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Is the end in sight on the paper-free journey?

Few people would dispute that for many, a paper-free workplace is an attractive proposition. Or if not completely paper-free, then many business functions operating with mostly paper-free processes.  Sustainability charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) has released data that reveals how the average office worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day. More than half of this is considered waste. So there are obvious benefits to the environment that come with using significantly less paper.  

But for many organisations, environmental issues are not a primary concern. What interests them is doing things quicker, smarter and more efficiently. Each year AIIM conducts research into the paper-free workplace and this year the findings make for promising reading. 

The top benefits identified from going paper-free were faster customer response times, and reduced staff and higher productivity.  In today’s customer-focused business climate, responding to customers is a growing priority for many organisations, and higher productivity is important to every organisation. So what progress has been made on the paper-free journey? And what should an organisation be considering when embarking on that journey?

Paper-free progress

The good news from this year’s research, ‘Paper-Free in 2016, Are we there yet?’, is that significant progress has been made in the on-going move towards a paper-free workplace. People want to go paper-free - around two-thirds of business executives revealed that the demand for paperless processes is on the rise – and there is less paper around. 

The amount of paper arriving at the door is decreasing for half of organisations (somewhat for 41 per cent and rapidly for nine per cent), while digital inbound documents are increasing for two-thirds of business executives.  Paper use in certain business functions has shown strong signs of reduction. Paper use in Human Resources (HR) is particularly decreasing in the areas of recruitment and employee lifecycle, and paper use is also decreasing for 41 per cent of people in Accounts Payables (AP) and 39 per cent in Accounts Receivables.  

This is all enormously positive. And yet there is still much progress to be made. Most organisations are still not taking advantage of managing digitally born/created information entirely in digital form. There is significant room for improvement and a genuine opportunity for businesses to maximise their information use and value as well as lower operating costs by removing paper from a number of their business processes.

Addicted to paper?  

The truth of the matter is that for many people, paper still just ‘feels’ right. A good example of this can be found in the review and approval of documents. 65 per cent say they are still signing contracts, orders, booking forms, and more on paper. While more than half of respondents in our research do scan documents, this is mostly just for archiving purposes.  

So why exactly does paper still exist in so many organisations? People like to have paper to read, take notes, and even share. There is a lack of comfort in the digital forms, and while this could be generational, it is just as likely to be cultural in relation to the organisation itself. Leadership must take the leading role in moving their organisations forward. There should be a clear vision as to why paper-free is beneficial, and the options available from capture to disposal. Capture is one of the most important elements as it brings the information into the information ecosystem, placing under proper control, making it accessible and available for action. 

So it seems this would be a prime focal point for many organisations, yet when we asked about capture, only 10 per cent of respondents indicate they capture to process and use adaptive and intelligent process workflows. This human factor is one that has always been hard to address. Yet the millennial generation, far more used to viewing documents on a variety of digital devices, will one day bypass this need. But for now, there remains a lack of understanding and awareness when it comes to paper-free options, which along with a lack of management initiatives to move away from paper, need addressing urgently.  

The way forward – going paper-free

The issue of paper in the workplace is an important one, and something that will be addressed on 4 November, on the annual World Paper Free Day. There are opportunities that day to learn much more about going paper-free, but it is important to remember that taking the first step is better than taking no step at all.  If you are unsure of where or how to begin, you should seek professional assistance and/or training to help you set off on the right path. This includes looking to your current suppliers and service providers for guidance, as well as seeking industry advice to teach best practices.  

But capture should be the starting point for organisations embarking on going paper-free, whether it is digitising paper using scanners, or capturing digitally created information immediately and maintaining it in digital form. This the first step to managing and ingesting information into the information ecosystem, business processes, and taking action on it sooner.  Mobile capture, and the use of cloud enhance this capability by enabling the remote workforce to engage anytime, from any location, and maintain a level of engagement that mimics those workers who are local and resident within the corporate walls. This extension, resulting from being paper-free, takes operational efficiency, productivity, and responsiveness to a new level. 

Other important factors to consider are change management and executive level support. The fact that our research consistently highlights a lack of management initiatives for going paper-free, would suggest that board members must get behind going paper-free, sooner rather than later. Without that support, it will always be an uphill battle.  It remains unrealistic to think that all business processes and transactions will be paper-free in the near future, but there are definitely certain processes where paper can be removed. The end is in sight when it comes to going paper-free, but it remains a tiny pinprick in the distance for now. 

Image Credit: Jason Truscott / Flickr 

Bob Larrivee, Chief Analyst at AIIM  (opens in new tab)