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Q&A: Is the pandemic finally going to make the paperless office a reality?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock)

The dream of the paperless office has been around for decades. But somehow most organizations have never quite managed to turn it into reality. Here Lynda Kershaw from Macro 4 discusses whether the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are going to gives us the much-needed momentum to finally usher in the paperless era.

1) Could the pandemic finally deliver the paperless office promised for decades?

The pandemic is definitely giving companies an extra push to go paperless. A big driver is remote working, which has suddenly moved many ‘nice to have’ projects into the ‘essential’ category. For example: you can get away with walking invoices around to be signed off when everyone’s in the office. Once you’re working remotely it becomes impossible, so you have a compelling reason to go digital.

You also need to think about customers, and how they feel about touching paper while the virus is circulating, and how they want to do business in the Covid-19 era. The answer is generally going to be, “Let’s avoid paper, let’s do things digitally”. If companies aren’t reacting to that dynamic quickly enough then they will lose customers to the competition.

Going paperless is part of the wider strategy of digital transformation. I’m seeing companies who are planning to accelerate their digital initiatives over the next twelve months so that they can ride the wave once we are through the worst of the pandemic. They cannot afford to play catch-up once the upturn arrives.

2) Aside from customer retention what is the business case for going paperless?

Keeping customers happy also translates into greater profitability – as we all know it costs much less to retain existing customers than to try to attract new ones. Additionally, there are huge direct cost savings to be made by going digital. Sending out physical documents such as customer bills and statements can easily amount to £1 per document or more, once you factor in paper, printing costs and postage. We see companies still printing many millions of documents every year, so the cost case is compelling.

Companies can also achieve significant efficiency savings by managing processes digitally. That has been amplified by the pandemic, particularly in B2B situations because you not only have to wait for paper documents to be printed and posted but also have to factor in additional delays as there are fewer people on site to action them when they finally arrive.

3) Can you give a practical example of digital efficiencies affecting the balance sheet?

Take a B2B bill, for example, and all the associated documentation such as signed proofs of delivery, orders and so on. Delivering all that information digitally means there is zero delay in getting the information to the customer to enable them to pay. In turn that leads to less outstanding debt and a healthier balance sheet.

Once everything is online – typically on a self-service portal – the physical location of your clients ceases to be a problem. You can also further streamline your processes, for example by sending automated payment reminders if bills are overdue, and cash collection becomes less labor intensive because you don’t need credit controllers to do as much chasing. 

Plus, of course, by eliminating paper in general you should expect efficiency savings across your business from being able to find information more easily – a click or two on a computer rather than searching through paper documents.

4) Does digitalization allow you to leverage new technologies?

Going paperless offers up new avenues for business intelligence. Digital assets such as documents and other unstructured data provide a valuable source of information that can be tapped for insights using analytics software. They are a relatively untapped source of business intelligence that can be used alongside application data. In some cases, data may only exist inside documents because for compliance reasons you need to hold onto them for longer than your application data. For example, in areas such as life assurance or pensions, documents must be retained throughout the lifetime of the client. If you store them digitally rather than as paper, they become a searchable store of information which can be mined for insights. 

Once you digitize documents you can also use AI and machine learning – for example to understand and classify the content of inbound communications so they can be passed to the right team. That is particularly important right now, when you have even more written enquiries coming in from customers, and likely fewer people on the ground to deal with them.

5)What technologies can help businesses go paperless?

There is a long list of technologies that can support the transition away from paper. A range of software under the general banner of enterprise information management can help you to create and manage large volumes of digital documents – including handling delivery to digital channels. These systems work really well with the output from your existing business systems – including output like customer documents or reports that you may be currently printing – so it’s a relatively simple step to switch to digital delivery, for example by email or text, or to a self-service portal. For most companies it’s a gradual transition away from printing so they can manage the print channel too until you are ready to switch it off completely. For handling all of those different workflows you have digital process orchestration platforms – these work rather like the conductor in an orchestra to oversee all your digital processes and make sure everything arrives in the right place at the right time.

There are scanning and OCR systems to help you to digitize existing paper documents, AI and machine learning to automate classification and extract valuable content, and of course business process management systems for automating manual processes. Digital signatures can be used to authenticate digital documents and at Macro 4 we’re also using blockchain networks to prove the validity of digital documents, prevent tampering and support regulatory compliance. 

6) What are the challenges business face when removing paper from their processes?

One potential obstacle is the work involved in automating manual, paper-based processes. This might be a bigger issue right now if your IT team is already understaffed due to the pandemic. However, you don’t need to go ‘big bang’. For example, the enterprise information management platforms I mentioned just now let you digitize and adapt the output that is already produced from the business systems you already use, so you don’t need to touch your existing technology stack. You could take a document like a traditional order, report or invoice, for example, and turn it into something more appealing for a mobile phone user: a simpler format, perhaps, but more interactive.

Another concern could be resistance from customers who want to keep receiving paper documents. The answer is to offer multiple options – a range of digital channels plus paper if still needed – and extra features to make customers’ lives easier, such as the ability to download and analyze their data. The businesses we work with have generally managed to switch over the vast majority of customers in a matter of months and, in our experience, once customers start using digital communications they don’t want to go back. This is because a digital process should be quicker, simpler, and save them effort. If that’s not the case, then more than likely it is down to choosing the wrong technology or overcomplicating things. With the right systems in place, you should be able to change and improve your processes easily.

7) What practical steps should a business take if they want to go paperless?

Focus first on the areas where you are experiencing most pain and build out from there. For many companies it’s about delivering a better online experience for customers, so that’s where they want to start – with better access to digital communications throughout the customer journey. With so many staff working from home many organizations are also beefing up their employee portals – for example by providing better access to HR and payroll information.

The key thing to remember is that there’s no need to do everything at once or rip out all your existing IT systems. Start building on what you have today, adding new capabilities over time. Choose technology that is flexible so you can expand your use to more business processes gradually. Good technology should allow you to adapt, so if redesigning your existing paper-based systems into digital processes seems daunting, or you just want to move quickly, you can start by more or less replicating what you do on paper. You can then come back and streamline the process later based on practical experience.

8) Can you outline the security aspects of going paperless?

Once you move from paper to digital you should follow the same good security practice that would apply to any enterprise IT system: strong user authentication, encryption, granular access controls, and so on. In many ways security is easier to lock down, because you no longer have bits of paper flying around, but there are more external threats. You need to review your IT infrastructure and ensure that it is fit for purpose because any system is only as secure as its weakest link.

Another consideration is data protection. You should be minimizing exposure of sensitive information, particularly personal data – and you can do this by using features like online redaction, where personal data is blanked out for people who don’t need to see it, and only made available to users who do.

9) Can all businesses go paperless, or are some business sectors more capable than others of removing paper from their enterprises?

Practically all businesses have the potential to go either paperless, or much ‘less paper’. You just need to think about the practicalities of where a document needs to go, and whether it really needs to be physically touched or stored. In most cases the answer is ‘no’. If a physical piece of paper has an intrinsic appeal or value in its right – such as an artwork or a certificate that someone wants to put on a wall – then that would be the exception. Another exception would be where only a physical signature or stamp of approval is legally binding. 

However, for the majority of organizations digital transformation is going to accelerate from here onwards, especially since the pandemic has highlighted the practical problems with dealing with paper remotely, and forced us all to do so much more online. And with so much technology available to ease the transition, you could argue that there has never been a better time to make it happen.

Lynda Kershaw, marketing manager, Macro 4, a division of UNICOM Global

Lynda Kershaw
Lynda Kershaw is a marketing manager at Macro 4, a division of UNICOM® Global.