Baby Steps Toward A Paperless Office

TO glimpse Harry Bolan's office is to peek at the future.There's a pen-based computer (where a special stylus performs many keyboard functions), a couple of neatly stacked newspapers, and a pile of of self-sticking note pads on the desk. Other than that, Mr. Bolan has achieved what many office managers can only dream of: the paperless office. Bolan is operations manager for the Westinghouse Trading Company in Pittsburgh, which acts as a middleman in foreign-trade deals. Each trade involves dozens of documents - purchase orders, invoices, bills of lading, export licenses, and so on - which workers used to stuff into folders. Sometimes the folders got buried on someone's desk and led to more than one short-tempered confrontation about who had mislaid what. So, beginning in 1987, Bolan introduced computerized document imaging. Today, workers scan all incoming paper - mail, faxes, even the front page of the Wall Street Journal - into a Wang minicomputer. (The original documents are stashed in an abandoned underground mine north of Pittsburgh.) The system also integrates electronic mail and faxes. Employees organize the images into electronic folders, "staple" letters together, make corrections, or even record their oral comments about a particular document, then send them along. While the program is too new for any statistical assessment, Bolan estimates that it eliminates 100,000 pieces of inter-office mail every year. So, slowly, the near-paperless office is drifting into reach. It will take awhile before large corporations really latch on, because cultures are slow to change. (Westinghouse is not extending document imaging to its other units.) Small offices will take even longer. I should know. I'm one of them. For the past four months, I've tried to become near-paperless. I've used two computer scanners - an older model from Microtek and, more recently, a new ScanJet IIc from Hewlett-Packard. While document imaging is fine for large corporations, I've found that it consumes far too much computer space for the average desktop user. So I've used software that employs a process known as optical character recognition or OCR. It works this way: I take a report or press clipping and pop it into the scanner (which looks and works a lot like a small photocopying machine). The scanner makes a computer image, I select the portion of the page I want, then the OCR software converts it into actual words. Disk space is no longer a big problem. My 139,000-byte image becomes a 5,000-byte WordPerfect file. I have used two OCR packages generally considered the best in the industry - Calera's WordScan Plus and Caere's OmniPage Professional 2.0. Both are powerful software packages with some excellent features. Both require Microsoft Windows 3.0. OmniPage does a better job of recognizing text because of special links it has with the ScanJet IIc scanner. I was able to scan a wide variety of documents, including news clippings and reports on yellow-background paper, with a high degree of accuracy. The problem is that OmniPage demands too much computer memory for the average user. My four megabytes of memory were barely enough to run the software. Because I could not configure my system with a special swap-file, most of OmniPage's advanced features weren't available to me. WordScan Plus, on the other hand, requires less memory, does almost as good a job on most documents, and is the most intuitive software program I have ever worked with. Except for a six-page quick-start guide, I never read any Calera directions. It is that simple. So how paperless am I? Not very, I'm afraid. My good intentions to scan the piles of paper on my desk have outrun my hard-disk capacity and my patience. For all its advances, OCR still takes a long time - much longer than photocopying a page or faxing a document. When OCR gets to be as simple and fast as the fax, the near-paperless office won't be far behind. Even for one-man offices like me.

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