A Company’s Faster Horse: OCR and the Future of Data Entry

There is a common quote that floats around the internet that was attributed to Henry Ford.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Now historians and quote researchers have argued that Ford never said those words but many agree that the spirit of the quote resonates with his ingenuity and entrepreneurial savviness.

From a functional standpoint, horses get you from point A to point B. Cars do the same thing but faster and more consistently. Is a car a horse? Logically of course not! Cars don’t smell like a barn (ok most don’t) and they don’t eat carrots. But at least from a functional standpoint, the car is a faster, better horse. Now, what possible relation could horses and cars have to Data Entry?

Introduction of OCR

In our daily lives, we are starting to see the implementation of quiet little technology that unbeknownst to many of us ends up saving us a trip to the bank; Optical Character Recognition (aka OCR). This technology traces its roots to the 1870s when American inventor Charles R. Carey invented the retina scanner for image transmission. A technology with the ability to read printed characters and transform them into computer recognizable raw data.

The most recognizable modern use of this is big banks pairing OCR with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help people deposit checks into their accounts. Take a picture of a check written to you and the bank’s mobile app will verify it and deposit the money into your account. Congratulations you just saved yourself a trip to the bank! But what else can we do with this?

OCR, the car of data entry

Earlier in my career, I remember a period of time where I was spending hours in front of the computer pouring over documents, searching for the exact numbers and text that I needed to input into the system for processing.

My heart goes out to the modern-day data entry clerks; especially those new to the field. The day starts fresh and you are firing on all cylinders. As the hours drag on your subconscious starts talking to you, “How much more of this do we have?”, “My hands are starting to cramp up…” (Google up the effects of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), “My eyes are getting tired…there better be coffee in the break room.” The proverbial daily grind.

Do enough of this and eventually someone is going to get fed up and start looking for ways to speed this up or worse, cut corners at the expense of quality. God help you if a typo doesn’t get caught until upper management starts kicking in the doors because a mistake from 6 months ago cost them a deal. I won’t even start on the monster that is an IRS audit…

Choose the car

Now if we could leverage Artificial Intelligence to look at our documents and pick out exactly what we need with high accuracy, all we humans would have to do is just verify they got it correct and approve it. No more (or at least very minor) manual data entry!

Now I know some of the opposition will say, “Aric this technology will kill Data Entry jobs! How do you justify that?!” I want to be clear, I’m not suggesting that OCR kill the Data Entry job market. At the end of the day, AI still needs human help; it’s awesomely efficient at repetitive tasks but not good enough to replace the creative problem-solving capabilities of men and women. We still need people to verify data accuracy and communicate the flow of where that data goes. Having a tool that can help evolve the profession is a far more enriching idea in my opinion.

OCR can pair itself with AI to expedite all forms of paper processing. Lawyers, Accountants, Secretaries, and Finance departments are still manually entering data into their Document Management Systems and Accounting software. How much time could we free up by trusting the machine to do the work for us? The answer ranges from 100’s to tens of 1000’s of hours depending on the size of the business. All that time may then be reinvested into areas that make a company compete harder and provide better services.

When I want to get from point A to point B, I know faster horses exist and I appreciate the value they contribute but at the end of the day, I see a 2021 Tesla Model S and my choice becomes clear.

Where would AI and OCR bring value to your business?