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How to go paperless: The practical guide to a paperless office

Nearly everything you need to know in taking the first step toward document digitization

Organizations today remain at the mercy of paper-based systems, despite available technologies to reduce paper usage, if not remove it, altogether.

In fact, only 18% of companies today can be considered truly paperless. Scary, isn’t it? What’s even scarier are the BIG problems with using paper. Handling paper is cumbersome, impedes productivity, reduces operational efficiency, and costs companies money — and a lot of it.

One study estimates that the time wasted from processing paper, costs organizations close to $20,000 per knowledge worker, per year. But that’s only the half of it. Read on to learn more about the extent of the paper problem and everything you need to know about the paperless office and how it can help your business:

  • What are the disadvantages of paper-based processes
  • What are the benefits of a paperless office
  • How your organization can become paperless in less than 90 days

The disadvantages of paper-based processes

Paper-based systems are a cost-burden, impede workflows, and pose serious security risks.

The cost burden

Gartner estimates that companies spend between 1 to 3% of their revenue on office printing. That doesn’t even account for the cost of filing, shipping and storing documents— let alone the cost of the actual paper.

In conducting original ROI research studying the cost benefits of investing in content management, Nucleus Research found returns $8.55 per dollar spent for SMBs alone. This report reveals the key benefits and best practices for small and medium-sized businesses to start saving on every dollar and win back employees' time.

And, let’s not forget the indirect cost: Paper-based processes are a time-suck and remove knowledge workers from more productive and high-value tasks. The time that employees spend on these unproductive tasks could be costing your company thousands of dollars.

Indeed, according to a 2012 IDC White Paper "... information workers waste a significant amount of time each week dealing with a variety of challenges related to working with documents. This wasted time costs the organization $19,732 per information worker per year.” For an organization of 1000 employees, productivity losses are equivalent to hiring a whopping 213 employees.

The security risks

An annual report submitted to Congress by The HHS' Office for Civil Rights revealed that paper records account for 62% of data breaches in companies of over 500 employees.

This statistic shouldn’t surprise you. After all, paper is, by its very nature, impermanent. Unless you have a digital back up, you remain vulnerable to such breaches. You’re also open to theft and damage due to natural disasters, such as floods, which can impact business continuity.

Furthermore, printers, which remain common in many organizations, are insecure by default and also open to hacking — yet another security risk for your organization.

Learn more about how to strengthen document security and compliance for your business with this free on-demand webinar.

Paper impedes workflows

The same IDC survey mentions that the wasted time associated with handling paper leads to a productivity loss of 21.3%. Indeed, many employees struggle to stay on top of daily tasks and workflows because they're inundated with information and hampered by inefficient, paper-based business processes.

Moving paper through your organization, without first converting it to electronic form, is notoriously slow. Information workers waste time capturing, storing, and routing documents to others due to manual processes.

These tedious manual processes, in turn, reduce operational efficiency and create a “document disconnect,” which results in delays and errors as documents move between critical business functions such as procurement, accounting, sales, and human resources (HR).

Many employees struggle to stay on top of daily tasks and workflows because they're inundated with information and hampered by inefficient, paper-based business processes. By going paperless, organizations are able to improve their business processes and enhance their productivity.

Introducing the paperless office

The paperless office is the first step toward digital transformation in your organization. It refers to the deliberate removal of paper from processes, with the goal of improving efficiency. Digitization is at the core of the paperless office.

What is a paperless office?

A paperless office is one that has deliberately done away with paper-based processes with the goal of improving efficiency. It’s the first step toward digital transformation in your organization, as digitization is at the core of the paperless office.

What does it mean to go paperless?

Information that started as paper is transformed into electronic form. Documents are scanned, indexed, and stored securely in a central repository for easy retrieval

Processes that were manual are now automated. For example, the right document management system will integrate with other applications for streamlined workflows across business functions

You can access electronic documents, any time, anywhere, and from any device. This is critical if you have multiple offices or employees that need access to documents remotely

What are the benefits of a paperless office?

