Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology is used to convert scanned or photographed images of paper documents and PDF files, into machine-encoded data. It may not garner headlines in the same way as some of the more fashionable tech trends, yet it has helped to drive considerable social change and innovation in business over the years. So how has it developed and what significance does it hold for organisations today?
OCR through the ages
OCR isn’t ‘new’ technology, having being leveraged since the last century to support use cases including telegraphy and reading aids. In fact, one of the first developments of OCR was via the invention of the optophone in 1913, by Irish physicist Dr. Edmund Fournier d’Albe. As one of the earliest known applications of sonification, the optophone scanned text from books or newspapers, generating musical tones which correlated to letters. The optophone was a significant breakthrough for the visually impaired by helping them to read much more widely than what had been available in braille.
Later in 1966, IBM launched its 1287 optical reader, which was the first scanner capable of identifying handwritten numbers and characters, as well as machine printed credit card numbers and cash register rolls. By using this solution, information written by sales clerks or delivery drivers could be directly scanned into a computer, reducing manual data entry and driving significant efficiencies for users at the time.
Moving forward and by the turn of the millennium, free OCR software was launched via the likes of Adobe Acrobat and Google Drive. Solutions like these allow users to upload paper documents and convert them into editable PDFs or text files. It also allows users to instantly find words or expressions, without needing to trawl through the document by hand.
In recent years, further technological advancement has led to a rise in OCR-driven applications for data entry being adopted across the business and finance ecosystem, particularly within accounting and bookkeeping.
So why has it become such a hot topic in the industry, and what are the benefits from adopting these solutions?
OCR significantly reduces the time and cost spent on manual data entry, with research finding that specialised solutions in this field can reduce data capture times for paper documents by as much as 75 per cent.
As a numbers based industry, just one typo can mean a drastic misinterpretation of an account and the potential loss of a client. As well as speed of delivery, OCR ensures much higher accuracy rates than the human eye, with intuitive in-built algorithms analysing and extracting data from paper documents with verified accuracy.
OCR-based data entry tools allow businesses to file documents in the cloud, retrievable on any device, at any time. As well as decluttering the office, this means users no longer need to print, store, photocopy, or process reams of paper documents by hand any more.
Engage your employees
Let’s face it, spending long hours on paperwork isn’t fun. Reducing this burden will make your employees happier and more engaged in the long term. Instead, staff can focus more on the analysis of your client’s data, rather than its entry and in supporting other revenue-driving lines of business.
OCR in practice
In order to generate these efficiencies and more, many accountants and bookkeepers are now choosing automated, cloud based tools which leverage OCR and machine learning in order to operate with lightening speed and precision.
For instance, AutoEntry, a Xero add-on, serves over 1,200 Xero practice partners, through which over 6,000 businesses are set up on the platform. AutoEntry works by capturing and analysing scanned and photographed purchase and sales invoices, receipts, bank and card statements, automating data entry into Xero. Many accountants and bookkeepers find its flexible pricing structure, ease of use and quality of features outshine other solutions in this space. For instance, AutoEntry captures tax summaries by default and if requested, full line item details including description, quantity and unit price. AutoEntry also remembers how you categorise your expenses such as the relevant supplier account, nominal account and tax code without ever creating duplicate supplier accounts or posting duplicate invoices in Xero. AutoEntry even matches invoices to purchase orders.
With so many plates to keep spinning, it may often seem like there isn’t enough hours in the day. However, advances in OCR-based technologies means we can, and should, lean on smart tools to take care of unnecessary practices such as manual data entry. It will increasingly be the only option for those firms looking to capitalise on innovation to support the growth of their business and better serve their customers.