physical transporting material over even a short distance; and
Secure documents electronically minimise loss due to damage or disaster. Digitisation also allows reduction in wear and tear on an image, staff can access an image without ever needing to touch what could be an already very fragile and damaged image. They may even find that they can open up whole new lines of analysis through digitisation as an image can be enhanced and studied in great detail.
Protecting the brand
There is a constant need for information professionals to promote and protect the brand built during digitisation projects. The unique products produced constitute information services that can greatly assist the modernisation and harmonisation of the information estate. Great care must go into the protection of the information products and brand particularly during recessionary times.
It is possible for digitisation technologies to be dismissed as costly, ineffectual or the latest white elephant so information professionals must be combatitive and protect products to ensure ongoing success. By rethinking marketing on a regular basis and thinking of new ways of communicating with the organisation the information brand can maintain credibility and integrity even in the face of negative responses from sectors of the organisation.
Security and threat assessment
Rapid responses to disasters, data breaches and accidental losses are an essential part of the information professional’s toolkit. Digitisation is the best strategy for securing key records currently held in paper format. Selling digitisation is not all about communicating benefits; it must also include outlining the security threats arising from loss of paper records in floods, fires and other disasters.
Constant monitoring of threats can help assess the resources required to digitise key records that have been identified as being at risk.
Information value management
Information is recognised as a currency for organisations. The ideas, solutions and knowledge held in business records constitute a value that has to be managed by any organisation.
Digitisation is not undertaken in isolation from other information management initiatives and the linkages can help promote the benefits to an organisation. This can build the presence of information management within an organisation and provide business context for digitisation projects.
Delivering the harmonised information estate
The convergence of the information estate must happen. Chief information officers have now been provided the tools and techniques to bring together information sources. The question is about at what speed do organisations seek to harmonise the diverse range of sources, using techniques that include improved search across digital sources and the migration to standard formats from paper.
Competitive advantage can be established by having all business knowledge available for re-use and sharing. The calculation is to when the investments in digitisation can yield benefits for an organisation and can this be achieved to deliver continuous improvement. Information professionals can support chief information officers by capturing and evaluating benefits from digitisation to build a robust case for a commitment to this strategy within information programmes.
Ray Kurzweil, an American Futurist, recently posited that western societies are subject to a, “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” He believes that these changes will trigger “the merger of biological and non-biological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”5 How does this relate to organisational digitisation strategy? Well, the realities of technology advancement and the potential for improvement are only demonstrated by experience rather than grandiose claims about the possible futures.
There are any numbers of possible futures for digitisation and any attempt to predict what will happen could result in calamity. Information professionals have no better knowledge of what could happen than any other professional but it is possible to anticipate changes that are likely to occur, rather than guaranteed to impact an organisation.
H.G. Wells predicted that “the whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual,” forming a so-called World Brain that would eventually give birth to a “widespread world intelligence conscious of itself.”6
The era of information overload is being evaluated and there are issues for information professionals within all organisations to consider. Digital utopians believe that having all information available at any point breeds new connections, new ideas, and new ways of working. Pessimists believe that too much information is impacting attention and creating atomised individuals, even within an organisation. The reality is that there are reasons for information professionals to be positive and less so with the opportunity to create a harmonised information estate.
Information professionals must now evaluate how digitisation fits into an arsenal and seek to deploy the tools and techniques outlined to deliver improvement to sustain the support for enterprise information programmes. The potential is there to transform organisations and modernise ways of working for staff who are desperate for relief from information overload.
Robin Smith is head of information governance at the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust. He has adapted this article from an excerpt of his report, Digitising Records and Information Assets, published by Ark. For more information go to www.ark-group.com
1. Smith, R., ‘Tracking Information Overload – research paper’, Northumbria University, Northumbria, 2010.
2. Smith, R., Corporate Document Management Strategy, Nottinghamshire County Council, Nottinghamshire, 2008.
3. Gantz, J.F., The Diverse And Exploding Digital Universe- IDC White Paper, EMC, 2008.T
4. Article on digitisation projects available from http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/issues/1007/laptops-on-loan-1007.cfm, accessed in June 2010.
5. Article on digitisation available from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2006/06/14/DI2006061402086.html, accessed during June 2010.
6. Smith, R., Marketing Records Projects, Records Management Society Bulletin,