Here are three key benefits of going paperless and case studies showcasing how companies have benefited.

1. Reduced operational costs

Digitizing internal paper-based systems reduces printing and other operational costs:

  • Storage costs: There’s no longer a need to purchase filing cabinets or use valuable floor space to store paper or keep hard copies for future reference
  • Copying and printing costs: With digitization, you don’t need to create multiple copies of a file for distribution around the office. You can use a digital document management system to store one copy in a central place, for easy access
  • Business process costs: Because you’ve transitioned from manual to automated workflows, you streamline business processes and save money. For example, optimizing workflows can lead to faster payment collection and a reduction in purchasing costs
  • Security and data recovery costs: Securing your data to multiple locations is easy and inexpensive. Recovering that data is even easier, with no impact on business continuity

Located in Monroe County, the town's growth led to a massive increase in the volume of paper that needed processing. Searching for files became a cumbersome process as employees had to wade through filing cabinets, and storage costs grew exorbitantly. DocuWare worked with their IT department to install high-speed scanners and ensured documents were automatically indexed and archived in a central digital repository. The town back-scanned paper records and destroyed the paper once these documents were in the system.

The results? Finding files became faster and easier, and the town saves $20,000 a year on document storage fees. Read the full case study.

2. Regained time for productivity

When content is stored centrally and correctly indexed, it’s easily accessible. Employees won't have to waste time searching for those files and can quickly share information across your organization.

Easy access and the ability to share documents rapidly, speeds up processes and contributes to time gains in crucial processes such as invoicing, employee onboarding, and collections. For example, you can speed up automate invoice processing by automatically linking related electronic documents like purchase orders, bills of lading, contracts and more.

You can also save time by integrating applications. For example, by integrating document management systems, invoicing, and customer relationship software, you’ll avoid soloing tasks and ensure the smooth flow of information.

Swagelok Manchester is a leading provider of fluid system solutions in the Northwest of England. As the company grew, so to did the number of documents that needed filling. Filing equated to lost productivity of 30 minutes per employee, per day and they were working weekends to make up this time. Working with DocuWare, they drafted a plan to transition to digital workflow. The document management system also integrated with current systems such as SCALA ERP and SIMPLE barcoding inventory management solution.

The result? The company realized substantial productivity gains: six order processing employees recaptured 15 hours of work time, per week. Read the full case study.

3. Better security and compliance

Securing your data is in your best interest. If you don’t, you risk losing business-critical information that can have a negative impact on business continuity and client relationships.

Digital systems let you work in a safer and more secure environment: You’re better protected from security breaches due to document and communication encryption and can control who has access to specific files.

Maintaining compliance with mandates such as HIPAA and GDPR is also far easier, and you’re better prepared should disaster strike: Multiple and secure redundant backups help you effortlessly recover data.

Environmental Impact from Switching to Paperless

While it's clear that paper-based systems take a toll on workflow, efficiency and productivity, they also pose significant risks to the environment. By becoming paperless, you can reduce your impact on forests, cut energy use and help lessen the impact of climate change.

Step-by-step: how to become a paperless office in 90 days

Now that you understand the paper problem and the benefits of going paperless, it’s time to show you how to launch a paperless process in 90 days.

Here are the steps to becoming a paperless office:

  1. Identify a painful process
  2. Create your leadership team and drive awareness
  3. Map out the process to identify digitization opportunities
  4. Design the solution
  5. Deploy your chosen content solution
  6. Document the process and measure its impact

Meet Jason

Jason is an accountant with ten years of experience with accounts payables, receivables, and more. He's data-focused and always looking for ways to improve current processes. He reports to Samantha, the director of finance.

Getting started

When top management approached Samantha and told her about their plans to create a paperless business— starting with the accounting department — she knew Jason would be the right person to drive the initiative.

She set up a meeting and explained the situation. Jason grabbed the opportunity with both hands and, under Samantha's guidance, managed to launch a paperless process in 90 days by following six simple steps.

