By Doug Miles, Director of Market Intelligence, AIIM

If someone asked whether you’d be interested in responding quicker to your customers, improving business productivity and helping the environment, few businesses would say no. All of this can be achieved by using less paper in the workplace, according to AIIM’s new study, ‘Paper Wars 2014 – an update from the battlefield’. 60% of respondents have seen ROI on their paper-free projects within 12 months, and more than three-quarters had done so within 18 months. The biggest benefits from going paper-free were being able to give a faster response to customers and increased productivity.

Furthermore, 68% of respondents said that business-at-the-speed-of-paper will be ‘unacceptable in just a few years’ time’ and around half of businesses surveyed claimed that the biggest single productivity improvement would be to remove paper. However, only one in five has a board-level endorsed policy to actually reduce paper and more than one in five (21%) organisations are actually increasing their paper consumption. What is behind this disconnect and what can be done to address it?

Paper, paper, everywhere
Ever since the internet was first used, people have been discussing the possibility of the paperless workplace. It’s safe to say that we aren’t anywhere near that and it’s a goal that is almost certainly unobtainable.

The reasons for this are varied. In the AIIM research, more than half of respondents admitted printing personal paper copies to take to a meeting, or to add a signature. They also use printed copies for reading offline or out-of-the-office (50%), and particularly to review and mark-up (45%).
Many respondents said a lack of management initiatives (47%) and the (perceived) need for physical signatures (44%) were the two main reasons why there is still so much paper in their business processes.

The need for physical signatures is an interesting area. There are many different electronic signing solutions available ranging from stylus input, automated verification, digitally encrypted signatures, and web signatures, all of which have a place in achieving paper-free working. Stopping an otherwise all-electronic process simply to collect a physical signature on a piece of paper, which is often immediately re-scanned, is obviously somewhat sub-optimal and frequently presents a greater confidentiality risk than the electronic original itself.

But still people crave the comfort of a physical signature. Perhaps unsurprisingly this meant that legal and finance departments were considered to be the most resistant to the introduction of paper-free working, followed by HR and general administration.

How to move forward
Rather than aiming for a paper-free workplace, perhaps we should be aiming to achieve paper-free processes. World Paper Free Day 2014 took place recently (6 November), an initiative that sought to show how much paper is wasted in the workplace and how well we can manage without it. Hundreds of organisations all over the world participated in going paper-free for the day and one of the key takeaways was that paper-free business processes are a much more realistic goal.

A key part of achieving this, is the use of scan-on-entry. The concept of scanning all inbound mail at point-of-entry and routing it around the business electronically is very attractive, especially if it can significantly reduce or even eliminate internal mail distribution. Our survey asked those who consider they have a digital mailroom scenario, what proportion of mail they scan (not including brochures, junk mail, etc.). 45% are scanning half or more of incoming mail, and 34% are scanning three-quarters. A significant 23% are scanning 90% or even 100%.

The concept of a digital mailroom does not rely on the use of large central mailroom scanners. Mail capture can be distributed across branch offices, and can be readily outsourced. Although the investment in scanners and capture servers for scan-on-entry systems can be considerable, most respondents saw a strong ROI, with 38% reporting payback in 12 months or less, and 60% within 18 months.

Final recommendations
Whilst going totally paper-free is unrealistic, adopting paper-free processes adds a lot of value to a business. It can be achieved with suitable leadership and determination. Consider the following measures:

• Look at how paper enters your business, where it slows things down, where it clogs up the workspace, and where it restricts information access and process flexibility.
• Highlight the role that paper-free processes can play in business improvement initiatives, particularly customer response and customer experience management.
• Seek endorsement from above for policies on less-paper offices, and paper-free processes.
• Implement quick wins where electronic copies are being habitually printed as part of the workflow – for reference, for review, for signatures, or for file copies.
• If you have no existing paper-free processes, pick one to trial
• If you are unsure of your expertise, get a team member trained, or if you need some external input, consult a document process outsourcer.
• Audit those existing processes that utilise scanning and electronic workflows. Ensure they are taking full advantage of OCR, data capture and integration with core enterprise systems.
• Position your capture system “right at the door” as a digital mailroom, defending offices from paper, and ensuring the quickest possible conversion to electronic.

Finally, and above all, question how your business is going to remain competitive in a mobile, always on, dispersed-workforce world if it clings to its paper-laden processes. Our survey showed that business-at-the-speed-of-paper is fast becoming unacceptable. It will be a long journey adopting paper-free business processes, but the benefits are clear, and the sooner you get started the faster you will see the returns.