Sustainability: Paperless office

The much talked-about ‘paperless office’ remains more of a myth than reality—but businesses can still continue to take steps towards it, says Simon Shorthose.

Despite all the hype, business technology and the environment often make uncomfortable bedfellows. In recent years this has become apparent with organisations ‘going green’ as part of the corporate social responsibility drive. When the global downturn bit, it was the crusade to go green that was one of the first things to be shelved, but this may well have been a short-sighted decision.

The recession did deliver one bonus for the environment: the use of paper in UK offices fell nine per cent in 2009. Unfortunately, this was an aberration of a downsized market, with average levels falling just one per cent each year since 2000 (according to data from the National Association of Paper Merchants, 2010). The inability to deliver a paperless office environment is perhaps the great eco-failure of modern business, because here is a way that companies can actually make a change for the better, and positively impact on the environment.

The myth of the ‘paperless’ office

It is not a difficult sell to encourage business to think about moving towards a ‘paperless’ office. We all recognise that scraps of paper and old file folders are business-inefficient, and that going paperless should deliver greater return on hardware, software, and technology investment. Many will say they operate a paperless environment and point to the use of scanners instead of copying machines, sending electronic faxes, and PCs where thousands of messages stored in e-mail inboxes or documents in databases would otherwise have generated reams of paper files.

All true; but the reality is that this takes us only a step closer to the paperless office, and there will always be a need for hard copy. Last year when the census again dropped on my doormat, it was a great example of a large paper document that had to be processed in an office—but it could also have been an invoice, or a job application. The Gartner Group estimates that when invoices are handled manually, they are usually copied 11 times before they are passed around for approval as internal mail! The problem then is to address how we can reduce what are perceived as critical services that currently demand paper copies and demonstrate that technology can not only make a difference to the environment, but crucially, can improve daily business operations.

We believe that accounts payable automation is a crucial part of the progression towards a paperless environment. The financial division is an early adopter, scanning incoming bills into the system; and then this expands to include all general business correspondence across all other divisions. What we have seen is a true environmental effect across our customers worldwide. By running just invoices through a scanner and automated document management software, we are seeing an active reduction in the need for paper copies.

Save a tree, save money

Our customers alone process more than 270 million invoices every year, a figure that continues to climb. Even if we reject Gartner’s estimate as over inflated, and suggest that companies produce just two copies of an invoice, with the average length being two to three pages (we’ll ignore any appendices), that’s five pages of hard copy per invoice saved, or 1.4 billion sheets of paper!

There is no hard and fast rule for the number of sheets of paper produced from a single tree, since different trees and different weights of paper need more or less volume of pulp (and wood fibre). The consensus is anywhere between 22,500 and 80,000 sheets of A4 copy paper per tree. What this means is that our customers, by reducing paper invoices, need between 17,500 to 62,000 fewer trees felled each year.

It makes for a convincing argument that using a solution for e-invoicing (sending invoices in PDF, XML, or image files) can lower paper consumption. However, the biggest environmental gains with e-invoicing come from reduced transport.In terms of carbon footprint, those 1.4 billion pages weigh in at between 6,000 and 7,000 tonnes. According to CEPI, the European organisation for the paper industry, every tonne of paper product uses 0.34 tonnes of CO2 (according to the CEPI Sustainability Report 2007).So for 7,000 tonnes of paper saved, that’s also more than 2,000 tonnes of CO2 saved per year. That’s a real tick in the box for the environment.

The business of going green

Intelligent document process automation can be seen as a funnel for all incoming business documents, beyond just invoices, no matter what the format. Optical recognition software is employed to create a virtual image of any document—paper, PDFs, tiffs, XML data, even detecting cursive handwriting. This technology takes the process beyond simple ‘scan to archive’, recognising a document rather than a stream of data, accurately receiving, indexing and saving the document and the data it contains.

By eliminating the physical handling of paper, most users see a productivity increase of 25 to 50 per cent. An important step in the paper-to-digital conversion is this ability to label and catalogue scanned documents. This labelling allows scanned documents to be searched, and so create an electronic workflow which is much faster than manual handling, especially if users are in different locations and time zones. Faster processing times will decrease late payment penalties and allow organisations to negotiate early-payment discounts.

Invoice automation is a true business sustainability solution, reducing paper waste. Will we achieve the dream of the paperless office? Probably not, and certainly not in the near future, because, despite the drive for organisations to be greener, we all still see a demand for hard copy in the office. Fortunately, invoice automation can equally deal with hard copy and electronic sources, enabling organisations to ease towards true sustainability with a hybrid approach in the first instance. What will push the adoption is that it really helps companies improve their bottom line: and this is just a small part of how introducing document management across a business can reap true rewards, both environmentally and through improved business agility.

Simon Shorthose is managing director of ReadSoft UK. Prior to joining ReadSoft he was vice president of Sales Europe at International Business Systems, an ERP software house, and was VP Sales and Marketing at Catalyst International, a US software company. He has also worked for major corporations such as Hays plc and Ocean Group (now DHL) in a number of commercial roles. He was also involved in a VC-backed IT start-up company in the telematics industry.