In 1975, Business Week magazine published an article about the “Office of the Future” in which they made an early prediction for the paperless office. When I entered this industry in 2000, all industry analysts focused on the fact that paper was dead. Document imaging would be a declining business and soon all business and personal content would be digitally born and digitally managed. While that was a great vision, the reality is that the transformation happened much slower than predicted and, frankly, is still nowhere near the overall vision of zero paper on an employee’s desk.

While many factors have greatly contributed and even accelerated an overall reduction of paper utilized daily as part of a business process, transaction or record, there is still a very evident and profound reality that while companies strive for the goals and benefits of digital transformation, losing sight of paper also comes at significant costs and loss of productivity.

The Gold Rush Effect

I am a huge fan of the Discovery Channel reality show Gold Rush. I am always amazed at the work and effort that goes into to moving and processing millions of yards of dirt to simply fill a single Mason jar with tiny flecks of gold. I am even more amazed that the single Mason jar represents a significant profit for the miners. How does this wonderful show relate to the paperless office? Well, there is fine gold (the very small flecks of gold) and there are nuggets.

When we think of the paperless office and how communication using documents and the processing of documents has evolved and transformed productivity we can think of gold. Fine gold represents the volumes of paper documents in years past and nuggets represent the critical document that is required to complete a process or transaction.

When paper was the only communication and content medium, the volumes of paper that needed to be processed was extremely high. Like the flecks of fine gold, you needed to process that high volume of paper to garner the business benefits of the flecks of data and information contained within a document. If you think about how you applied for and were approved for a mortgage 10 years ago, recall all the documentation you needed to provide in support of that mortgage. Many times, the applicant had to provide hundreds of pages of documentation to justify and validate claims made on the mortgage application and in support of various risk concerns of the lender. All these pages needed to be reviewed and processed. More importantly the flecks of data needed to be captured and validated to populate the mortgage origination system so further decisions could be made. Just as important, the paper needed to be digitized to control the cost of management, storage, and for reference as part of the loan origination workflow.

As we look to where we are today, supporting documents and data are still required. However, the methodologies for receiving this content has changed since many of the documents are electronically born, or the data is also received by integration methods into third-party systems and services that provide data to assist in the mortgage decision process. While the number of documents required to process a mortgage is relatively the same, the volume of paper documents submitted has naturally declined. This is where we come to the nugget. A large transaction, like a mortgage, that uses a digital workflow and process for engaging customers still requires documents and data contained within documents. But now a process that is centered on digital can be stopped and stalled based upon business exceptions where supporting documentation is required. The process effectively stops and waits to receive a supporting document (yes, paper-based in many cases) to resolve the exception. A very costly and extremely important transaction is on hold waiting for a piece of paper and the data from that important document. This is now a much-needed nugget as the value of processing that piece of paper is extremely high and very important to the transaction, customer satisfaction and revenue for the business.

While many companies are justifiably fast to move to digital strategies, they can easily overlook the importance of processing physical paper in the overall success of their process. Modern solutions today easily account for multichannel input and simply process paper and digitally born documents in the same process.

Impact of Mobile

It has been said often that every customer now has a scanner in their pocket. This is very accurate and true. Mobility has dramatically changed banking, insurance, travel and communication/collaboration. Transactions that would have required a customer to enter a bank or visit their insurance broker are now conducted by the user themselves on their preferred engagement tool, their mobile phone. Checks no longer enter banks for processing, proof of identity is done on the phone with some input by the user, supporting documents that are required for a transaction are captured and validated by the user on their phone and gladly submitted directly into the process.

The use of mobile as the primary engagement source has certainly had an impact on the amount of paper entering business and organizations. It does not change anything related to the actual validation of the data, exception handling and business rules, but certainly eliminates the paper handling for the enterprise from the equation. Organizations that realize the competitive advantage of mobile and the benefits of self-service are going to outpace their competitors in revenue and customer growth.

The mobile challenge enterprises have in supporting their digital transformation strategy is defining the right level of engagement on the device to support their specific use cases. Some focus on HTML5 and mobile web because the customer has not downloaded a native app yet. Others develop real-time data processing to lift content from IDs, passports, VIN, license plates and tax forms, and others still want to capture the full document and process it like any other image within their workflow and system. The benefits of mobile from a speed, self-service, and visibility standpoint contribute to a reduced amount of paper that touches the mailroom, shared service center or employees desk.

A Wise VP of Finance Once Said …

We love digital transformation technologies and the benefits have matured over the past few years with promises to gain control over the paper entering enterprises and the ability to automate document-centric processes. But sometimes we love the technology benefits too much and get ahead of our customers, users and buyers. I had a reality check many years ago while conducting an accounts payable training for sales professionals to help them engage AP departments and share the benefits of invoice processing to the CFO, VP of finance, controller and AP manager.

The gentleman conducting the training was a retired senior accounting executive from a major automobile manufacturer. At the end of his training, many of the salespeople in the audience asked if they could present to him their sales pitch on invoice automation. He gladly accepted this opportunity to help his students refine their messages. One after the other he heard pitches about reduction of staff, straight-through processing and better data quality. He responded positively to all those benefits but was honest that while the benefits were compelling he would need more in order to approve a project in his AP department. After he provided that feedback, someone simply stated to him, “what if I could eliminate all the paper on your clerks’ desks?” That was the winner. That was the message that got him to listen and that specific statement resonated with his pain as the owner of a large AP department. He saw all the paper on people’s desks and was scared about all the loss of information, productivity and risk. Someone who simply said, “I can help you control the paper” was the winner of this discussion.

While we see a natural reduction in the volume of paper entering the enterprise, the processing of content, whether originated on a piece of paper or digitally born, is growing and customers need the ability to transform these business documents into business value.

Bruce Orcutt

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel