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Straddling Two Worlds
Paper and Electronic Processes Are At An Impasse

“There is an overwhelming need to automate the plethora of business transactions that are paper-based, or that include one or more paper-based sub-processes, to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Corporate governance requirements which require traceability and information security compound this problem and customers, suppliers and partners demand fast and accurate responses to queries, regardless of their original form.”

—Melissa Webster, program director, IDC

Melissa Webster’s message above reflects pretty well the thinking process we went through last year when we decided to field a white paper on “paper-based business process automation.” It’s a hoary cliché (in fact, “hoary cliché” is a hoary cliché) that the paperless office is about as likely to happen as the paperless bathroom.

There are plenty of folks out there, like Theresa Kollath, director of product management for ASG, who are willing to address—and try to solve—the many challenges that businesses face when trying to overcome their dependence on thinly pressed sheets of crushed wood pulp.

I spoke with Theresa at length the other day, and I’ll try not to interrupt her words too often. But I probably will.

“More of our customers than you would think are still involved in paper. There are folks who are still creating custom communications in the process of issuing, say, a new mortgage. In that case, there is a large amount of forms, and someone has to initial the bottom of each page. Much of it is boilerplate, but things such as the exact terms and conditions, the interest rate, anything that comes to attention after a review of your credit rating... those parts could be custom to you. Even though 75% is static, you still have to address that 25%.”

I asked Theresa whether we were just experiencing an accident of our time in history; whether we are approaching a tipping point, but still have one foot in traditional paper-based processes, while approaching an all-electronic future?

“Yes. We are in a situation of flux right now... a time of transition. There are still processes that are paper-based; there are mandates and regulations that still require a paper record. So we are in fact at a hump. The baby-boomer population has always had paper, and the middle generation has had to adjust to a hybrid of both ways. And the millennials... they have no option except electronic. I have an 11-year old niece who will enter a workforce that is almost certainly going to be all-electronic. She will only know the Kindle and the iPad and productivity tools. What do we do about that?” she wondered.

“On the other hand, I also know a physician whose office is completely manual. There is NO computer. The office manager types bills on a typewriter! This doctor will retire before he changes the way he does business because it is too painful to change.”

I told Theresa that her comments about being in a transitional state reminded me of a trip I made to Finland some years back. The advent of truly modern electronic telecommunications systems for mass consumption was still pretty new, and I was there to be shown the latest and the greatest. I remembered a particular telephone company’s building. It had two basic rooms. In the front room was the fancy new PBX with all the lights and computer jazz. And in the back room was an old stepper switch that looked like something out of Thomas Edison’s era. Because it was! And they maintained both systems because there was an aging population, and no one was willing to replace the old folks’ dial telephones, or make them change the same four-digit telephone phone numbers they’d had all their lives. They were simply waiting for them to “pass to a better life.” Now THAT’s a generational transition!

Jumping Over the Chasm
“I think it’s the goal for a lot of organizations to go all-electronic,” said Theresa. “In healthcare, for example, there are very serious efforts underway toward electronic standardization. Healthcare has a whole different set of challenges with regard to ‘inter-entity’ communications, between physicians who may or may not be within a hospital or a health network and those on the payer side, between them and the reimbursers, then between everyone and the federal government... there are LOTS of requirements with regard to the interchange of information. Ideally, those would all be interconnected, all electronic and everybody would have access to everything. We are well aware that is not the case.

“Also in financial services companies, mutual fund companies... there’s a great deal of paper they still go through, even though they have the goal of converting customers to all-electronic through opt-in plans. But are they doing everything they can within their respective networks to encourage them to do as much of their work on line as possible? Not really.

“Don’t get me wrong; the pace of innovation is moving very quickly. Look at how fast we went from iPods to iPads! We’re mixing apples (I’m sure she didn’t intend the pun) and oranges. But the rapidity of change within business processes is far more disruptive than the latest cell phone to come onto the market, because we have to re-factor the way we do business, and even the way we think. Some of these processes are undergoing changes that are so deeply entrenched that it’s really hard to change the direction of the organization. But we ARE seeing faster adoption of new processes, even if they don’t become the businesses’ de facto standards at first. Those of us who sell technology might sometimes think it’s glacial, but in fact, people are now willing to consider new technology immediately instead of waiting to see how it plays out. That’s radically different than it was 10 years ago.

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