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In this e-world… IS THE DOCUMENT DEAD?


Paul Hetherington, Senior Consultant, Unisys Ltd


In today's world where we have almost universal access to electronic forms of communication through a multitude of media channels, is the concept of a "document" still a valid one in the business and government environments? Is it the case that documents should be relegated to the entertainment or domestic arenas? A jumping off point would be to try to define what we mean by "document". The dictionary defines a document as "a writing conveying information". There is also a suggestion that the information that the document carries is factual and reliable, as in the act of documenting. Certainly, any attempt at definition has to cover items that are in every day use, such familiar things as letters, lists, printed forms and contracts. As well as these paper items covered in writing or printing, it is generally accepted that documents today include graphical elements such as diagrams, maps and even pictures. But how far can we push the definition; is a word processor file held on a computer system that incorporates a video clip really a document? How do you print it? And then there is the Internet. Information on the Web is organised conventionally as HTML documents, but will contain links to other documents that may or may not belong to the author. So how do you draw a line around the set of linked items that make up the document of interest? There is a further problem. These days, many documents that you view on the screen are generated at viewing time from information held in a datastore. Therefore any item (including this one) that you are reading through your browser may have no real existence as an independent document at all!


Changing role of the document
The document has a long and honourable history. For most of recorded time the document has been the primary, if not only means of storing, organising and retrieving information in a portable form. Prior to the development of the document, mankind was limited in how information could be shared. Cave paintings may be artistic and carved inscriptions may be impressive, but they are difficult to transport, let alone to copy. From time that the Sumerian clerks invented writing in 3100BC to record business and administrative transactions in cuneiform people have been used to information having a physical form and for it to be readily accessible. Of course the document has evolved over time, becoming closely identified with flexible sheets and writing in ink from the time that the Egyptians utilised papyrus as a recording medium. However, many different methods have been tried from Mycenaean Greek scribes recording their Cretean palace inventories on clay tablets in Linear B script, the knotted strings of the Inca bookkeepers in pre-Columbian America and the wax tablets used throughout the classical Mediterranean world.

This association between documents and paper was strengthened by the invention of printing in China, and was really consolidated in Medieval Europe, since the alphabetic system of writing requires very few symbols and is therefore well suited to the mechanics of moveable type. This meant that standard documents, such as books, pamphlets and newspapers could be reproduced quickly and relatively cheaply without needing vast number of clerks to copy them by hand. There remained however the unique or small run documents, for example legal agreements and contracts, which still needed to be produced in the old way using a pen, ink and paper, as printing would not be cost effective.

The introduction of the first commercially viable typewriter by E. Remington & Sons in 1873 brought the capability of producing documents with a printed appearance within the range of modest businesses, and even individuals. Soon after Mark Twain was the first author to typewrite the complete manuscript of a novel on a Remington machine. I am proud to say that the E. Remington & Sons is one of the ancestors of my own company, Unisys Corporation. With the advent of computers, and in particular the introduction of the personal computer developments have continued apace and the methods by which documents could be created and managed have become more and more sophisticated. However it is only recently that the connection between the idea of a document as a medium for containing information and its physical manifestation as a collection of printed pages has been called into question.


Role of the document in today's e-business and e-government environments
So far I have discussed the document mainly in terms of its information content and the material from which it is made. There is another aspect of documents that needs to be considered, especially in the business and government worlds - the document as the object of work. In many cases the document is not just a passive container of information, but is also a signal that somebody needs to do something with the information. The document is thus also a transport mechanism carrying the customer's or citizen's information and desires to the business or government department. Examples of documents used in this way abound; the application form; the tax form; the letter of complaint. All of these need to be recognised, read, understood and processed. This is until now. Today there are number of trends in the use of technology which have the potential to radically alter the role of the document and may bring about its demise.

Unsurprisingly it is the Internet which is having the most influence on the document as a tool of business. Technologies such as email and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) have been important, but have not been radical in changing the fundamental nature of the transaction between the individual and the organisation. Indeed the nature of this form of interaction has not changed since the invention of postal systems; the person creates a document remotely, sends it to the recipient who interprets the information contained and reacts to it. Electronic systems have just decreased the transportation time, without fundamentally improving the process. The advent of the World Wide Web and the Browser have changed the nature of the interaction between an organisation and its customers by opening a real-time "pipeline" between its systems and the customer. Information is not transformed into an intermediate form and can be validated, corrected and submitted whilst the customer is present. The side effect of this method of operation is that the burden, and hence the cost, of the data entry phase of the transaction is born by the customer not the business. Despite the apparent downside, most customers seem to react positively to this experience, and a significant proportion of them prefers to interact in this way. There still remains the problem that some transactions may still require authentication by means of a signature, but developments in security technology should reduce or even eliminate this requirement in the near future.

The trend towards self-service operation is not confined just to Internet operations. Many firms are turning to this way of lowering the costs of maintaining information about their employees. Unisys is a pioneer in this field and has developed extensive self-service human resource applications around the PeopleSoft HR suite. We are now establishing the next trend by offering to outsource these HR functions for other organisations’ employees.

Having captured the customer's input directly and carried out the process requested, most organisations will summarise the information supplied and provide the status of the transaction. In all cases, this will be represented as a document in some form or another. Moreover the expectation is that this document will be printed. The reason for this is very simple, most private customers and citizens have no application systems of their own capable of handling this data in any other way - the universal domestic purchasing and accounting system is yet to be developed. In other words, the pipeline that has been established stops short of being truly two-way - the boundary is the browser at the customer's end.


The future of the document
The document clearly is alive and well today. It fulfils the useful function of encapsulating a set of related information in an easily understood and familiar format. This is true whether the document has a physical manifestation or only exists as computer generated metaphor, or is something in between. There will also continue to be people who cannot or will not communicate electronically and the paper document has still to be accommodated.

The question remains; can we eliminate the document from tomorrow's organisational e-world? I think that we can, if we want to. I can envisage a world where personal knowledge bases are available. These knowledge bases would interact with each other in ways that do not require the organisation of information into document-like structures, but rather into "knowledge elements" to be combined as the situation demands. But, and it is a big but, how are you to interact with your own personal knowledge base? Input should be no problem with speech recognition making rapid strides in reliability, perhaps to be followed by direct thought input. I suspect however, that output will continue to be recognisable as a document whether it is viewable on screen or is projected directly on the retina.

-oOo-

Biography
Paul Hetherington is a Senior Consultant for Unisys Ltd where he provides specialist advice and design expertise to the field of business process automation, with a primary focus on workflow, document management and end-user computing. He has worked with major financial institutions in Europe and America and with local and central government organisations in the UK, at all levels within client organisations.

In this month's edition of Document Management Update:

IDC sees healthy growth for content management. more>>
Tower delivers case working at States of Jersey. more>>
CMC engages J-Media to web-based DM for remote working. more>>
Pacific Coast selects Easy software. more>>
Degussa standardises on Communique. more>>
Pfizer opts for Day intranet platform. more>>

 

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