By John Mancini
Back in the 70s, industry commentators were talking about the paperless office and forecasted a future where all documents would be stored digitally—some 40 years later, and we still haven’t got there—but it isn’t for want of trying.
Businesses today are going through a digital transformation and are all too aware that eradicating paper will enable them to communicate faster with their customers and increase productivity, whilst helping to save the planet.
Yes, progress is far slower than we would all like. According to AIIM’s latest study, Paper-Free Progress: Measuring Outcomes, many organizations are still attached to paper, but they are reducing their reliance on it. Only 17 percent of respondents said they work in what can be described as a paper-free office, while 31 percent said their office desks are piled with paper documents, 40 percent still use paper for filing important documents, and 56 percent refuse to give up signatures on paper for contracts and order forms.
But on a positive front, businesses are looking to move away from paper where they can. 49 percent reported that their use of paper consumption is decreasing. 11 percent said this is happening at a rapid pace.
Those that have opted to use paper-free processes have been quick to reap the benefit. 84 percent of respondents said they have seen return on investment for their paper-free projects within just 18 months. The biggest benefits reported from paper-free processes were faster customer response—43 percent, followed by productivity and compliance, then better monitoring of the workflow. The biggest lessons learned were to establish executive buy-in and to gather input from all stakeholders in advance.
Printing, however, still seems to be a hurdle. 40 percent of organizations reported that more than half of their invoices are now delivered electronically, but 35 percent get printed anyway. Yet, 31 percent agree that most of the paper documents they retain are only there for the signatures, and that most of the documents they scan are unchanged from printer to scanner.
Despite dreams of a shiny, minimalist office—the stark reality is that paper still has a hold over the office environment. Moving to paper-free processes needs to be a continuous program—and this is where technology steps in. However, the digital options need to be weighed up to ensure the right solutions are adopted. This is where the IT department can advise, prioritizing departments that can lead the paper free march.
The Multi-Channel Approach
Organizations have only recently begun to look at the demands of mixed digital and paper streams of multi-channel inbound traffic. Rather than disrupt paper capture processes, many choose to set up separate routings for electronic forms or invoices, thereby limiting flexibility and adding to management overheads.
Social media input was initially the concern of the public relations department, bypassing customer services altogether. These approaches detract from the goal of a single view of the customer, up-to-date, and accessible by all.
Omini-channel is the term now used to include social media, chat text, and Facebook messages. In our survey, 40 percent reported that they still have an ad hoc approach to mixed media input, and often struggle to match up paper and electronic correspondence. Perhaps worse still are the 35 percent who print out electronic inbound content and process it alongside the paper. Although 32 percent process paper and electronic through the same workflow, only four percent have a distributed capture network that feeds a single process or case file, and only three percent have what they would describe as a multi-channel system for paper, electronic, and social.
Decision to Ditch Paper
People are still one of the biggest barriers to going paperless. People don’t like change and this was given as a strong reason—49 percent—by our respondents for the substantial use of paper in business.
However, an equal number gave the lack of management initiatives or mandates as the biggest reason, and despite AIIM’s long campaign to educate business on paper-free benefits, 39 percent said there is still a lack of understanding of paper-free options. The perceived need for physical signatures shows up as the fourth most likely reason—35 percent, along with legal admissibility—18 percent, despite the long history of both standards and legislation on this point.
So if you are at the planning your digital transformation strategy or are already making moves to go paper free, some key recommendations will help the process.
Look carefully at business requirements—determine at how paper flows into the business and where it causes a bottle neck or restricts access and processes.
Look at implementing solutions where you will see a quick return on investment. If documents are continually printed for signature, consider investing in an e-signature solution.
If you do not have any paper-free processes in place at the moment, look at trialling the concept in a department—human resources, for example. But, make sure you don’t get locked into a single point solution.
Highlight the role that paper-free processes can play in speeding up customer response, improving customer experience, and saving back-office costs.
Allow workflow from within your enterprise content management/Microsoft SharePoint system or use an add-on business process management platform, for example.
Pay particular attention to processes that scan-to-archive post process with a view to changing to an up-front scan-to-process approach.
Rationalize your capture systems with a view to servicing multiple processes with distributed access across multiple-sites and branches, or through the cloud.
Reducing an organization’s use of paper does not happen immediately. By implementing the first steps to going paper free you will cut expenses, increase productivity and collaboration, and reduce your carbon footprint. SW
John Mancini is an author, speaker, and leader of the AIIM global community of information professionals. He believes that in the next five years, a wave of digital transformation will sweep through businesses and organisations, who will face a fundamental choice between information opportunity and information chaos.
Jan2016, Software Magazine