Is the Need for Business Agility Accelerating the Migration from Paper to Digital?

Digital transformation (DX) is at the heart of business strategies for companies of all sizes. What may or may not be included within the context of any DX initiative is hard to define as businesses continue to prioritize differently based on their own needs. Over the past few years, two trends have basically dominated the office technology landscape: the adoption of mobile technology as a business computing platform and the ongoing progression toward a digital-first strategy. IDC’s research shows that organizations continue to prioritize DX when it comes to strategic investment and IT spend. While these efforts are fueled by many different variables, the targeted goals have remained unchanged: the need to become more agile, more innovative, more responsive, and more customer-centric.

While these efforts were already well underway, the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it is having on business operations will have lasting implications. Organizations have moved quickly to enable their employees to work from home more effectively, with tools such as video calling, cloud-based collaboration software, and online document authoring. Work-from-home policies were initially viewed as a stop-gap response until things return to normal, but the “next normal” has yet to be defined. What has become clear, however, is that the newly distributed workforce is likely to be in place for a while…maybe forever. This is forcing organizations to look for new ways to ensure business continuity by investing in collaboration technologies, digitization, and workflow automation to drive productivity in the new work environment.

Migrating from paper to digital is a fundamental element for any digital transformation strategy. The transition to digital, cloud, and mobile technology has fundamentally altered the way businesses work with information. At the same time, removing paper whenever and wherever possible has been earmarked as a means for improving efficiency and driving cost reduction. The notion of a paperless office has been discussed for years, but for many reasons it has yet to fully materialize. The fact is, paper remains entrenched in most businesses today, and IDC’s research shows that organizations continue to struggle with converting from manual, paper-based processes to digital workflows.

IDC’s 2019 Document Processes Survey shows that knowledge workers still use a lot of paper while completing their daily activities:

  • 55% of knowledge workers reported using paper more to extract content to integrate into new documents
  • 30% of documents use each day are paper documents
  • Knowledge workers create 23 paper-based documents per week, compared to 21 electronic documents per week.

Of course, recent events have altered the office technology landscape, and there is some speculation that work-from-home policies enacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may signal the beginning of a more precipitous decline in the use of paper in the office environment. There is little doubt that print volumes are down dramatically over the past three months: fewer workers in the office means less printing in the office. Will printing return as knowledge workers find their way back? That is not a simple question to answer as much depends on the timeline and how much of the newly formed distributed workforce remains permanent.

Even so, it is important to distinguish between what is considered essential and non-essential printing in today’s business environment. There are several horizontal use cases spanning across industry sectors that continue to rely heavily on paper, such as customer and employee onboarding, expense reporting, sales operations, applications processes, and purchasing, just to name a few. At the same time, paper also persists in many vertical markets such as healthcare, insurance, banking, manufacturing, distribution, and public sector. These printing applications will not simply disappear unless they are replaced by some form of digital alternative.

The benefits of going paperless, or at least optimizing and automating workflow when and where appropriate are hard to ignore. Businesses cite several factors when it comes to identifying roadblocks with existing document processes. The fact that so much of existing workflow is wrapped up in paper-based processes is always at the top of the list: 42% of knowledge workers identify manual, paper-based workflows as the number one contributor to making their daily workflow tasks less efficient, costlier, or less productive.

As we have seen in recent years, migrating from paper to digital is not always a simple task. There are numerous barriers that continue to hinder the ongoing adoption and deployment of digital workflow and process optimization—legacy workflow, company policy, and employee preference all play a significant role. But limitations with existing technology and infrastructure represent the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to advancing paperless initiatives.  Many organizations utilize a combination of both paper and digital content within the same workflow process due to incompatible document management systems and lack of interoperability between new digital systems and the legacy business.  Lack of integration and interoperability between these disparate systems and various information silos is where things begin to break down.

For many organizations, document workflow automation is an ad-hoc process and it is not always easy or cost-effective to figure out how and where to begin. Too often, there is a tendency to try and take smaller bites by selecting a single workflow that is easily identified as one with numerous process bottlenecks and try to attack it without consideration for other upstream or downstream processes that might be impacted. Or, businesses will opt to automate only a portion of the workflow, creating a hybrid approach that is only partially automated and therefore almost always destined to fail, or at least yield limited return on investment.

An effective paperless strategy should be rooted in three primary objectives: digitizing business inputs that arrive in paper format; decreasing unnecessary printing in existing workflows; and automating and improving business processes while enabling access to critical information trapped in hardcopy documents. Now more than ever, organizations must focus on putting systems in place to ensure business continuity. At the same time, it is imperative to enable the mobile worker by facilitating a borderless organization that empowers employees to work securely anywhere, anytime, and with seamless interoperability between systems. Business agility is important, but so too is the ability to maintain a competitive advantage as we transition into a new way of conducting business. Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of being an organization that is resilient, agile, and fully connected – or digital.

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Allison Fantony is a research manager for IDC's Imaging, Printing and Document solutions group, responsible for the hardcopy industry transformation practice. Her core research coverage includes 3rd platform technology (cloud, data analytics, mobile, IoT), and document solutions (print management, device management, and enterprise output management). She is responsible for written research, forecasts, and analysis covering document solutions, and the industry transformation within the hard copy market. She looks at emerging technologies and adjacent opportunities for traditional hardcopy vendors.