Goodbye "paperless", hello "clueless"

Scott AdamsDilbert cartoons are often too close to workplace reality for comfort. A favourite strip from his book Im not anti-business, Im anti-idiot(another sentiment many would readily recognise and endorse) has the pointy haired boss having an emailed document faxed in case the recipient doesnt read his email and the original copy posted to ensure he receives a cleanversion.

The cartoon sums up so many business outbound communications problems. Was what was sent received? Was it in a readily useful format? Does the recipient believe it came from the purported sender? Can it be readily shared and worked upon? Which version is the master copy? Was it changed or replaced after it was copied or sent? And finally, why is technology depleting rather than saving precious resources?

Information and data management should be such a simple thing for information technologyto deal with, however the weakness that IT often fails to overcome is in the wetware peripherals(people).

Companies and people, have preferences as to how information should be communicated. These are generally not whims, but relate to existing and often difficult to change, business processes. 

Even in small companies (small and mid-sized enterprises/SME), which may on the face of it be more flexible, change is difficult. It costs time and money and is often a distraction as there is little scope, capacity or appetite for making anything other than changes that are essential or forced by regulatory bodies. Many processes are cumbersome and require an audit trail or at least some checks and balances to ensure mistakes are not overlooked. This is especially important with commercial and financial matters.

So what can a business do to automate and improve its business communications?

Organisations may want to shift everything online or to electronic only documents when it is convenient and offers a cost saving, but will be unlikely to be able to force this onto all their business suppliers and customers (unless perhaps they are a high street bank).

According to recent research conducted by Opinion Way on behalf of communications and logistics provider Neopost, the online or by paper decision is still a relatively complex one. From a survey of 280 UK SMEs it was discovered that communications media preferences varied especially between documents used for different purposes.

Just to be sure they get there, invoices and contracts are likely to be sent by BOTH email and physically mailed by half of UK SMEs, but three fifths of SMEs will send POs only by email. The document most likely to be sent only in the post is pay slips, by two in five SMEs. Type and importance of document are cited as major reasons, along with recipients preference.

Much of what is contained in all of these document types is financial and potentially critical information, and yet is often handled in a haphazard way. Unfortunately the Dilbert pointy haired boss with his ad hoc fax, email and post scenario is more common than many would like to think. 45% of those surveyed were concerned about the risk of human errors, around a third had trouble keeping track of communications across communications channels with any given client and a quarter thought there was a lack of visibility, traceability and security related to outbound documents.

These are all important concerns, but many organisations will try muddling through hoping the costs of outbound communications mistakes do not cause problems or go unnoticed. Despite any environmental or green policies, few SMEs will worry about the overuse of a little bit of extra paper either.

However, the survey did give pause for thought in one area – almost half of SMEs thought they were wasting time on repetitive tasks where outgoing communications were concerned. If the reduction of risks and errors were not good enough reasons for adding a bit of automation to this communications process, surely doing it to save precious time should be?