Episode 022: Six Stages of Going Paperless


The path to paperless isn’t always easy – which is why a step-by-step plan is crucial to your organization, or you may end up with outdated and siloed legacy systems unable to meet both internal and external demands. ImageSoft’s Paul Gorman is taking us through the six main stages that most organizations experience when going paperless – do any of these sound familiar to you too?

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Kate Storey: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast, where we give you the tips, tricks and know how to solve your biggest workflow challenges, and bring great productivity into your workplace every day.

At this stage in the 21st century, I think it’s pretty safe to say that paper is officially passé. Client and customer demand for easy to access digital systems is at an all time high in pretty much every industry, and internally, many employees are eager for their adoption as well.

But the path to paperless isn’t always easy, which is why a step by step plan is crucial to your organization, or you may end up with outdated and siloed legacy systems unable to meet both internal and external demands.

In this episode, we’re talking, once again, with Paul Gorman, account executive at ImageSoft, who’s taking us through the stages that most organizations experience when going paperless, six stages, to be exact. Welcome back to the podcast, Paul.

Paul Gorman: Well, thank you for having me.
Kate: All right, so let’s start off with one big question that organizations really need to consider when they’re going paperless, why? How do you help organizations see the why in their paperless plan?
Paul: Well, I think there are many justifications for going paperless, but starting at the beginning, I view paper as really a legacy information management technology. Now, what do I mean by that?

Well, if organizations are storing information on paper media, they are actually using a 2,000 year old technology. Paper was invented in China in 100 BC by Sun Tzu. That was during the Han dynasty. In fact, we could say that paper is perhaps, or without a doubt, the most successful, longest running information management platform ever developed, sorry Microsoft.

It is the very definition of a legacy system, and it should be no surprise that a 2,000 year old technology is struggling to keep up with modern information demands.

Kate: Yeah, and what do you think one of those big realizations are? You know, you mentioned that this is something that’s been around for thousands of years, and people are very used to it, and sometimes you get really attached to those old systems, but there comes a point, for a lot of organizations, where there’s some sort of a physical reminder that they’re digging through things, literally, and trying to digitize their documents, but they start to notice that maybe the file cabinet is starting to fill up, maybe they have storage rooms that are starting to pile up with banker’s boxes or file cabinets, and those kinds of things.

So, what happens from that point?

Paul: Well, that’s a great question, but there really is no road map that exists for organizations to follow in an effort to become paperless. Their organizations are really left to find their own way.

There is a path that many organizations follow, and it meanders through multiple technology changes. I call it the stages of paperless. Organizations might be able to identify with, and find their organization’s story in stages of this path, and I’m not trying to mock organizations that follow the path. What I’m trying to do is just help them see where they should be aiming, and perhaps avoid making some of the common mistakes, these mistakes, selecting dead technologies to address the issues their facing.

The path happens largely based upon the organizations responding to the specific issues paper is causing them, and you mentioned that the initial driver for change on the path is, well, the file cabinets are getting full, and initially I can tell you what happens. I’ve been in this organization.

After adding more and more cabinets, I have personally walked through organizations that look like all the walls of the hallways, the cubicles are constructed with file cabinets. Essentially, it’s a building with people enclosed in file cabinets. The volume of paper-

Kate: It becomes decorative at some point, huh?
Paul: Yeah. The volume of the paper is forcing the organizations to digitize. So, the lowest cost solution at that point is to buy a scanner, scan the documents to a shared subdirectory on a network file share.

First off, it has a benefit, it empties out the file cabinets, but the issue is finding the documents after they’ve been scanned. To address this, directory trees are often used to organize the documents, and that does help some, but without a way to search for files, the time spent looking, opening, reading, and closing the wrong documents often exceeds the time that would have previously been spent searching through the paper.

What’s worse, the file cabinets start filling up again with new paper, and that’s bad for two reasons. First off, you really didn’t solve the problem, and the second is that now you have two archives to find a document. You have to look in the paper archive, which is in the cabinets, and then you have to look at the electronic shared directory structures on the network, and in the words of movie critics, chaos ensues.

Kate: Right. Yeah, and I think from there, then, you have to … you kind of mentioned this a little bit, but it’s recognizing how that’s all connected, and scanned, and indexed, and those kinds of things. So, you can scan it, and you can store it, but how do you find it again, and how do you know which items have been scanned, and as new things are coming in, I mean, often this is happening at such a rapid speed it’s probably hard to keep track of what’s been scanned and what hasn’t, because you’re not only, as you mentioned, going backwards in the past paper documents, but now you’re dealing with new ones as well.

So, how do you make sure that all of these things are all together, and they’re all connected, and you know how to find them again, and making sure that they truly are captured digitally?

Paul: Well, that’s where you get the second driver, the driver for the creation of metadata about the documents, and really what it’s designed to do is it allows you to streamline the search and retrieval process. So, if you assume the organization has digital archives from previous scanning, and paper based congestion continuing, the pain point that is most obvious at that point is that merely scanning the documents doesn’t make them easy to find, and this may be where the first true document management system is purchased.

