Using Technology For Paper-Free Business Processes

Paper Free Office

The idea of a paper-free workplace is an attractive one. People are aware that paper can clog up an organisation and that removing paper can improve customer response times, workplace productivity and help improve the environment. This was bourne out in AIIM’s latest study, ‘Paper Wars 2014 – an update from the battlefield’. 60% of respondents have seen ROI on their paper-free projects within 12 months, and more than three-quarters had done so within 18 months.

Furthermore, 68% of respondents said that business-at-the-speed-of-paper will be ‘unacceptable in just a few years’ time’ and around half of businesses surveyed claimed that the biggest single productivity improvement would be to remove paper. However, only one in five has a board-level endorsed policy to actually reduce paper and more than one in five organisations (21%) are actually increasing their paper consumption. But is the paper-free office really achievable? Perhaps we should be looking at paper-free processes instead and how technology can make that possible?

The Paperless Office Will Never Happen

For a community of information professionals such as AIIM, the above subheading is hard to accept. But it is true – going totally paper-free will almost certainly not happen. The recent AIIM research showed more than half of respondents still print personal paper copies to take to a meeting, or to add a signature. They also use printed copies for reading offline or out-of-the-office (50%), and particularly to review and mark-up (45%). Many respondents said a lack of management initiatives (47%) and the (perceived) need for physical signatures (44%) were the two main reasons why there is still so much paper in their business processes.

The need for physical signatures is an interesting area. There are many different electronic signing solutions available ranging from stylus input, automated verification, digitally encrypted signatures, and web signatures, all of which have a place in achieving paper-free working. Stopping an otherwise all-electronic process simply to collect a physical signature on a piece of paper, which is often immediately re-scanned, is obviously somewhat sub-optimal and frequently presents a greater confidentiality risk than the electronic original itself.

World Paper Free Day 2014 took place recently (6 November), an initiative that sought to show how much paper is wasted in the workplace and how well we can manage without it. Hundreds of organisations all over the world participated in going paper-free for the day and one of the key takeaways was that paper-free business processes are a much more realistic goal than going completely paper-free. There are other technologies beyond electronic signing solutions that can play a role in this:

Scan-On-Entry

The concept of scanning all inbound mail at point-of-entry and routing it around the business electronically is very attractive, especially if it can significantly reduce or even eliminate internal mail distribution. Our research asked those who consider they have a digital mailroom scenario, what proportion of mail they scan (not including brochures, junk mail, etc.). 45% are scanning half or more of incoming mail, and 34% are scanning three-quarters. Significantly, almost a quarter (23%) are scanning 90% or even 100%.

The concept of a digital mailroom does not rely on the use of large central mailroom scanners. Mail capture can be distributed across branch offices, and can be readily outsourced. Although the investment in scanners and capture servers for scan-on-entry systems can be considerable, most respondents saw a strong ROI, with 38% reporting payback in 12 months or less, and 60% within 18 months.

Mobile Capture

As the camera capabilities of mobile devices have improved, the concept of using them as a portable scanning device has taken off. In addition, tablets provide a new way to access electronic forms, creating what we might call a digital clipboard.

Indeed, some of the applications are quickly becoming ubiquitous – paying in cheques, scanning receipts for expense claims, submitting damage photos for insurance claims, and even taking orders in restaurants. Capturing signatures with stylus-tablets has been in use by delivery firms for many years, but there is now an opportunity to extend that to many other areas, or simply to photograph the form, with its signature.

Beyond these applications, the picture is more varied, with many organisations being resolutely against company content being accessed on mobile, and by implication, being captured by mobile. In other organisations it is simply a case that extending processes to mobile is not front-of-mind, and this seems to be much more so in small to mid-sized organisations than in the largest ones. The AIIM research showed that 18% now see mobile access, data capture and forms input as a required option for any process update.

When it comes to the types of content being captured, particularly by employees, receipts, forms and their supporting documents are the prime targets (25-35%), but still less so than photo images for use as records of inspections, incidents, surveys, etc. (40%). The overriding benefit of mobile capture is speed of data availability: the process can start sooner and customer response will be faster. With immediate transmission of completed forms, collection logistics are much reduced.

Cloud

We have seen steady movement in cloud and the general willingness to use cloud across the whole ECM spectrum in the past three years. Capture is an interesting application for cloud or particularly SaaS in that data requirements are high, but the recognition technology involved benefits from large, dedicated servers and sophisticated software.

The number of current users of Cloud or SaaS capture applications is around 11%, but those with plans to deploy in a cloud solution within the next 18 months will still nearly double that figure to one-in-five, rising to one-in four within 3 years. Larger organizations are the leaders in current use, with mid-sized lagging considerably on both larger and smaller with just 6% currently using cloud or SaaS.

These technologies are all going to be critical as we continue the paper wars. Progress has undoubtedly been made and recalibrating the main goal – from the totally paper-free workforce to the more realistic paper-free business processes – will help even further. Anyone deliberating whether to proceed with paper-free processes should question how their business is going to remain competitive in a mobile, always on, dispersed-workforce world if it clings to its paper-laden processes.

The survey showed that business-at-the-speed-of-paper is fast becoming unacceptable. It will be a long journey adopting paper-free business processes, but the benefits are clear in terms of customer response times and overall productivity. The sooner you get started, the faster you will see the returns.

Doug Miles is head of the AIIM Market Intelligence Division. He has more 25 years’ experience of working with users and vendors across a broad spectrum of IT applications. He was an early pioneer of document management systems for business and engineering applications and has produced many AIIM survey reports on issues and drivers for Capture, ECM, Records Management, SharePoint, Mobile, Cloud and Social Business. Doug has an MSc in Communications Engineering and is a member of the IET in the UK.