Fax: Still an integral part of the 21st century business

The fax, invented in the mid 19th century and raised into prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is one of today’s most maligned and misunderstood technologies.

January 11, 2012

The fax, invented in the mid 19th century and raised into prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is one of today’s most maligned and misunderstood technologies. You need only spend a few minutes looking at a twitter feed for the word “fax” to realise that many people consider fax to be boring, mundane and out of date. Those people are always surprised to hear how many faxes are still sent every day. “But there’s a good reason fax still plays an important role in business processes: Faxing is ubiquitous, readily traceable, cost effective and comparatively secure compared to email,” says Matthew Brine, VP of OpenText Fax and Document Distribution Group.

While most people think of fax as an antiquated office machine that has long been replaced by other technology, the truth is that fax technology has evolved considerably over the last ten years. There are still fax machines and multifunction printer/scanner/faxes in existence, but many companies have implemented a fax server, an all-in-one fax appliance or a fax service. They have done this to reduce costs, streamline or automate their business processes and improve productivity.

So what is a fax server? We define it as a software application that provides a central network resource that can be used to send and receive fax documents to and from anywhere on the LAN/WAN network or over the Internet. Unlike a standalone fax machine, a fax server application can be integrated with all kinds of business workflow processes that require sending and receiving documents in and out of an organisation. Modern fax technology gives organisations the flexibility not only to receive a document and distribute it to any user or application on the network, but also to send virtually any document from any application.

The first application to consider is desktop or personal faxing, which allows a user to receive a fax either directly via a fax number dedicated to their inbox, or routed from a general fax number. There are many different ways to route faxes to the appropriate user: Based on information from the sending device, on the telephone line configuration, on barcodes or using OCR (optical character recognition) for names, reference numbers or key words. Then there’s always plain old manual routing via email or a workflow application.

Users can receive inbound faxes in their email inboxes, or directly into document management solutions such as OpenText Alchemy or Microsoft SharePoint.
 
Desktop faxing also allows a user to send a fax from any application they are working on. This is as simple as printing and allows the user to include a cover sheet with notes, billing information and define when and how faxes are sent.

More advanced fax technology allows for fax approval processes to ensure that outbound faxes are authorised and sent to the right recipient, as well as restrictions to ensure that data is not sent to the wrong fax number.
 
Beyond desktop faxing, there is fax automation, used by many companies who regularly need to send large numbers of faxes such as purchase orders, invoice or remittance advice notes.  Modern fax technology can determine if a document generated by an application such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP is to be faxed, emailed or printed and sent by mail. Automated faxing can result in thousands of pages of faxes being sent each day.

Fax automation works for inbound faxes too: Invoices, for example, can be immediately included into an automated business process such as accounts payable or order processing.
 
Over the years, fax technology has evolved so that fax servers can also provide certified document exchange an alternative delivery mechanism to fax. This technology allows the sender to distribute any document or file in a secure manner. Certified document exchange provides all the benefits of good fax technology such as extensive tracking, auditing and reporting.
 
What is most interesting about fax in a business setting is that every fax contains data (content) and every fax is the start or end of a business process. This process may be automated or manual. For companies that still receive faxes on fax machines, the business process can only start when someone collects the fax. This may result in delayed actions or even missing faxes.

If the organisation receives some or all of their purchase orders by fax, manual faxing can mean fewer sales. Similarly, financial institutions that receive stock trades and banking instructions via fax may be liable if actions based upon those faxes are not acted upon in a timely manner.

Companies that have gone the automated route have an advantage: Faxes can not only be automatically routed to the right person, they can be automatically integrated into the right workflow. Such companies automate document-centric business processes by extracting data and adding intelligence to inbound documents.

For example, using OCR technology, companies can extract information from a received fax and save it with the fax in a document repository or archive, making it easier to index and search. This becomes especially relevant when one is searching for faxes that were received and filed multiple years ago. Or companies might use the OCR data to automatically populate fields in a data record such as an ERP accounts payable data field. Structured business processes can then be triggered from this information.

 Outbound faxes generally come at the end of a business process. Rules can be put in place that do not allow an outbound fax that is part of a business process to be sent without human or automated approval. For example, purchase orders greater than a set limit may require internal authorisation before being sent. Also, because it is easy to miss-key a fax number on a fax machine or incorrectly address an email, an approval process may be instigated that only allows faxes to be sent to approved numbers or email addresses.

Security is a big part of the reason for the durability of fax. When there is a need to send confidential data securely from Point A to Point B, fax may be the cheapest and easiest way to do it.

Email, by contrast, is one of the most insecure forms of communication around and is most certainly not an appropriate way to transmit confidential information. This is one reason to be wary of fax-to-email services: While they are extremely convenient, they can’t offer the level of security that is needed if you are sending or receiving confidential data. In that case, a fax server is a better bet.

Number portability is another issue with fax to email services. If you stop using a particular service, you will almost certainly lose your fax number: most fax service providers own the fax numbers that they offer, and either do not allow users to take the number with them if they switch to another provider, or charge a hefty fee for doing so. This may not seem like a big deal – you can always get another fax number – but your old number may very well be allocated to someone else. What happens then if someone sends a purchase order or other sensitive information to your old fax number?
 
From a compliance perspective, the use of corporate controlled fax servers can ensure that all faxes sent and received are archived for document retention purposes. While this may not seem important today, it can become important down the road for discovery purposes if you are faced with some type of litigation. Fax servers also ensure that confidential faxes are not seen by unwanted eyes while lying in the output tray of a fax machine.

Call centres, insurance companies, law firms, banks and healthcare organisations all use fax today when they need to transmit mission critical, time sensitive and confidential data. They use fax because it is secure, reliable, cost effective, ubiquitous, traceable and proven technology.

*Vox Amvia is an international OpenText partner.