What ever happened to the paper-free office ?

Its taken longer than we thought to achieve paper free offices. Doug Miles explains why.

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Almost all business improvement initiatives can be helped by cutting down on paper. The paybacks can be dramatic: improved response times and greater productivity of back-office staff, who no longer have to re-key data or search through reams of paper to find what they need. And extending capture of information to mobile devices provides even closer coupling to back-office processes.

Taming the paper tiger

Progress to paper-free is slow. Half of organisations have made no better than 5% progress towards this goal, according to AIIM’s recent study, “Winning the Paper Wars”. Some 74% of the nearly 600 respondents have business improvement campaigns underway they believe would benefit from paper-free processes – but only 24% have specific targets to eliminate paper from their business.

It’s puzzling that even though companies can improve response time to customer requests and increase productivity, most organisations are at a crawl when it comes to adopting electronic workflow technologies.

Eliminating the paper chain

Indeed, 19% admit they have actually increased the use of paper, while nearly a third are processing electronic documents, forms and PDFs separately from scanned paper. Amazingly, 20% print out scanned documents – including 13% who print them out and then scan them back into the capture system.

We all know after all that paper-based processes are difficult to manage, harder to access remotely and prone to delays.

Electronic capture works …on paper

Our research also indicates that the increase in teleworking and the rapid growth in use of mobile devices by workers in he field has greatly increased the demand for electronic access to all content.

Capture on mobile devices is increasingly being used to trigger back-office processes and cut out the paper-chain between field workers, branch offices and head office. Some 15% are currently using smart devices to scan or capture forms – more likely by their own employees than by customers (9%). A further 22% would like to do so.

Paper still needed for legal reasons

So what is the reason we’re not cutting down the paper mountain? Physical signatures and legal admissibility are the biggest paper-free concerns amongst staff, with legal counsel, and to an extent Finance, being most resistant.

Legal requirements for paper copies and physical signatures is one of the main reasons for resistance to going paper-free despite the fact that the laws on this have been standardised in most jurisdictions.

The digital mailroom 

In fact, the benefits of paper-free processes, along with digital mailrooms and mobile capture can, on average, improve response times to customers by a factor greater than four, plus improve productivity of process staff by a third (29.7%).

We also asked users to rate the success or ROI of different paper-free processes. Finance and procurement have been the most successful, but even so the majority of implementations (60%+) are rated “Excellent” or “Good” with a mere 5% or less showing up as “Poor.”

Two-thirds of those adopting paper-free processes report a payback within 18 months and 50% see payback in a 12-month period.

How to break the ‘printer jam’?

Offices have always been respositories for paper. Even if internal records are scanned and archived electronically, external forces throw more paper at us. To fight the paper wars, managers need to take the up-front decision to go paper-free.

One thing is certain: to maximise the benefits from a mobile and connected workforce, and from customers wanting electronic content, managers have to look at every process and ask, “How can I make this paper-free?”

The long journey to paper freedom

Upfront, the two biggest issues are going to be making a convincing business case to management and integration with other systems, plus management and re-orientation of staff. It will be a long journey to paper-free. But the benefits are clear – and the sooner you get started, the faster you will realise the returns.


Doug Miles is head of the AIIM Market Intelligence Division and the author of a series of studies on ECM, Records Management, SharePoint, Mobile, Cloud and Social Business for the organisation


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