Call this stage two of the process. Oftentimes at this stage the CIO will go to management, request funding for a document management solution. If the only requirements that you use at this stage in the process is we need to do scanning and metadata retrieval, you’re going to wind up with a probably, a low end document management solution, and it’s likely to be your first choice.

About that, it is inexpensive, and that as engineers are want to say, no expense has been spared on it. It’s really designed for just searching and retrieving scanned documents. Missing from this is any document that’s born digital, that’s the Word files, the Excel spreadsheets, other information resources throughout the agency, even document attachments in email.

This creates many information silos of information that presents all kinds of issues and challenges that really only integration can address. So, if you went from being unable to find paper to being unable to find all of the digital files, for the organization at this stage in the process, it doesn’t feel like they’re making any progress. They’ve spent money on a document management system, but they feel like they’re exactly where they started.

Kate: Yeah, that’s got to be pretty frustrating, especially when you’ve already done all of this work to get these things scanned and put together, but only to still be confused about where things are being stored, and how they’re all connected.

So, and that relates now to when you, not only if you need to access them and connect it all together, but what about if they have to be moved, if you have to shuffle things around, perhaps a new department is formed, or there’s new leadership, or anything like that. How does that relate to the overall workflow?

Paul: Yeah, that can get extremely painful. The step that you’re at, essentially, when you’ve digitized everything, and you still have digital archives that are separate, is integration. This becomes the new driver, the new thing that has to force you to do things.

With a recently purchased document management solution, it’s only natural that, at this stage, an attempt is going to be made, with the existing document management system, to integrate to the other silos. Those integration projects are where many low end document management systems basically go to die. They’re not designed for that.

And you can see this pain point, incidentally, reflected in the creation of a class of product called enterprise search products, and I refer to the enterprise search as where mistakes of the past created silos, and an attempt is being made to fix it with a product. You’re trying to search multiple silos of information that you never should have created in the first place.

Integrating the different IT products with custom code is another common attempt. Customized integrations are challenging to develop. First off, they have to be supported by internal IT teams. They have to be rewritten every time the operating system changes, and any of the integrated products or requirements have changes, they have to be rewritten for that.

Well, in practice, this becomes the IT integration project that never ends. It may be the point where the CIO decides to spend more time with their family, and moves on to another position, because the only solutions, at this point, are extremely expensive.

What usually happens, eventually, after every other attempt has failed, and the painful silos force this, is another, more powerful document information system is selected, and I would point out that this will be the second document management system implemented by the same organization going down this path of digitization.

Kate: And I can imagine, at this point, you start to see probably a lot of frustration internally from the staff, because now you’ve got yet another system that needs to be learned. And I can imagine, from a financial aspect, people are pretty frustrated as well, because now you’ve poured money into a second system, and that’s where I imagine a lot of this frustration really just starts to build and build internally, and it’s not only not fixing the original problem, but it’s creating new frustrations as well.
Paul: Absolutely. When a department finally does become digitized, and documents are digitized, you’re oftentimes in a position where a recognition that we can’t operate our business processes separate from the content that drives them, and if the content is digital, the business process has to become digital.

There are a lot of quick fixes that happen, but to be honest, this is where workflow happens, but if integration is where most low end document management systems go to die, workflow pretty much kills the rest of them. That’s not something that a low end, inexpensive system can handle.

Often, the initial attempts to digitize content are not tied to the business process, that is, the process tends to remain paper based, but all of the content that is part of that process is digitized at the end of the process, sort of like archiving, well, this is what we did in the work process.

Kate: Oh, my goodness.
Paul: If you can imagine, there’s zero process improvement gain by digitizing content after a process is over. The issue is most apparent when interoffice envelopes can no longer be used to move digital content to the organization. You can’t stuff a digital file, you know, in an inter office envelope. It just doesn’t work.

So, how does the digital information move? Well, initially, often through email attachments. Email systems at this stage rapidly clog with content.

I was working on one solution for a Georgia agency, where email attachment distribution practices threaten to crash both the PeopleSoft and the Outlook solutions. The content was replicated in both places. Obviously, version control, in an environment like that, becomes an issue, because you don’t know which was the original version of the document, and who might have made changes.

So, the solution is workflow. Workflow is so obviously the solution, but there are two issues frequently observed about workflow. One, inexpensive document management systems typically provide very minimal capability, and that requires customized scripts to automate them. And if the work process can’t be replicated in the workflow engine without an army of custom programmers, that same army is going to be required when you have to change anything in a business process.

And the second thing you recognize is that high end solutions often require extensive vendor customizations. You know, I’ve written organizations with high end ECM systems that couldn’t afford to automate all of their processes. It’s sort of a bizarre situation where one of their processes is completely automated and digital, and the rest of the processes still run paper based, and they have some of the best ECM systems on the market, but they just can’t afford the workflow expense of automating all of their processes.

