Whether you are a fan or foe, believer or naysayer, the mantra of the paperless office is still here and, to a degree, getting louder. This fact brings a couple of questions to mind: First, what is driving the move to paperless? There are mandates out there, like the one we in the US heard from President Obama, that all patient records will be digital by 2014. The health care industry certainly must address such mandates, as there are fines associated with noncompliance, but there is still a gray area in how companies will move in that direction. The electronic health records industry has its view and other business entities theirs not only in how to make it happen but more fundamentally what constitutes a patient record.

In addition, there is the Check 21 Act, which took effect October 28, 2004. In simple terms, this US law enables recipients of paper checks to create a digital version of the check, eliminating the need to handle the paper form. Now banks can simply scan the original and use the scanned image for future processing needs. It is estimated that 70% or more of US banks are now taking advantage of this process. So, even though this practice allows banks to move closer to a paperless environment, it is still not completely paper-free.

In the insurance industry, I have seen a move toward paperless environments from the agent perspective. Agents combine ECM with specialized electronic signature tablets to transact business and the claims offices are now converting their materials into digital forms for processing. While there are no mandates here that I am aware of, there are differing views as to what is acceptable and what is not.

Researching this topic, I cannot find conclusive evidence that moving to the paperless office has happened within any specific sector but rather only small segments of a business have moved in this direction. In my view, these are indicative of the continued effort to streamline operations, increase efficiency and establish better governance over information. Yet, I am not seeing the surge and wide acceptance that many hope for. So, the questions I have for you are: What mandates are driving your company to become paperless? What steps have you taken to be paperless? What definitive research is available that demonstrates a move toward the paperless environment?

A vital element and one that is greatly overlooked lies within processes and the change required to be effective in the paperless world. Most processes today are based on paper and the movement of this paper through an organization in order to transact business. Many organizations that consider moving into a paperless state often find that it requires serious consideration to how business will be transacted as a result, and this aspect is greatly underestimated. You have to know where content enters and exits a process as well as why it is there and what happens to it.

While all of this is important and many organizations recognize it, recent research by AIIM in its 2009 Industry Watch on BPM indicates that 63% of the respondents consider the importance of BPM to be significant or imperative, while 62% consider they have only addressed a fifth of the potentially profitable BPM projects, with integration with other systems being the biggest technical challenge. One of the strongest indicators for successful BPM processes is the presence of an existing process owner, which in many organizations may not exist.

In my view, there are many areas of a business that can benefit from being paperless or less paper intensive, but it all relies on how well you address the underlying processes in support of these initiatives. As Lewis Carroll so eloquently stated in Alice in Wonderland, "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end." In BPM, you need to recognize the beginning point, have a sense of what the end goal should be and, once you have reached the end, begin the process to improve upon what you have built.

Being a digital or "paperless" organization may not be an option for you much longer. Take time to look at the whole organization, understand how the business runs and plan to establish an environment that supports not only format transition but process as well.

BOB LARRIVEE [blarrivee@aiim.org] is director and industry analyst for AIIM, an international community that provides training, research and best practices to help organizations find, control and optimize their information. Follow him on Twitter @BobLarrivee. To learn more about training and educational opportunities on BPM, visit AIIM's Certificate Program where you will receive a special discount by entering the code DM9EBX when registering. Visit www.aiim.org/Education.



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