Why it's time to stop printing and wasting money on paper

Despite the profusion of gadgets we use in our everyday work, U.S. office workers still go through about 10,000 sheets of paper annually, with about 70% ending up in the trash. Here's how to reduce or eliminate it altogether.

I first encountered the term "paperless office" in the 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, it still seems a distant goal. Stationery is about a $150 billion market, depending on whose figures you believe, and it's expected to grow slowly for the foreseeable future.

This isn't going to be a screed about the environmental impact of paper usage; you already know all that.

The business costs make our continued reliance on printed documents so confounding, particularly now that technology has reached the point where we can make a dent in the paper storm if not eliminate it.

A recent McKinsey report says intelligent document processing (IDP) technology is advancing so quickly that 70% of the firm's recent Global Executives Survey respondents said their organizations are at least piloting business process automation projects. Intelligent document management tools typically lead the way.

There's still a long way to go, however.

"Every year, close to three trillion pages are printed," says Rohit Sood, head of McKinsey's North American Digital Operations Practice. "A lot of my clients are massive intake centers."

The many reasons for using paper are evaporating.

Printed documents are easily lost, misplaced, and damaged. They're out of date the moment they're printed. They can't be searched.

Perhaps most importantly, they force processes to be conducted serially, with each stage requiring a handoff from the one before it.

As a result, any disruption to the flow impacts every other part of the process. And printed documents can't be loaded into a database for analysis without rekeying, a slow and error-prone process that nobody likes to do.

Near total recognition

IDP doesn't eliminate paper but makes it more useful by recognizing printed or handwritten content and converting it into digital form.

Most modern systems can now populate databases with typed and handwritten information, unlocking new sources of value. One startup, Infrrd, makes the audacious claim that its technology is 100% accurate in reading printed and handwritten documents, although it uses human operators as a backup.

Gartner estimates IDP will be a $4.8 billion market this year, up fourfold from 2020, driven by improved image recognition and artificial intelligence-driven content management that "have fast-tracked the document processing capabilities of solutions," the firm recently wrote.

Not every environment is ripe for a switch, Sood says.

Mortgage research can require sifting through years of paper records, and much of the old material will never be digitized.

Also, "some channels still prefer the old paper way and certain work environments are more amenable to paper-based processes," Sood says. For example, he cites airline maintenance reports gathered in the field and more easily entered on paper rather than keyed into a device.

Convenience trumps culture

But culture has a way of giving in to convenience.

When my doctor's office adopted the Epic clinical system a decade ago, the physicians complained for a year about switching from pen to keyboard.

They quickly learned the value of having a patient's entire medical history on the screen before them, though.

Sood believes the market for IDP, particularly when combined with robotic process automation, is set to enter hypergrowth.

"The ability to read handwriting and unstructured data are much better," he says. "Every use case I see becomes more sophisticated," Sood says. "The need for manual intervention is going down rapidly."

Is IDP the right solution for your company? The payoff is becoming harder and harder to deny.

There are dozens of vendors in the market, and many options are available on a try-before-you-buy basis in the cloud.

Sood suggests a few features to look for.

The system should be able to read and recognize most printed content rapidly with just a few weeks of training. The required updates and maintenance resources shouldn't be too expensive, and the vendor should offer programming with low-code or no-code tools.

Gartner expects options to further increase from adjacent platforms like text analytics, business process automation, and content services. And the products are likely to become more specialized in time for use cases like law offices and medical labs.

"Over time, we expect to see more comprehensive language platforms that can integrate conversations, documents, emails, and other combinations of form factor/modality," the firm wrote.

Before choosing, consider your current needs and those you'll have five years from now.

Because chances are your next IDP system will become a core part of your business.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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