By Simon Shorthose, Managing Director, ReadSoft UK

A paperless environment means much more than the absence of the physical medium, particularly when the focus is on using digital solutions to add tangible value to the business.

It is easy to forget how rapidly technology has transformed business. This can be seen in the finance function of businesses especially. Only one generation ago, business managers needed to invest a significant amount of time each month to the physical task of ploughing through hundreds of invoices, checking these against purchase orders and other documentation and signing cheques that were then sent to suppliers on a monthly basis. Stories of invoices ending up in desk drawers or being lost in transit across internal mail systems were not uncommon. Electronic banking and payments, e-invoicing and the digitisation of content have all transformed these processes in a little under a decade.
It is surprising that despite advances in technology transforming the way money is moved, many organisations continue to rely on paperwork to manage their business. The majority of businesses, if they haven’t already, are now thinking about switching business critical functionality to the Cloud. Using Cloud technology can give a business access to financial information wherever it is needed, as many applications allow access from mobile devices. When a business’ finance function is fully automated in the Cloud, a paperless environment really is attainable, even when other companies are still sending paperwork to the business.

Take the Accounts Payable function. Historically a paper intensive and largely manual process that relied on invoices being received by post, matched to purchase orders, processed for approval and ultimately payment, the whole function can now be processed automatically in the Cloud. In a paper focused environment, lost or incorrect invoices lead to bill chasing from suppliers, to the detriment of key supplier relationships. The historical pitfalls became even worse at the dawn of the digital age. With invoices arriving by fax, email and paper, in PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or within the body of the email, there was no consistency of format and a large amount of unnecessary printing. Managing this experience to the satisfaction of all parties required a huge amount of manual labour.

Larger organisations could invest in document management and automation systems to automate much of this process, but this left smaller businesses out in the cold, as the systems required substantial investment. Cloud adoption is being driven by the increased variety of available services, reductions in the cost of initial investment and improvements in security. Software as a Service (SaaS) has revolutionised the Cloud to encompass a vast range of applications that can all contribute to a paperless business environment. Whereas previously these were limited to email and general office processes, as the platform has matured, almost every IT process, from HR to finance, includes possible Cloud applications.

For SMEs there is still a lot of confusion about when they should consider moving to cloud-based back office functionality. This can be caused by reluctance from IT suppliers who want to keep selling and maintaining expensive hardware, but legitimate concerns over issues like security and availability also muddy the waters.

The evolution of the Cloud has levelled the playing field so that any business can move towards a paperless environment. Cloud software, like ReadSoft Online, can be used by any business that processes a large number of invoices to completely remove the need for paper in the Accounts Payable department. Even the paper invoices that are received can be scanned and uploaded to a remote server for storage — in itself a significant advantage over traditional paper storage. The real magic however, takes place when invoices are automatically matched to purchase orders — removing the need for significant manual intervention. Typically more than 90% of all invoices can be matched in this way, leaving accounts staff to deal only with the exceptions.

The advancements in Cloud technology mean there has never been a better time to create a paperless environment. The benefits once only available to large organisations can now be experienced by the even the smallest SME. With so much business happening online already, moving back office functionality into the Cloud is the natural next step in streamlining business processes. The digital solutions that are creating a paperless environment offer many more tangible business benefits at the same time. Really, a paperless environment is the by-product of business transformation.