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The Expert View: digitising processes and achieving the paperless office

Digitised processes are much more efficient than the paper-based ones they replace, so why are many organisations still struggling to go paperless? A recent breakfast briefing looked at the obstacles to digitisation and discussed potential solutions.

 

Everyone acknowledges that going paperless drives better outcomes for the business, said Adobe’s Rob Cook, introducing a Business Reporter breakfast briefing at the Goring Hotel in London. He pointed out that not only are digitised processes faster and more efficient, but they are also easily audited and traced.

 

Many companies still struggle to digitise their processes for a variety of reasons, Cook told attendees, who were senior executives from a range of sectors. The challenge, he said, is to identify the solutions that might move things forward.

 

Drowning in paper


The problem was expressed most clearly by an attendee from a law firm, who said that a recent company audit found that every staff member was responsible for, on average, a two-metre stack of A4 paper. Not only does this complicate processes, it also needs to be stored somewhere, requiring the company to have more office space than it should need.

 

Another attendee said her company sends a 50-page paper information pack to prospective employees, which is unwieldy and creates a bad impression. The pack has become bloated as more departments add a form here, and a brochure there, she added. Cook said that Adobe had worked with a company that sent new employees a pack containing a CD, even though very few people today use a computer that has a disc drive. This made the pack more expensive than necessary, and the disc was probably just thrown away by its recipient.

 

These were familiar problems for those at the briefing, and all agreed that digitisation was the answer. However, they said that it was often difficult because the organisation did not have the necessary software, or key functions had been turned off by an over-cautious IT department.

 

Many of the problems came down to culture. “Nothing changes unless people change,” said an attendee from the financial services sector. She said that in her business conservative thinking often led to a resistance to change. In some cases, when a process was digitised, stakeholders in the business insisted that the new process replicate the old paper one, even when doing so was less efficient.

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Start with strategy


For those at the briefing, the first step to dealing with the problem was to change the culture. This often requires a senior sponsor, it was decided – one with enough organisational clout to keep a project moving when it got bogged down, and motivated to argue in favour of the project with their staff and peers. A common mistake, some attendees pointed out, is to select a sponsor for whom digitisation is not a priority – this will end badly because they will be distracted by more important tasks.

 

Another mistake many businesses make is to begin with the “low-hanging fruit”. While this seems sensible, it runs the risk of creating a fragmented digitisation plan with parts that will not connect as the project advances. It can also focus time on processes that are not core to the organisation’s main objectives, which is a waste of resources. Instead, attendees argued, a digitisation project must begin with the strategic aims of the business at its heart and proceed from there.

 

Those who had implemented successful digitisation projects in the past said that, as with many transformation projects, the key is to get buy-in from the outset. This means from sponsors, as mentioned, but also other stakeholders. The IT department, for example, won’t block key software features if they understand what you are trying to achieve from the outset.

 

Giving progress a nudge


Several attendees gave examples of “nudges” that they had successfully implemented to encourage their employees to adopt digitisation. One attendee from a bank said that his company had introduced a pop-up message on staff computers that told them both the financial and environmental cost when printing a document. This was tracked over the course of the year.

 

Although environmental and sustainability concerns factored into attendees’ thinking at times, few said it was the key driver behind digitisation projects. Compliance was the most important driver, said one attendee, followed by cost and then customer experience. Nevertheless, those present said that environmental issues were becoming more prominent in their organisations and so are likely to have a more significant impact.

 

Those at the briefing agreed that the most significant benefit was extra capacity. For example, by digitising sales processes, said one attendee, sales staff had more time to spend with customers. This alone makes it worth overcoming the obstacles and digitising a range of processes across the business.

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