Get used to it, paper is not going away

Several years ago I managed an electronic forms (eForms) product that supported many of the industry form standards – PDF, XForms, HTML, and even InfoPath, the Microsoft product. The story around electronic forms was that it enabled businesses to replace many of the manual paper based processes with electronic processes, saving company’s valuable time and money. There certainly is truth to the statement, but at the same time I remained convinced, for several reasons, that having a solution to intelligently capture and process paper documents is still extremely important.

The reality is that few businesses or business processes are truly “paperless”. While many of our documents have become electronic, from e-mail to business documents to web-based forms, studies show that paper consumption has remained constant or is continuing to grow in many industries. That means paper cannot be dismissed as yesterday’s problem.

So why can’t we box up our scanners and make every process electronic? Well I’ve decided to revisit some key points that I’ve talked about for years to see which are still very relevant in today’s discussions.

Much of the paper that businesses deal with comes from outside an organization – The point is you have no control over it, so you have to learn how to deal with it.  For example, insurance companies generate insurance policies that are printed by customers when applying for an auto loan. The lender then receives the proof of insurance document from the customer, and has to process and store the information as part of the loan process.  The paper generated in this case is coming from well outside the bank and cannot be controlled.

Some industries will always need paper – There is a lot of truth to this statement and the point I’m making is that some processes still need to be designed to support both electronic and paper. A good example where this is true is within government: government agencies service a very large constituent base where paper is still required to do business.

Many government agencies have instituted electronic processes for their most common processes like renewing a driver’s license. But even drivers license renewals can be done by mail.

Another key point to remember is that many businesses and government agencies have hundreds of processes. Some are more common than others, thus the higher priority ones usually become electronic first, while hundreds of other processes remain paper-driven.

eForms are great, but don’t forget about supporting documentation –  Even when you create an electronic process, paper documents are a necessary evil. You complete an electronic form, but then you are asked to submit photocopies of your driver’s license, birth certificate, pay stubs, proof of insurance, letter explaining employment, and so on. Somewhere in the process the business is going to have to deal with that paper. One common example is the loan origination process. Anyone who has bought a house lately or refinanced a mortgage knows what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of supporting documentation that is required to get a loan these days. For example, showing proof of income requires copies of tax returns and pay stubs.

Please sign here – Yes electronic signatures are great in certain environments, but that’s still a small percentage. To get a signature often requires the individual to print a document and sign it. Yet another example of where paper is generated.

Infrastructure not there to support electronic processes – If we are dealing with processes that are in other parts of the world, there are situations where the paper medium is the most practical and logical way to get things done, and still the most trusted by many people.  Even in the US, you do not need to look far. In the US, our election process is still handled on paper in most places. In other cases, businesses need to still support paper as an alternative to some of their most critical business processes.  In other parts of the world computers and technology are still years behind us making paper the only way to reliably do business.

That process is extremely complex – Let’s face it, if we had a goal to make every process and processing step entirely electronic, we may never achieve that goal for some processes. All you have to do is look at the reasons above and you will find many situations where it is just not practical.

So there you have it, all the reasons why paper will be with us for years to come. That’s not to say we shouldn’t set the bar high and strive for the “paperless” office; we just need to look at the big picture and understand where paper still plays a role. Yes, electronic forms and workflow automation solutions are needed, but organizations would be wise not to discount the importance of capture solutions to dramatically improve their business process. Given that capture can transform paper into valuable electronic information, you’ll save time, reduce operational cost, and improve productivity. In the end, your paper will no longer be a liability; instead it will be a valuable asset that you can leverage as a business advantage.

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