So Many Documents, So Little Cash – the Cost of Access

They face you there – in the file cabinet. Countless folders of paper meticulously separated by tabs and colors, sorted flawlessly in the order specified by your parameters enabling superpower-like speed of access.

This is not a bad thing. Knowledge and experience in your industry have provided you with the ability to plan for how you need your information organized to minimize the time needed to acquire the information you seek. But alas, the digital divide awaits you and change is imminent.

The question is:  How do you maintain this level of effectiveness when converting to digital records management from physical records management?

Let’s walk it through, shall we?

What we’re talking about here is the Cost of Access to information. With a physical filing system, especially one that is in an office space, there are a number of contributors. Some are straightforward and others can be more obscure:

  • Easy Cost #1:  Your time. Even if you are a Jedi Master of organization, if you have more than a couple of file cabinets it will still take time to get up, get your file, copy or scan the document if you need to, return to your seat, communicate the information, and refile the information to either its original location or to the shred/recycle bin.
  • Easy Cost #2:  Leased office space. Office space does have a price. If there are more than a few file cabinets that could be eliminated by imaging the documents contained therein, this could lead to a reduction in the square footage needed for your operations.
  • Cost of maintenance. Yes, your files require maintenance if they are to be effective. Obsolete records can be purged. New customers/products/events need to be added. Existing records need updating.
  • The cost of the office supplies needed to maintain the files. Although arguably trifling, the tabs, folders, labels, special label making equipment, copies of keys to the locked cabinets all still contribute to this cost.
  • Opportunity cost, both in space and your time. Instead of being wasted on passive storage, your office space could be a cozy home away from home for a sales person generating revenue. Instead of you using your time to maintain paper files, you could be engaging in more of the activities that bring greater value to the organization. Not using your resources effectively could result in lost revenue.
  • Security. How important is it to keep the records confidential? What is the cost of that information being divulged either publicly or to the wrong sort of person?

For the sake of simple math, let’s say we’re dealing with a file cabinet that isn’t accessed very often. Costs for your time and space throughout the year are $1,000 and you access the files 10 times. The breakdown cost is $100 per access.

Now, let’s look at converting the information to digital files. In order to make the information effective, the digital versions still need to be organized. The challenge is to balance the cost of conversion with organizational effectiveness.

What we hear about pretty frequently is organizations wanting to identify every document or record by name and content within each file. To use an example with which I think everyone will identify, consider your taxes. You have Form 1040, Schedule C, Form W-2, Form 8822, Form 2848, etc… we all know there are a lot. In a situation like this, we may have a customer want to identify each year of returns and each form individually. Not altogether a bad idea since it allows you to find what you are looking for pretty quickly, but the rub is the cost.

When it comes to document imaging, time is cost. The more detail you would like to have identified the more it will cost because it takes that much more time to find the name of the form and make sure you include all subsequent images that belong to it. When there are only three or four images per named document in a box of 2,500 pieces of paper you are talking about a lot of hand-keying of data.

Then, if you consider the total cost of imaging the documents and how often the information is accessed, you will get a cost of accessing the digital information. In this scenario, I would expect it to be higher than accessing the physical records simply because the level of detail is generally not worth the investment.

Let’s say these tax records are also the records being accessed in the $1,000 file cabinet above. If the cost to image them is $1,500, being accessed 10 times per year will result in $150 per access. More expensive. Potentially not a good investment.

Now, let’s change it up a bit. Instead of identifying every form within a year, we simply make one big PDF file named with the year. It may take a bit longer to find the digital information when you have to page down through the PDF, but the cost of imaging was cut at least in half by eliminating the additional document identification. Your Cost of Access is now $75 per access or less.

Change it again:  If the physical records will be destroyed in four years and are moved to offsite physical storage, then delivered electronically within 24 hours of when they are requested, the combination of offsite storage with Scan on Demand services could drop the cost further to $70 per access.

What am I getting at here? I’m talking about taking a step back from being caught up in the Imaging Bandwagon or letting go of having everything right at your fingertips and looking at what resources are being utilized to access your information and balance that with value and need.

I am happy to concede that having documents in a digital format bring great efficiencies, but at what cost is my question. I’m not saying that imaging is bad or even that the more expensive option may not be worth it, because speed may be critical to your effectiveness. I am saying that you will benefit from taking a moment and consider what your real goals and objectives are and not get fixed on a single path to a solution.

As you look for methods of making your organization truly effective with its information, please do consider document imaging and all the technologies that join that party (OCR, Intelligent Indexing, etc.). But also consider what you are really looking for: a lower cost to access your information, and all the different options at your disposal. Your Bottom Line will thank you for it.

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