Did you hear the long tale about the long tail?

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

National Geographic tells us that the Giraffe has the longest tail of any land mammal – a Giraffes tail can measure up to 2.4m (apparently).

I asked my children what other animals have a long tail (it should be noted that during the months of lockdown we’ve been asking more and more abstract questions, so this seemed quite normal to them!). Responses included: the ring tailed lemur, monkeys (no particular sub-species offered), rodents and our (long suffering) dog. However, the longest tail when it comes to the proportion of an animal’s body in relation to its tail length is the Asian grass lizard, according to National Geographic. Although the tail length is only 25cm’s long, this is over three times its body length.

I’ve been fortunate to have travelled the world quite a bit for work and fun and I’ve had opportunity to see giraffes, lizards and monkeys up close. I’ve also had opportunity to see rodents up close (very close!) recently during a house renovation.

Each of these animals seems quite comfortable with its body and its long tail. In fact, our dog can entertain herself for hours chasing her tail (but that’s another blog altogether).

The only animal that seems to suffer from a long tail is the Homosapien.

So what do we mean by the ‘long tail’?

Simply put, long tail documents in the business world are the low volume of documents from a high volume of senders. This is typically seen in the Accounts Payable and Finance departments, but the premise can also be applied to any type of business transaction requiring documentation.

Having worked with ERP systems for 20 years, I’ve seen the challenges, pitfalls and benefits of getting to grips with the data trail. So, sharing some of these wise old years, I’ve pulled together my thoughts of the different solutions available to address the challenges.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) – Recognising the limitations

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was a game changer to the business world. With it’s earliest inventions originating in 1870, it was developed and in widespread application use since the 1960’s, it has helped streamline business processes and, to a point, support automation. Incorporating OCR tech into business process was good addition, however its limitations always meant that other solutions were needed to support the process. The misreading characters, changing document structures and the manual intervention, needed to ensure high levels of data accuracy, have pushed organisations to look for more sophisticated technologies to help automation.

Also, when you think about it, bar coding, loading scanners and correcting mistakes doesn’t really support the digital transformation organisations are looking for or need. It seems like OCR tech needs more manual processes to solve a manual process – odd huh?

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) – Interchangeable but inflexible

Many organisations turned to Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). This is a much more reliable method of capturing data accurately and at speed. Large files transmit data in an agreed format and allow seamless integration between sender and receiver. Ok, sounds great! But the challenge here is that it needs both sides to commit to a technical and operational strategy and often requires a high financial commitment (relative to the value of the document processed) to set up and maintain. So, EDI is ideal for the highest volume senders, but for the long tail? Most definitely not.

Purchase Order Flip (PO) – PO Flip or PO Flop?

The emergence of portals and offering the supplier the ‘opportunity’ to do PO Flip to create an invoice seems like a perfect option to reduce the Accounts Payable long tail, well in theory. The major challenge here is that suppliers don’t want to re-key information or have to manage multiple portals to raise their invoices, ok this idea might just be a PO Flop.

Although these technologies have helped reduce the long tail slightly, they do not provide the coverage needed. Long tail? Still a problem.

The new tech on the block?

Emerging technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Neural networks are technologies that I believe will offer some assistance in this area in the future. Although not new tech, their increasing involvement in the document automation domain has been noted.  

More organisations are exploring RPA with great effect in areas such as sharing data (critical at the moment for the response to Covid-19) and accelerating tasks such as the onboarding of staff. However, for processing documents the projects are falling short of expectations. Many are proving costly or just unreliable as the systems are still reliant on dated technology at the source (OCR) to capture the data on entry. Using RPA to process inbound documents is arguably a problem for the entire supply chain, not just the long tail, and many projects still require manual correction of data. It’s still a problem either way.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is the technology on which CloudTrade’s service is based. This is a proven subset, having been around for many years, of Artificial Intelligence that enables our service to understand the logic and meaning of a document. Once you understand this the data is available with 100% accuracy regardless of ‘problems’ like data moving on the page.

Additional benefits such as no change in process for the supply chain, deployment within weeks and with no manual processing, mean its clear why there is such a high demand for the service, now more than ever.

Did you know?

The tufted ground squirrel (nicknamed the ‘vampire squirrel’) has a tail that is 130% of its body volume. This is to confuse its predators.

The longtail seems to cause confusion to a lot of solution and service providers, but there is a way to manage it. Does CloudTrade solve the challenge of the long tail? Well simply put, yes. Our core solution, Universal Capture, does process the long tail documents and automate much of the processing with great accuracy. Perhaps not quite as well as the short tail (these can be truly automated with perfect accuracy), but since many of our clients have elected to close their post rooms, get rid of their scanners for documents such as invoices and use our solution instead, I think it’s the closest the world has seen yet.