Global industry association AIIM found that two-thirds of companies who adopted paper-free processes reported a payback within 18 months.
Sadly, these success stories are rare: recent Iron Mountain research found that only one per cent of European businesses had achieved a paperless office. WRAP’s Green Office guide (May 2013) estimates that the average office worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day, of which over half is considered waste. Not to mention the costs of printer cartridges, energy, storage and transportation (post and couriers).
US figures from Gartner suggest that the nation spends $25-35bn US per year filing, storing and retrieving paper. UK figures will be different, but it is easy to see how the costs are going to mount up.
There are ‘soft’ costs too: PWC estimates that on average, 7.5 per cent of all documents are lost and a further 3.5 per cent are misfiled, so that 11 per cent of paper-based documents will never be found. Companies surveyed by AIIM felt that driving paper out of the process would improve the productivity of process staff by 29.7 per cent, so what’s stopping businesses from going paper-free?
Sign on the line
One of the biggest culprits is printing out documents in order to collect signatures. Recent YouGov research found that 80 per cent of UK organisations are printing documents just to get them signed, rising to over 90 per cent in the financial services and public sectors. AIIM estimates that 42 per cent of processes are interrupted by the need to collect a physical signature, adding on average 3.1 days to most processes.
However, ‘wet ink’ signatures are rarely a legal requirement, as pointed out by Doug Miles, head of AIIM’s Market Intelligence Unit: “The laws on this have been standardized in most jurisdictions for ten if not 20 years.”
There is also a strong cost argument: AIIM’s research found that the majority of digital signature adopters report a return on investment in less than one year. In addition, digital signature technology is arguably more secure and legally robust because it can be made tamper-proof (the signature is invalidated if the document is altered).
Digital signatures, which are increasingly part of business process, workflow and document management systems, not only reduce paper consumption by encouraging electronic content, but also significantly improve productivity and efficiency. However, AIIM research found that the biggest benefit that paperless companies reported were compliance and better records for audit trails. This is understandable given that so many industries are led by regulation and compliance these days. The second highest rated benefit was faster customer response (internal or external), followed by better monitoring of status and workflows.
The mailroom is another culprit: AIIM research found that 40 per cent of mail rooms (physical or digital) handle more than 1,000 items a day, with that number rising to over 10,000 for 13 per cent of organisations. Yet, only 14 per cent of European businesses have implemented digital mailrooms. Encouraging suppliers and customers to submit content digitally can reduce the volume of paper coming into the organisation.
The mobile workforce could prove to be a catalyst for the paperless office. More of us are performing tasks from our smartphones and tablets, without a printer in sight. Impressively, AIIM research found that 51 per cent of users of mobile capture report a payback period of 18 months or less.
Where to start
WRAP’s Green Office Guide (May 2013) includes models to help calculate the cost of using paper in the business, but here are some of my suggestions as a first step towards a paperless office strategy:
- Audit information – where are processes ‘breaking out’ into paper, who is responsible, what processes are involved, and why does this happen?
- Paperless pioneers– get someone at a senior level to champion a paper-free strategy and then identify some ‘local heroes’ at the departmental level
- Present the CFO and financial department with some of the hard evidence of how much paper is really costing your business
- Identify the doubters and provide information and training to staff members who may be less comfortable with technology and new processes
· Enable efaxing, reduce or centralise printers so people have farther to walk (so may discourage mindless use), encourage double-sided printing and use thinner paper. As WRAP advises: “monitor printing levels by giving employees a personal access code to the printer/photocopier.”
Clearly, businesses can be doing a lot more towards a paper-free environment then they currently are. With alarmingly few businesses getting anywhere near achieving this goal, it is time to turn the spotlight on the cost benefits – in addition to the environmental ones - in order to win over any resistance.
Ronan Lavelle is ARX UK Country Manager and has 18 years’ experience in information, document, content, contract and workflow management technologies.