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Moving Paper Processes to Digital

Moving Paper Processes to Digital

At Far Reach, we’ve been remote-ready for years. Every team member has a laptop, developers use VPN to access our development environment, and we have a video call link built into every meeting invite. We still have our office in downtown Cedar Falls, where many of our team members work during non-pandemic times, but they can choose to work from anywhere there’s an internet connection.

For example, I’m based in Des Moines, but I’m fully integrated into the team because all of our workflows were set up to make that possible. But as I was talking to our CTO, Jason Nissen, he still has to come into the office—a 30-minute drive from his home—to get the mail.

That conversation—along with the quick shift to work from home because of COVID-19—got me thinking. As a technology company, we’re used to everything being digitized. But I talk to people all the time who run business-critical and other processes on paper. That’s right…20#, bright white, 8.5” x 11” (or 11” x 14”), hold-it-in-your-hand paper.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with paper processes. In fact, as you read this post, you’ll see that the process itself matters more than the delivery (paper, software, mobile app, etc.). But in my experience, continuous improvement projects to make paper processes more efficient often utilize technology to some degree—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

Analyze the Process, Not the Paper

If your business is still using paper processes, it’s time to look at why. Are there regulatory requirements? Do tangential industries still use paper (i.e., accountants struggle to go paperless because W-2s and other tax documents are still mainly printed)? Is it because, “We’ve always done it this way”?

Take some time to think about your paper processes. Do they really need to be on paper?

Even in the above examples, it’s possible to transition to digital. Many industries have legal requirements for holding onto records—picture bank boxes of file folders that sit there for five years. But it’s even easier to store, secure, and create audit trails for digital processes. And for industries related to those that still use paper, there are technologies like optical character recognition (OCR) that can extract data from a printed document and store it digitally based on rules. OCR is especially effective on typed documents that follow a standard format…you know, like W-2s.

“We’ve always done it this way” is simply not a valid reason. It’s an excuse and, if you’ve been using it, it’s time to dig deeper.

Technology is a Tool

We don’t recommend implementing a new technology for technology’s sake. We see technology as one of the tools to help make processes better, more efficient, more valuable, and less wasteful.

If you have an inefficient paper process, moving that exact process to a digital platform won’t help much at all. You need to have a good process in place or simply going digital won’t necessarily increase efficiencies. That’s why, as businesses transition processes from paper to digital, we need to understand the process as it is first—the goals, the pain points, what works well—and work to improve it before wrapping a technology solution around it.

The goals of process improvement include:

  • Limiting touches
  • Creating processes that don’t lose work
  • Visualizing the work

When you focus on continuous improvement and technology together, you can see big benefits.

Benefits of Digitizing Paper Processes

Companies around the world haven’t moved their paper processes to digital platforms just for fun. They’ve invested in software and technology (not to mention time training and doing change management) to increase efficiencies, better serve customers, and have better insights into the business.

Increase Efficiencies

As discussed, the act of making a paper process digital doesn’t necessarily increase efficiencies. You have to take the time to evaluate and improve the process itself. Assuming that’s done in the transition, a lot of things get easier when processes are digital.

For example, digital workflows are trackable. With paper processes, it’s not always easy to answer questions like, “How many customers are in each phase of the process?” But with properly configured digital processes, those types of questions are easy to answer. In fact, anyone with proper permissions can see where work is at any point in time.

Paper processes don’t have APIs or built-in integrations. They’re siloed. On the other hand, data from processes that use technology can be used beyond the individual process. For example, sales data can automatically move into a customer’s account once they convert, even though sales uses a different workflow or even a completely different software tool. The data can also be used to build dashboards and create reports quickly.

Better Serve Customers

Let’s face it, it’s the 21st century and customers expect a digital experience from your business. They want to be able to do as much as possible for themselves on their own schedule, without having to stop in or call. Self-service portals are now an expectation, not a nice-to-have.

Self-serve customer portals are great for customers, but they’re also beneficial for the business. When customers can help themselves, especially with simple things, your team members are freed up to help with more complex customer needs and in other valuable areas of the business.

These digital experiences must be as streamlined as possible for customers. They don’t want to fumble through the portal to accomplish what they’re trying to do, which means your customer-facing processes and user experiences have to be spot on and always evolving. Heaven forbid you get MORE calls about your portal than you were previously.

Get Insights About the Business

Paper processes are difficult to evaluate—hence the existence of lean methodologies and continuous improvement. People have been studying and improving processes for, well, ever. And while it’s still not easy to analyze a digital process, it is simpler.

When workflows are digital, they create data. That data can be analyzed to make decisions about the business. For example, business leaders can learn:

  • How long on average do customer requests take to turn around?
  • What is the current capacity and how much is being used?
  • Which areas of the process seem to get bottlenecked frequently?
  • And so much more.

Those are just some benefits of digitizing paper processes—each organization will likely experience others, unique to their specific situation.

Are you still using paper for important processes in your business? Reach out. We’ll help you refine the processes and, when called for, build software technology help bring digital processes to life.