Ninety days serves as an achievable quarterly target. It’s not too long, which can cause employees to drag their feet — and it’s not too short, which can lead to poor implementation. As Jason discovered, it’s the perfect time frame to inject urgency while providing an achievable goal.

Here are the steps he followed:

1. Identify a painful process

Painful processes are tedious, impede workflows, require much human input, and remove employees from high-value work. Focus on common business areas that need digitization — including HR, accounting, marketing and sales. Then, identify specific processes that are reliant upon individual documents, such as invoice processing and employee reviews.

With top management deciding to start with the accounting department, it was now up to Jason to identify one process needing digitization. He knew the key was to start small by focusing on only one process to gain momentum — succumbing to the urge to start with several would only slow him down.

After analyzing all the processes, Jason chose accounts payable as it involved processing hordes of paper documents, was riddled with clerical errors, and had no automated workflows in place.

2. Create your leadership team and drive awareness

The success of any initiative will depend on getting buy-in from C-level executives and top management. That’s why it’s crucial you form an enterprise content management (ECM) leadership team consisting of these executives, directors and internal representatives of specific departments.

These representatives will feed information back from departments about both the opportunities and challenges of going paperless. Setting up this leadership team will ensure everyone is vested in the process, has a voice, and drives the initiatives forward.

In Jason and Samantha’s case, they already had top-management buy-in and Jason was the representative who would feed information to Samantha, and also drive the initiative.

The only thing Jason had to do was create awareness in the department by explaining the reasons for the initiative and the benefits to the users. Why? He understood that many employees only cared about their daily tasks and would only use a new system if they saw value in it.

This meant he would have to properly communicate the value early on. Jason set up a presentation that highlighted the reasons for going paperless, the problems with current workflows, and the benefits of a new system.

Finally, because Jason lacked IT knowledge and understood that the success of the initiative depended on getting buy-in from IT, he arranged a private meeting. They discussed the details of the project since IT would have to work closely with the ECM vendor to design and deploy the solution.

3. Map out the process to identify digitization opportunities

Understanding all the steps involved in current processes helps you identify inefficiencies and pinpoint solutions to fix these problems.

Jason started by focusing on how employees in the department handled documents in three core areas that are typically part of any process:

  1. Capturing information refers to how you capture documents that arrive at your organization in a variety of ways — email, fax and even physical mail.
  2. Routing information refers to how information entering your organization is shared with others — especially when they need to approve, review or take some other action.
  3. Retrieving information refers to the process of accessing documents.

To help him map out current processes and pinpoint digitization opportunities in accounts payable, he asked himself the following questions.

How to identify digitization opportunities in your current processes:

  1. How does the process start? In Jason’s case, this process usually began when they received paper invoices, and digital invoices via email.
  2. How do we capture information from these documents? Is this process seamless? Jason, for example, found that the process of matching invoices with purchase orders was a tedious one.
  3. How do we route the documents? Again, most invoices received were routed manually. There were also no predefined processes for reviewing, routing, and approving documents.
  4. Where do we store the documents? All documents were stored on local drives and in filing cabinets. These documents weren’t secure and would benefit from multiple, redundant back-ups that ECM systems offer.
  5. How do we retrieve these documents? Finding, accessing and retrieving files was a tiresome process, with employees spending hours on this task. They needed a system that indexed and stored these documents in a digital repository for easy retrieval.
  6. What are the key integrations points? Successful integration between applications creates automated workflows and improves efficiency. A key integration point may include integration between document management software and an accounting system to improve the flow of documents. At the time, though, Jason and his department only used QuickBooks and didn’t have a document management system. Nevertheless, he recognized this was a key integration point that would help them with their paperless process. So, his next step was to find the right partner to design this solution.

4. Design the solution

The design step usually leads to excitement building as end users begin visualizing the final product and how it could benefit them. This solution will depend on your process, bottlenecks and the integration points.

Jason got to work researching potential vendors. Samantha gave him the following advice:

  • Don’t go too “thin”: Enterprise file synchronization and sharing (EFSS) systems like Google Docs, Box and DropBox are limited to storing and sharing files. These systems give us no control over user-centric security, workflow automation or retention policy capabilities.
  • Don’t go too “heavy”: Similarly, be cautious of vendors that focus on “enterprise” solutions. These are usually complicated, expensive and extremely time-consuming.

