Have scanner, will travel

Lightweight and portable scanners save time and paper, but agencies need a plan for working them into their systems

Desktop scanners are becoming more widely used in government agencies, a result at least partly of falling prices. And they are being used by different employees. In the past, a dedicated team of archivists would scan documents; now, scanning is becoming a regular side-duty of other employees. And although distributing the job can speed workflow, the agencies might have to readjust security and other elements of electronic document control as a result.

Mississippi, for instance, has discovered the benefit of distributed scanning ' in an immediate way.

Armed with a portable scanner, state Senior Securities Analyst Mike Huggs, for instance, can leave a site he visited 'carrying only a 2-pound briefcase rather than'15 pounds of paper,' he said.

For Huggs, this was good news indeed. He was working in the state's Business Regulation and Enforcement unit when portable scanners became available. BRE's job is to protect consumers in their financial dealings, a task that involves watching corporate financial firms in addition to charitable nonprofits. The examiners make site visits to review books and accounting records, many of which are still in paper form and need to be copied, Huggs said.

In years past, Huggs had to take all the documents he needed to keep to the nearest copy center. Back at the office, he'd have to make even more copies for his co-workers. 'I was wasting an inordinate amount of time,' on these routine administrative tasks, Huggs said.

As an experiment, Huggs started bringing a handheld scanner on site visits, and he was immediately pleased with the results. When the agency issued tablet PCs to the examiners a few years later, they also issued scanners: HP8290 models from Hewlett-Packard. Although the HP8290 isn't officially a portable scanner, it is light and small enough to carry around. With this setup, Huggs and his colleagues could simply scan the documents on-site.

Mississippi was not alone in adopting this practice.

'In the past, organizations would send documents to a centralized place and have specialists who would operate that process,' said HP product manager David Haining. 'Scanning solutions have become much more affordable, and that has really driven the opportunity for moving that centralized application to a department level.'

On the road again

Traditionally, scanners are made for one of three markets. On the high-end, production scanners for industrial use can scan 120 pages per minute or more and cost $100,000 or more. Those usually are tucked away in their own rooms and manned by personnel trained in high-volume scanning. The next level ' departmental scanners ' are typically located in the mailroom and available to everyone in the department.

The third class of scanners, however, is where the action is. It certainly is the fastest-growing class in terms of sales. John Capurso, vice president of marketing at Visioneer, said about 84 percent of the scanners the company sells are made for desktop or mobile use. Visioneer's RoadWarrior, for instance, can easily be carried from place to place and doesn't even need a power outlet ' it can draw power from a laptop PC's USB port.

Such scanners aren't as fast as departmental scanners, but they are handy. They fit on the user's desk and can even be toted on the road. And they're easier for manufacturers to make ' and hence cost less ' because they don't need to be engineered for high throughputs, Hainer said. Most office employees aren't interested in scanning hundreds of pages at a time.

However, as the primary users for scanners change from dedicated scanning professionals to office workers with expertise in areas other than scanning, the manufacturers have had to simplify the user experience. Both HP and Visioneer, for instance, have simplified their software so that once a document is scanned, it can easily be routed to one of a number of preselected locations with a few clicks of a button.

'We're really looking at how to make this thing just simple to use,' Haining said. 'The person may only use a scanner once a week rather than every day.'
Haining said distributed scanning also can change organizational workflow to a certain extent. For one thing, the organization does not need a team of scanning professionals. This eliminates the bottlenecks that happen when one of the professional scanners goes on vacation. It also means users don't have to wait for documents queued up behind other jobs.

'When you have a scanner right there on your desk, you can decide the priority of when those documents get scanned,' Haining said.

Although such convenience seems like a bonus, managers do have to work out the implications of moving scanning to the desktop.

'You do start seeing some changes, maybe not in policy, but certainly in things like accountability,' Haining said. For one thing, organizations should establish rules for naming scan jobs so they can be easily indexed. Those procedures are likely in place with centralized scanning, but they can get lost as each employee saves scans in his or her own way.

Security is another element. Again, centralized scanning procedures probably have security measures for protecting sensitive documents. In decentralized scanning, 'the user is in charge of document security,' Haining said. Whether they are taking the appropriate protective measures depends on agency rules.

But despite these considerations, agency workers might appreciate personalized scanners, if only for the amount of paper they can eliminate.

'Contrary to popular belief, paper does take up oxygen in your office,' Huggs joked. 'It sometimes can suffocate you.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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