OCR – the P2P evolutionary bridge

Posted by Pete Loughlin in AP Automation, OCR 10 Nov 2015

OCR is a very clever technology and I would not want to decry its use to automate the capture of business information whether that’s in the purchase to pay world or other fields. But increasingly, I despair at its use. It’s being used to extract data from old world ways when we should really be using new world ways in the first place and often, OCR is more akin to archaeology than to P2P best practice.

Site LogoI still say OCR, perhaps I should say “capture”, but it’s the same thing I’m referring to. Very clever software that can read what we write or print on paper. Back in the day (a cliché meaning when I was younger) that was a good thing because most businesses still dealt in paper. Even if the paper was produced by a printer fed by a computer, paper was the communication medium – it was the information currency. And OCR represented an evolutionary leap in business process technology – just as the fax machine did.

Yes – the fax machine represented key evolutionary stage in business process optimisation. To understand why a now archaic office tool was so important, you have to understand how business worked before it. Any written communication used to depend on paper and postage. Requests for quotes were done in the mail. Quotations themselves were posted. Requisitions were passed around the office for approval and finally, perhaps weeks after the requirement was originally identified, a PO was sent – again via the mail – to a supplier. What used to take days or weeks could be done in a day using the fax. And it was all because written communication could be done at the speed of light.

Email has made the fax all but obsolete but, for reasons I don’t fully understand, it has yet to render paper invoices obsolete. Consider how odd this is. A supplier in the modern world uses a computer to generate an invoice. It produces a piece of paper which is sent to a customer. In order to pay that invoice, the customer rekeys the invoice details onto their computer. In the 21st century, our P2P API is paper? The interface between two high tech systems is as low tech as you can imagine.

The evolutionary step that OCR or capture technology represents was important because invoices were historically paper based. Other documents such old books and historic texts were, by their nature, paper based and there is no doubt that document management systems have been invaluable in preserving and recording these documents. The extension of the use of OCR to business documents is only really valid as long as the documents we are managing are paper. In the 1990s that was almost universally true. At the turn of the century it was less true but today it simply shouldn’t be true.

Just as the fax machine was an advance at the time, it was a technology that had at it’s heart an assumption that we needed paper, but now we have computer technology at all stages of our business transactions we need to reconsider. An invoice is not a piece of paper with information on it. An invoice is the information that used to be held on paper.

Clearly, we are still in a transitionary phase. Paper invoices will continue to exist and while they do, OCR and capture technologies have an important place in complimenting the electronic business world but it is important to understand the OCR and capture, like fax, was always just a bridge between the old paper world and the new electronic world. There’s a few stragglers left on the bridge but once we’ve all crossed, we’re not going back.

Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin

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