The point Samantha was trying to make was that there are vendors focused on small and mid-sized businesses with features built for real-world workers. A company like DocuWare, for example, provides unique paperless office solutions for various business areas such as employee management, marketing and sales, and yes, you guessed it, finance and accounting. What’s more, these solutions are cloud-based — and that does matter.

Does the cloud matter?

The cloud requires minimal maintenance compared to on-premises systems, allows for rapid deployment, enables solution acquisition at the departmental level, scales better, improves operational flexibility, and does not require huge upfront license costs.

Jason eventually chose his vendor — the only thing left to do was deploy the solution.

5. Deploy your chosen content solution

The deployment will vary depending on your company, the solution and the vendor. You could, for example, start with a test system or implement it in several steps.

Jason worked closely with his document management provider and the IT administrator to implement the system in phases:

Phase one was the proof of concept

The proof of concept offered Jason’s team insight into how the solution would address their core business issues. Using their documents, the document management provider demonstrated how the software would automate and improve key processes.

Phase two involved iterations to the solution

Ideas for improvements to the design emerged after every stage of testing. The team wanted to make sure the solution was intuitive as possible. They accomplished this by increasing the use of checkboxes and drop down menus whenever it was appropriate. Jason’s team also tweaked the workflow processes by breaking some tasks into two. Or, conversely, deciding it made sense to combine two processes into a single one.

Phase three consisted of rolling out the solution

Before the roll out, Jason’s team created awareness of the project to get end users excited about the upcoming changes. The team created a series of You Tube videos that gave a high level overview of the solution. System administrators and power were trained to use the solution first. They spread the word about how the solution would automate routine tasks and make everyone’s work lives easier. Then, end users came on board and reinforced the message. There was a company-wide lunch party to celebrate the launch of the new solution. Then Jason’s company was ready to go live.

The final solution included:

  • Intelligent indexing to automatically read key data from invoices and match those invoices match invoices with related purchase orders
  • The ability to automatically capture paper documents and quickly import invoices into searchable digital file structures
  • Predefined workflow rules for routing electronic documents
  • Integration between the document management system and QuickBooks for better information flow
  • A “Connect to Outlook” feature that allowed staff to quickly send, receive, and upload documents to a central location, directly from their email accounts

Jason also trained employees on how to use the system. Together, he and the IT administrator took employees step-by-step through the new process, so they understood precisely how it works.

6. Document the process and measure its impact

You can’t implement a system and forget about it. Instead, view your paperless process as a constantly changing one you’ll likely want to replicate in other business areas as your organization grows.

Because the accounting department was the “guinea pig” for the solution, Jason documented the entire process along the way. Documenting the process would not only help with the successful implementation of a paperless office in other business areas but also with the transfer of knowledge.

What would happen if both Jason and the IT administrator decided to leave the organization and there were no documents to reference?

How to measure the impact of going paperless

Finally, Jason measured the impact of the initiative to go paperless in 90 days by asking the following questions:

  • Did we actually achieve our goal of going paperless in less than 90 days?
  • Did the paperless office solution improve
  • the way everyone in the department works? Has their productivity improved? Are they happier?
  • How well did we digitize the three core areas—capturing, routing, and retrieving information:
    • How efficiently are we capturing documents? Some positive indicators included fewer printed documents and employees raving about how efficient the new process was
    • How quickly are we processing documents? Jason simply compared the new process with the old one
    • Is document retrieval easier? Employees were spending less time searching for files and could confidently retrieve them
  • How many work hours have we recaptured per employee, per week? Jason, together with Samantha and the HR department, reviewed the new overtime numbers which were far lower.
  • What are the cost savings of storing less paper?

Slowly, but surely Jason and Samantha built a document management ROI story for their organization — and realized the new system was a huge success and could easily be replicated across the entire organization.

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