Our increasingly interconnected, automated and digitized world offers many benefits for businesses large and small. Yet one frustrating business situation seems almost impossible to solve: mountains of paper.
In the form of printed documents, receipts, expense records and all those business cards gathered from new contacts and business prospects, paper documents are one of the few things we can't seem to dig our way out from under.
I have tried several systems to deal with the mounting piles of pertinent information that still land in my home office, from the “desk stack” chess game to the “Pendaflex shuffle” in actual filing cabinets, to the “toss box” with the current year’s date marked on the side.
All of these systems have some merit. Looking back from the beginning of 2011, however, I still don’t know exactly what I have stored in all these collection areas from 2010. Throughout the past year, I found myself saying aloud all too often, “Is that contract in this pile? I’ve got to get the Scope of Work written!” and “Where is the receipt for last week’s prospecting lunch? I need to expense that.” I’ve also grown tired of storing all those business cards I collect, a desk drawer full of them.
One thing is certain at the dawn of a new year, I’m losing precious office space, time and ultimately money trying to keep up with all these dead trees. I'd happily recycle them all if I could just find an efficient and cost-effective way to organize the information in an easily accessible—preferably digital—form.
I’ve been looking for an automated solution that can feed all this stuff into my Mac and, ideally, integrate the data with Google Apps cloud-based document management that my consulting business uses.
With that end in mind, I recently decided to try the NeatDesk for Mac Desktop Scanner and its Digital Filing System.
Installation of the NeatWorks for Mac software and Neat Desk ADF scanner was easy and straightforward. The application even asked to autoupdate the first time I opened it. Nice touch.
During the installation, NeatDesk automatically created a Neat Library database file in the root of my Documents folder. When accessed through the NeatWorks for Mac application, this Digital Files System (DFS) provides a "cabinet" and a collection of customizable Folders within the cabinet that store all of the documents, receipts and business cards I scan. Working with the same paradigm in the paper world, NeatWorks use of the cabinet metaphor is helpful, as it’s getting hard to teach this dog new tricks.
NeatDesk scanner was fast and easy to use. For receipts and business cards, the OCR capabilities of the NeatWorks software does a good job in analyzing and segmenting the data off the scanned documents into their appropriate fields. No surprise here, as the original incarnation of this product, NeatReceipts, was geared towards generating expense reports.
All scanned items, whether a document, receipt or business card, land in the NeatWorks “Inbox” where you begin the filing process, with the software automatically identifies the type item you just scanned. Using the OCR data, NeatWorks automatically gathers metadata from the item to better identify its contents.
The application does have some problems with business cards that have colored backgrounds or unusual layouts. In this case you can easily edit and add the metadata yourself.
Interestingly, you don’t have to depend on the NeatDesk scanner to get data into NeatWorks. Anything that can be printed on the Mac can be sent to NeatWorks via the Neat specific options in the "Save to PDF" button in the print dialog box. This is helpful for me, personally, as a way to store some digital items I used to convert to paper for organizational purposes.
A few other features stand out. First, the data NeatWorks gathers from business cards creates contacts that can be exported to Apple's integrated Address Book, handy if you are synching Address Book with Google or Yahoo.
Second, receipts can be exported in .qif files for accounting and tax purposes in Quicken, or as individual PDFs to send to cloud-based apps such as Expensify. Scanned items can also emailed, through Apple's Mail application or other third-party applications such as Entourage or Outlook for Mac.
Lastly, by configuring the Folder Sync settings in the properties of any NeatWork’s Folder, you can automatically export the Folder’s contents from the Neat Library to the Mac’s local file system as individual PDFs. This feature is useful in that you can maintain copies of your critical data outside of NeatWorks, “just in case” the Neat Library file becomes unavailable. You can also upload these PDFs to Google Docs, for example, so they can be accessed via the cloud. Given these export and data movement options, I’m not concerned about all the scanned data living in the Neat Library database file.
All in all, I am happy to report that The Neat Company has put out a system that I believe can help me to slay “the Paper Monster” as they so aptly put it. While I don't think I'll ever be able to get to a "paperless" mode of working, I look forward to providing an update on my "less paper" resolution some time in the next few weeks, including whether it integrates well with Google Apps for cloud-based storage of documents I need on the run.