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Going Paperless: Is less paper the holy grail of automation and digitization?

Reading the news on our cellphones has been one of the major habit changes due to COVID-19. My friends, who once could not start their days without the touch and feel of a freshly delivered newspaper, have now been compelled to read the digital version. Via apps, or simply through news websites, they have had to adapt to a changed world. To the well-known aphorism, “old habits die hard,” maybe it’s time to add, “but with time and effort they do.

In the same vein, I think one of the changes after COVID-19 will be how organizations work with paper. Paperless has been the holy grail of automation and digitization for a long time now, with only limited success. But now, the time has come for this trend’s spread to experience a major acceleration, and maybe even reach the tipping point.

In anticipation of this great shift, I will try and find an answer to the question: “How can businesses go paperless?”

To begin answering this question, we must first ask ourselves why a vast majority of businesses still use paper – why, that is, despite scanning and DMS technologies having been available for a long time, there is still a primal dependency on paper. In exploring these issues, we can also try to understand how the tide is turning, especially in the wake of COVID-19. These reasons are:

1.    Mindset – As per the late 2018 “Paperless Survey,” 44% of employees still use paper despite having access to paperless options. This is a prime example of a hard-to-kill habit, where the times may be changing, but aren’t changing fast enough. A disruption like COVID-19 is expected to accelerate that change dramatically. The need to increase distance, not just between people, but also from objects that pass through multiple hands, is very real today. There may even be a natural shift towards avoiding contact with paper unless absolutely necessary.

2.    Regulation – The preparation and retention of regulatory documents is a major contributor towards keeping these documents in physical forms. Comments, annotations and signed copies are still required in paper for a lot of regulatory processes and legal compliances. Over time, however, a lot of filing and documentation is becoming electronic, and e-signatures are gaining acceptance in the business world. We can expect a major reduction in paper requirements for regulatory purposes in the coming days. Presentation, retention and legal acceptance of digital documents with e-signatures will move the needle significantly towards using less paper.

3.    Ecosystem – Most companies use digital collaboration technologies for internal communication and document needs. However, when they look at their extended business networks, they still face a lot of paper usage. The trail of paper flows between them, their partners, suppliers and customers. This creates a problem of maintaining two different systems for managing the process flow of work: the digital one to drive productivity which is used inside the enterprise, and the physical one for ecosystem usage. This setup will also change; a shift to cloud-based content management and process automation technologies will provide great omnichannel experience. There are also industry-specific trade exchanges and platforms which will accelerate this change. End-to-end ecosystems are going to be digitized, with all participating parties contributing and consuming documents in the digital form. The post-COVID-19 business environment is going to act as a trigger to make this change, and we expect most companies taking initiatives to work out a roadmap of slowly phasing out physical document exchange in the ecosystem.

4.    Lack of Technology Adoption – Companies have implemented different generations of digital technologies that do not have the ability to cover today’s end-to-end processes. They cannot manage the entire process of capturing unstructured documents, creating seamless workflows and driving automation to reduce human steps accurately. This, in effect, fails to create a seamless omnichannel experience for all stakeholders. With most customers, the process is distributed across technology stacks and has been implemented in different times with different goals in mind. The experience isn’t smooth, and paper still stays in between the processes.

This is going to change, and fast. Digital automation platforms are needed to provide the required technology capabilities to make this change with speed and flexibility. The unifications of services needed to make this transition should all be pre-integrated in the platform, to help customers move their paper-based processes to rich digital experiences at half the time and cost.

Industry has always been trying to reduce paper and drive digitization to increase productivity and collaboration. Paper has always been bulky, space-consuming and has limited the number of simultaneous users to one. Sharing knowledge is so much easier when it is digital; today’s environment could even be said to demand it. The reasons to make this change are truly endless, and they are all compelling. I hope this COVID-19 led disruption can take us past the tipping point, when we use less paper on our way to become paperless.

Kaushik Bagchi, Vice President – Information Management Asia Pacific, ASG Technologies

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