Lessons From the Fax Machine
CLM's Technology Committee takes on the industry and its use of technology. Are we exploiting it to the fullest?
By Alan Parker
Sometimes little things keep us from reaching our goals and waste our time. We see that sometimes in technology that is intended to make our lives simpler, our objectives more attainable, and our time more productive. Yet when cellphones drop calls, GPS systems spend more time recalculating than navigating, and computer screens freeze, these minor annoyances disrupt our work and erode our efficiency. And like a persistent irritation, some time-wasting technologies seem to hang around forever (hello, fax machine?).
Other times, technology issues that professionals face are complicated and serious. Data theft is so pervasive that we seem to be at a loss over how to cope, while at the same time many are becoming more accustomed to and accepting of the risks of privacy breaches. Telecommuting presents both opportunities and risks for managing staff, projects, documents, and control of intellectual property. The profusion of social media, electronic communications and records, cameras, and devices with sensors and storage means there are many potential electronic witnesses to accidents and events. It poses an ongoing challenge for investigators to find these digital sentinels and preserve their testimony responsibly and ethically.
Exploiting technology’s opportunities, managing its risks, and maximizing its efficiency and effectiveness are tasks that face most CLM members and fellows. In that sense, the topics in this column will aim to “take tech to task,” by suggesting techniques or practices where technology can help streamline a claim, litigation function, or process.
CLM’s Technology Committee not only will discuss problems and solutions informally, but also informatively. If we do our job well, we will increase awareness of technological developments that affect our industry, identify subjects that need further exploration, and help members and fellows find resources to develop or improve their implementation and use of technology.
The obvious emphasis will be on topics of interest to claims, risk, and litigation professionals as well as those with whom they work. That is a broad focus, indeed. But like physics, risk management encompasses virtually everything tangible and many intangibles as well. Moreover, claims professional must contend with other generalized technology issues like email management, project management, and hardware and software issues. We hope this column will spark those discussions and help populate that forum. Guest columnists, suggested topics, and specific questions are welcome.
So, let’s return to the fax machine. It illustrates a technological wrong turn, or at least a turn down a dead-end street. While the device often is traced back to an 1843 patent, it became a pervasive piece of office equipment in the early 1980s, after the adoption of an international standard that facilitated transmission over phone lines and to machines from different manufacturers. In those days, the receiver often printed to thermal paper. The print had the unfortunate tendency to fade to invisibility, sometimes within weeks of receipt. Savvy recipients soon learned to photocopy facsimiles immediately for their files, and senders generally made sure also to mail the original hard copies. As a result, the use of facsimile machines tended to produce prodigious amounts of unsearchable, redundant paper documents at the time that businesses were increasingly moving to electronic communications and data management.
Even as word processors and personal computers created electronic documents and searchable standard formats like PDF files became widely available, professionals continued to print paper copies and send them through inefficient technology. E-fax machines and facsimile interfaces on personal computers removed some of the fax machine’s inconvenience, but still produced documents in a nonsearchable format. To this day, too many documents are sent by facsimile machine or as email attachments without any thought to the usability of the document to the recipient.
Why are we using technology today that—like the fax machine—was well intentioned but counterproductive? How do we evaluate, introduce, and implement new devices and systems to minimize technological dead ends? And when will our office fax machine finally stop stirring to life, only to spit out a document that I will have to scan myself or have retransmitted in a useable format? Post your comments to the Technology Committee’s forum at theclm.org.