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Why data and the pandemic are ripping up paper processes

We explore how the Covid-19 pandemic has forced businesses to rip out traditional paper processes and replace them with end-to-end digitisation

The recovery will be digital, says a recent McKinsey report focusing on how businesses can grow at speed and scale against the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic-suppressed economies. Nothing unusual there. We’ve all seen the rapid adoption of digital technologies to enable remote and socially distanced workers, but few would have put the paperless office high on the agenda for change.

“Many organisations will need to rapidly reinvent processes that previously required physical documents, to become paperless,” says the report. “Enabling the submission of scanned copies for document verification and supporting contactless servicing capabilities (for example, by creating digital forms to replace physical forms and enabling electronic signature capture) will likely be key priorities.”

This is not the first time paper processes have become a poster child for digital progress, but unlike in previous years, there is now an element of necessity. This is not so much about reducing paper consumption, but more about improving overall document management in an increasingly touchless society. For years, technologies have been capable of reducing paper consumption only to see paper consumption increase.

The key here is the proliferation of data and the management of that data. Paper is increasingly cumbersome within new information processes and organisations are slowly realising the operational value of digitised document management.

According to the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM)’s State of the intelligent information management industry 2021 report, on average, organisations expect the volume of information coming into them to grow from X to 4.5X over the next two years. They expect more than 57% of this information to be unstructured (a contract or a conversation, for example) or semi-structured (such as an invoice or a form).

The problem is that not many businesses are geared up to manage this volume of information, something that Covid-19 exposed as organisations scrambled to manage remote working. While the importance of effective information management may have been recognised in boardrooms, the reality, according to AIIM, is that still too many organisations lack the tools and knowhow.

“Organisations are losing the battle against information chaos and need to rethink outdated manual approaches to information management,” says the report. “Overall, respondents in the AIIM survey give their organisations a grade of C minus (1.64 on a four-point grading scale) in the battle against information chaos.”

This is actually slightly lower than the grade assigned to business/information management alignment. Almost half of participants (46%) graded their efforts at battling information chaos as “needs improvement” or “poor.”

Almost certainly, problems exist because of a lack of insight into the impact of paper-based processes. Knowing how paper is affecting the organisation from a cost and information management perspective is half the battle. Whether it’s monitoring printer use or understanding workflow processes better, organisations need more joined-up thinking.

Print management

For healthcare technology, data and analytics business IQVIA, this need for oversight, especially as a result of remote working during the pandemic, drove its decision to deploy a print management system. The company wanted to see who was printing and why, and where it could use its printing resources more effectively.

The company teamed up with Intuitive to use PaperCut, a business intelligence tool that provides print and process management capabilities via a set of dashboards. Reporting is automated and spreadsheet-free, enabling visibility not just of printer use, but also costs by user or department.

“Due to Covid and the closure of some of our offices, printing is still happening but remotely at home and the consumables are costly,” says Mario Massa, principal technology architect at IQVIA. “We have print volume from over 70,000 employees. The data from PaperCut and the Intuitive dashboard allows us to see all the costs quickly and easily. We have also found that if we hold a candle up to the figures, experience shows that this visibility has an effect on user behaviour.”

Massa says this visibility will enable the business “to change our current process from paper to more digital”, recognising both the potential for greater workflow efficiencies but also reduced costs. IQVIA, Massa believes, will be able to make decisions more effectively on how it uses paper in future thanks to visibility of current paper use. Of course it makes sense, but not all organisations are approaching paper processes from the same perspective.

For North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust, for example, digitising paper is not just a cost issue, it’s an information retrieval issue. For any healthcare organisation, accessing new and legacy medical records has historically been a challenge.

According to Deborah Dearden, assistant general manager of health records and outpatient administration, keeping up with an ever-growing paper records library used to be tough. The trust’s staff could spend several days hunting for a specific file or chasing down departments. There was a risk that records could get mislaid or lost, resulting in a patient’s appointment or operation having to be cancelled.

Of course, digitising large volumes of records is not easy either. As well as the actual scanning of documents, there are also requirements for secure and compliant digital storage. North West Anglia turned to Iron Mountain to help create a digitisation process with off-site storage that would help deliver patient records quickly and securely wherever and whenever they were required.

The paper-scanning process

According to Dearden, documents are scanned and returned as digital images usually within 24 hours, while legacy patient files are scanned on-demand. The service is delivered by a dedicated Iron Mountain team, backed by weekly update calls and monthly meetings to review service levels.

“When a patient visits hospital, we create an event pack, which moves between various specialists and departments,” says Dearden. “We are also required to retain legacy medical files and corporate material, such as financial and pharmacy-related documents. We needed a supplier that understands our processes and what is involved in managing case notes. Previously, one in every 10 images was lost due to software error. We had no option but to go back to manually retrieving paper files, putting massive pressure on already-overstretched resources.”

It was a similar story at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, another Iron Mountain customer, where paper medical records had become complex to manage and store. The back scanning project involved about 40,000 patient records, which were all digitised at the Iron Mountain specialist facility at Stone, Staffordshire.

Other traditionally paper-intensive industries, such as the legal profession and government, have had to rapidly adapt. One example is the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based body, founded in the wake of the Second World War, which promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It regularly produces documents (reports, studies, recommendations or judgments) that are collaboratively produced. These documents are highly sensitive, containing vital information on human rights topics and need to be accessed remotely from offices in more than 23 countries and by over 6,000 external users.

With nine repositories, various field offices, and files being saved on local servers, the organisation was encountering a lack of version control, which meant it was difficult for staff to search for and determine where the final version of a document was located. Also, having several disparate documentation systems made it extremely difficult for its infrastructure and security teams to guarantee a full and comprehensive data backup.

Read more about digitising business processes

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  • Secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock criticises NHS staff who insist on only sending letters to patients, and says modern, secure communications will save lives.

The Council of Europe teamed up with NetDocuments to deliver a cloud-based document management system (DMS).

“It was our aim to store all working documents in a single, shareable DMS that can be directly managed in terms of security, access and folder structure by the different departments within the organisation,” says John Hunter, CIO of the Council of Europe. “Having a central DMS to store documents means that we will be able adopt common working methods and best practice.”

The shift towards digital processes has been welcomed, especially during the pandemic. The Council of Europe had already taken the positive step of enabling remote collaboration, with at least 40% of its staff working remotely in different locations across its member states. A secure, mobile-ready platform, with a central DMS to store documents, has transformed workflows and operations, with NetDocuments ensuring the proper safeguards for the organisation’s data, guaranteeing that documents are protected and secure, from wherever staff are working.

Given the pandemic and working from home, many organisations will recognise these challenges and needs. As the AIIM research found, the two most important information challenges remain “digitising, automating and integrating processes” (25% say this is the top challenge), which is followed closely by “managing information throughout its lifecycle” (24%).

With the rapid growth in data – every day, 200 exabytes of data is generated worldwide and enterprises account for about 42.2% of that number – organisations will need to digitise processes or face the prospect of ever-increasing complexity. Paper, for all its culturally aesthetic qualities, is surely reaching the end of its corporate life.

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