Apart from the smallest companies, the question of centralised versus distributed scanning has exercised the minds of most IT departments for a long time. Either strategy has their supporters and detractors, but it is time the debate moved on. Distributed and centralised scanning can work in harmony.

For some time, the two strategies seemed to be mutually incompatible. But thanks to recent advances in technology, the debate over distributed versus centralised scanning can is less about preference, and more about suitability relative to the business’ needs and requirements.

Supporters of distributed scanning have always pointed to a number of advantages. In the current economic climate, with budgets getting tighter, workforces are becoming increasingly dispersed. Distributed capture looks attractive and can play an important role in information management, doing away with a reliance on expensive and complex, centralised capture systems at headquarters.

With scanning get far easier and more accurate, employees can achieve distributed capture through the use of multifunction peripherals (MFPs) and scanners. A consistent, easy-to-use departmental capture process enables anyone in an organisation to transform paper-based information into secure digital files that easily integrate with electronic workflows, simplify user collaboration, and protect business continuity, with audit trails that help meet regulatory compliance.

Furthermore, one of the other benefits of distributed capture is that it places the ownership of the input mechanism with those who own the rest of the process – those who will benefit most from accurate indexing, faster turnaround and simpler document logistics. Distributed scanning also drives increased utilisation of existing MFPs, this maximising existing asset utilisation.

Another driver for distributed scanning is security. For example, The Royal Devon & Exeter (RD&E) Hospital had a key requirement to be able to utilise their Active Directory logins for secure scan to email and scan to home folders. These two functions were considered critical by RD&E Hospital’s internal IT section as it adhered to their security practices relating to scanning of documents. Darren O’Meira, deputy IT operations manager at RD&E Hospital explains: “This solution has provided our users with a compact distributed scanning solution that meets all of our security requirements.”

Combined, perhaps these benefits go some way to explaining why, according to market data, distributed scanning is gaining momentum. A special study of over 1,800 respondents by IDC, entitled ‘Document-Intensive Business Processes and Scanning, 2008’ revealed that centralised batch scanning accounted for less than 23% of the total. The highest percentage of respondents (37%) indicated that their scanning was desktop scanning, followed by shared MFP (23%), centralised batch scanning (22.7%), distributed batch scanning (10.4%), and offsite through a third party (6.5%).

The growing demand for centralised scanning

Centralised scanning originates in the days when, historically, considerable volumes of documents were scanned. Those volumes were responsible for driving up costs. It was argued that the cost of mailing documents to a central site became onerous, so scanning is now best accomplished at the place where the paper originates. If the documents originate at branches and documents do not need to be sent to a central site, then distributed scanning is usually faster and more efficient.

However, despite the popularity of distributed scanning, additional market research published by AIIM indicates that centralised in-house scanning and mailroom scanning, are also set for a considerable growth. This is according to a survey taken by 882 individual members entitled ‘Document Scanning and Capture: local, central, outsource – what’s working best?’

So, what does this market data tell us? Far from the reports being contradictory, they could well indicate that the market is now recognising that centralised and distributed scanning can work side by side, underpinned by an ECM strategy that leverages the benefits of both. The two technologies can now be integrated, giving MFP users access to centralised scanning and empowering knowledge workers at remote offices to capture key documents.


Clearly, it is time to move away from the distributed v centralised scanning debate and advance it to a level that accepts that, in some cases, the two strategies – and technologies – now have the flexibility to compliment each other. The question is then how to devise an effective ECM strategy that integrates them both, taking into account the differing needs of the users, the document lifecycle, at what stage in its lifestyle the document is scanned, the volumes and, of course, the budgets available. This is probably one of the greatest challenges the C-Level and IT staff come across when developing an ECM strategic technology plan, and where the guidance and consultancy of an ECM expert becomes invaluable.