elickerby Lance Elicker, Van Ausdall & Farrar

Chances are you have heard the term “the paperless office” — if not by reading this magazine,  by working at a company that has attempted to go paperless, or by seeing the term on TV or social media. Before discussing the value of the paperless office, however, it is important to understand what the paperless office is. In my opinion, it is more of a concept or philosophy rather than something that can be bought and procured. I realize some of you reading this are going to disagree with me, but at least hear me out. What does it mean to be paperless? What is the value of being paperless? How can going paperless work against a company? What does it mean to be paperless? 

Webster defines paperless as: “recording or relaying information by electronic media rather than on paper.” Is it possible to run a company without paper at all? No, clearly that’s not possible. The ability to eliminate paper isn’t as important as eliminating a company’s dependence on a piece of paper to get business done. Going paperless happens in phases. 

Phase One

Phase One is creating a digital archive of all records whether they were once paper or originated electronically. An overwhelming majority of companies that claim to be paperless (particularly the SMB) exist in this first phase. 

There are many reasons for making this “first phase” leap, including eliminating filing cabinets for extra space, attempting to organize records outside of file cabinets, or extending the ability to find records electronically to employees that are not in the office. These documents live their life in paper form (invoices/contracts/employee documents) the first time they are needed for a process; then the documents are archived electronically to some sort of repository, a Z drive (pick any letter), document management system, or any place that allows for the paper artifact to be eliminated. 

Phew, that felt good. Paperless achieved, right? If your goal was to eliminate paper filing cabinets, I would say that is a good first step, especially in terms of setting expectations for a cultural change, where now an employee is going to search a system to find a record as opposed to heading to the filing cabinet. For companies, particularly smaller, less paper-intensive companies, that might be the end of your paperless journey. There are benefits to no longer having paper files, and if a system to manage the new digital documents is set up correctly the following are benefits: 

The ability to search on multiple criteria (index values) to help with the search and retrieve process. 

Permissions to view/edit/delete documents can be restricted based on permissions.

Retention dates and storage policies can be put in place to automate purging and reduce audit risk.

Better customer service through the ability to find and deliver information more quickly.

But there is much more to this paperless thing than living in a world of perpetual back file conversion. Remember your goals as a company, or if you are in sales, the goals of the company buying from you. Organizations that stop here still have all the inherent risks of a company that lives in this paper world with no real visibility into what is taking place with that paper until the very end. Who is going to scan and archive this documentation? How will that process be controlled? 

Phase Two

The next step in a paperless evolution (perhaps “revolution” in your company) is to create a digital asset from the beginning. Examples would be the person(s) getting mail and scanning it immediately, never printing anything internally, forcing vendors to provide digital assets, and only sending out communications such as invoices electronically, as opposed to mailing correspondence. 

How much of the documentation coming into a company is stored and archived without any additional action? Very little. The information being received kicks off a process, or as it is known in our world, a workflow. The workflow will involve one or more people, and during the workflow process action is taken — possibly multiple actions. 

Think accounts payable (AP); an invoice is received, processing is done and payment is made (hopefully). If the incoming documentation is already being sorted, there isn’t a reason to wait to create the digital artifact that will kick off the workflow. 

Typically, the folks who start the process are keenly aware of where the workflow starts and what happens next. The only difference is they may scan a paper document, enter information known about the document (vendor name, invoice amount, etc.) and utilize a workflow tool to drive the process. It is incredibly important to eliminate the potential for human error. Setting up workflow rules and having a workflow software be the driver will be immensely beneficial. If the process is completely human-driven the process is still predicated on a person making the correct decision. With a workflow tool, once a specific task is completed, the workflow continues without a human having to think (and believe it or not we all make mistakes). 

In this phase, technology allowing digital or electronic signatures becomes important to maintaining paperlessness (it’s a word, trust me) Here are examples of where workflow brings value to the paperless office:

The document is already electronic so no need to store at the end.

The process of document coding is taking place the entire way through, and not all left for the end to be figured out.

There is visibility into where every document is within the workflow process, especially where documents are being held up.

Documents that need to be combined can be combined easily to create a packet necessary for making appropriate decisions in workflow.

If a workflow requires multiple approvals or actions, these tasks can be worked on simultaneously, as opposed to a linear process where one employee must approve before the next can start.

Phase Three

The software applications that facilitate workflow are often capable of integration with other line-of-business applications. Eliminating the need to redundantly type/input information across multiple software platforms is very powerful in reducing errors, maintaining consistency and expediting workflow.

Outside of the data input portion being redundant, so is the storage of the document itself. In most companies the same document can live in a multitude of areas, and that can expose a company to risk. These risks are inherently reduced solely based on setting up your document management architecture in the correct way. 

Think personally identifiable information and personal health information (PII/PHI) as an example of documents a company would want to have visibility into knowing where they are archived and accessed. The ability to provide image support across the enterprise, where documents live in one place and can be extended to all the applications that are used to run a company, is critical. For example, while the information about an invoice lives in an ERP system, the supporting documentation to validate data in your ERP system lives in your document management system and can be accessed. 

The additional benefits of Phase Three are:

Complete control of organizational documentation and the risk associated with rogue documents.

Elimination of errors associated with redundant data input

Supporting documents are easily accessed.

Now, for the naysayers. I realize that electronic data interchange (EDI) and other tools that allow for electronic exchange of information exist, and perhaps those are the way to real paperlessness. But most companies still live in the world I described earlier in the article, where paper has to be dealt with. Until we are utilizing blockchain or a similar sort of technology to make all transactions data-only, paper is going to be a necessary evil. 

For the sales organizations selling the paperless environment, or the organization that has determined it should go paperless, think about the value that each phase provides. Technology investments must outperform the current business model, and should be measured in terms of capital performance. Understanding these metrics are crucial to a successful justification of the cost. The value of a paperless environment cannot be determined purely based in terms of currency, but in areas such as:

Reducing exposure to risk in compliance, audit, inside and outside threats.

Growing a company without the need to add additional administrative staff to handle more work.

Having a true enterprise content management strategy that can be repeated throughout the entire company.

Employee retention for the new millennial workforce who are looking for agile companies that invest in technology and process.

The value of the paperless office has many factors. I hope that I was able to provide some insight into the way I have been successful working with companies on creating an environment that eliminates the need to have a piece of paper to access data. Making data that resides on a piece of paper actionable is the largest contributor to success. 

Lance Elicker
Van Ausdall & Farrar
vanausdall.com

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel