In 1990, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review that was to have a profound effect on management, information technology and, in particular, imaging. The article, "Reengineering Work: Don't Automate, Obliterate," by Michael Hammer, explained how organizations, if they changed the way they acquired and used information, could boost productivity not by a few percentage points, but by as much as several hundred percent.

The concept, known as business process reengineering (BPR), has been embraced by private-sector firms and a growing number of public-sector institutions. Reengineering calls for a complete redesign of how work is performed and services are delivered. It starts by setting goals and then rethinking how tasks are completed, with technology as the change enabler.

Many experts consider BPR one of the key benefits of imaging. It ensures that a government agency does not "pave the cowpath" with automation, but actually redesigns the business process to create significant improvements in cost, time and value. For example, imaging allows an organization to capture information at the source and centralize its access.

Incoming paper documents, once treated as a separate source of information, can be scanned and indexed with existing databases of information, so that workers can locate and access every piece of information -- whether it concerns a crime, a parcel of property or an individual's tax return -- with just a few keystrokes or clicks of a mouse.

Imaging allows an organization to turn sequential or serial processes into parallel ones. Instead of requiring each staff person to complete paperwork before passing it on to another worker, the imaging system enables various staff to view document images simultaneously, so work is processed by several people at the same time. Because imaging removes paper from a work process, it allows an organization to remove the handoffs that can slow down transactions.

Reengineering achieved through imaging can slash the time it takes to deliver a service and the costs for producing the service. Reengineering also helps an organization wring value from its redesigned process. Think of the value that comes from a reengineered work process that allows a title company to search and fax to itself copies of deeds without leaving the office, rather than going downtown to request that a government clerk perform the same task.

RISKS

But planning and implementing an imaging system that reengineers the flow of work in an organization can be extremely challenging. Imaging systems provide a broad range of options for supporting and enhancing business operations. The interplay between what already exists in an organization and what is envisioned makes implementing imaging systems that support reengineering time-consuming and complex to execute.

If reengineering is passed over for lack of planning, the results can be disastrous. One state agency that implemented an imaging system tried simply to turn a paper process into an electronic process. Instead of benefits, the agency found itself with an imaging project that became expensive and delivered a poor response time. The net results were no better than what they had before they started.

Despite these problems, many government agencies have avoided BPR because of the fear of failure. Obliterating existing work processes without knowing whether the changes will succeed is a risk that few agencies are willing to take.

MODELING TOOLS

In recent years, however, reengineering has become less risky, thanks to business process modeling software. These computer tools perform a key step in BPR -- the creation of a model so that new business process designs can be analyzed and tested.

Before reengineering can take place, planners have to understand how a business process works in terms of its steps, flows and resources (budget, staff and equipment). Modeling software takes that data and speeds up the analysis of existing and proposed business processes. It can simulate