You can forget training internal IT staff on those solutions. The time and expense of learning the products oftentimes exceeds the government budgets, and the trained staff become too valuable for the agency to afford, and wind up getting recruited away from the government, who paid to train them. If the IT team has to go to senior management again for another document management solution, we may be looking at our third CIO in as many years.

Assuming workflow gets addressed, the next obvious step is to capture knowledge workers’ interaction, to eliminate Post-It notes, paper based phone messages, and typed up transaction notes and memos. Oftentimes, I will tell you, at this stage, most organizations stall. Workflow stops the innovation. You just can’t quite get beyond it. No one wants to spend the money to address the workflow problems.

So, most organizations I come into that have been down this digital path, this is where they’ve made a wrong turn, and where they’re stuck. You know, we try to, at ImageSoft, get them back on a path that allows them an affordable workflow solution that they can begin building and recovering with.

Kate: Where does case management come into all of this, because I know that’s another area where things can really start to go wrong, and you start to see a lot of those silos again. So, where do you find case management fits into all of this?
Paul: That’s a great question. It’s one of the agency behaviors I’ve observed that just completely baffles me. An organization that has wrestled, and as we’ve talked through this, we’re talking, this is a multi year path that we’re on here. They have wrestled with painful information silos since they started on this long path now, and addressing knowledge workers by selecting a case management product that is different from their ECM solution just creates another information silo.

I have seen this, actually. It’s as if nothing has been learned over all these difficult steps in the process to get here. The most obvious decision is to use the same platform you’re using for workflow and document management when addressing the case management.

Keeping all the content and activity within the same platform completely eliminates the integration question, and it allows users to find all of the data about an event or transaction with a single search. That makes them efficient.

If you have all the data, documents, and process within the same application, you can maximize user efficiency, and it provides management an unmatched reporting capabilities, which I think we’re probably going to talk about later.

Kate: Exactly. So, yeah, so let’s talk about the reporting system, having that real time reporting, or even just the overall access and visibility into the business process.
Paul: Yeah, this is one of the things that I like to ask management in organizations. I like to say how long does it take you to realize the immediately obvious?

After the funny looks, I explain that in my experience, when a business process is broken, or they’re experiencing issues in a particular process, it’s visibly obvious. It’s certainly obvious in process reporting.

Reporting on processes, unfortunately, is often after the fact, sometimes by a day or more. If you have to wait for a day or more to see reports about a process, then the answer to my question is that it takes your organization a day or more to realize the immediately obvious.

Real time reporting that provides visibility into business process is most desirable. You can’t do it if your systems are not all connected. If your workflow is separate from your case management, which is separate from your document management, you’re not going to be able to do this very easily.

So, after spending organization resources making associate staff as efficient as possible, it would defeat the entire purpose of the goal to skip the organization’s management layer. Think about it, you’re making your associate staff efficient, in most organizations, the most expensive employees are the management staff. Don’t we want them to be as efficient as possible as well?

Graphical reporting processes that provide drill down capabilities to get log data can provide management hands on, instantaneous, real time information about processes. The reporting tools are designed to read workflow and case management logs with date and time stamped activity, and it can show management instantly the health and activity of organizational processes as they are happening.

Rapid response to issues can save organizations thousands of dollars of productivity, and reduce staff frustration by highlighting issues and bringing them to the attention of management much more quickly.

Kate: I think a lot of organizations think of real time reporting, or real time visibility, as almost like a luxury. You know, it’s part of newer technology, but it’s really come to a point now, it seems, that this is not a luxury, this is a necessity, this is something, as you mentioned, it’s going to completely kill off productivity, a lot of mistakes could be made in the time that it takes to be able to get a report back like that. So, it seems to me that it’s not at all a luxury, it is a requirement for proper business practices now.
Paul: I think you’re absolutely right there.
Kate: All right. Well, I think this has given our listeners a lot to think about. So, what can they do if they want to take that next step, and look into following through on these six stages of going paperless?
Paul: Well, I would say regardless of which stage you see yourself at, the resources on our website, www.imagesoftinc.com/government are a great place to start. Discussing your organization challenges and issues with the account executives at ImageSoft can help you avoid taking a wrong turn on your path to an efficient paperless organization.
Kate: Very nice. Well, thank you for sharing all of this great information today, Paul. We really appreciate it.
Paul: Well, thank you very much. I’ve had a great time.
Kate: Thank you everyone for joining us today, and if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Paperless Productivity, where we tackle some of the biggest paper based pain points facing organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

Thanks again for joining us today for this episode of Paperless Productivity. This podcast is sponsored by ImageSoft, the paperless process people, which you can learn more about at imagesoftinc.com. That’s ImageSoft INC dot com. Join us next time, where you’ll learn how to harness the power of technology, supercharge efficiency, and accomplish your organization’s goals.

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