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Companies wield various technologies in going paperless

In going paperless and digitizing processes, companies aren't striving to be eco-friendly. They’re trying to improve the way they work.

Lawyers Without Borders sends its attorneys all over the globe to conflict-riddled countries. But after its SharePoint portal, which housed sensitive documents about clients, was hacked, it needed watertight security in document management to protect data, clients and lawyers.

Based in New Haven, Conn., the nonprofit Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB) provides legal counsel in locations that are dangerous, rife with unstable regimes and human rights abuses. But toting around thumb drives or paper files wasn't an option; nor was using any old cloud-based enterprise content management (ECM) system.

"We need absolute failsafe security," said LWOB founder Christina Storm. "If those documents fall into the wrong hands, it can have dire consequences." The organization wanted a secure file sync and share application that nefarious interests couldn't hack and would be easy for lawyers to use. But the search was easier said than done.

Security is one of several forces driving the paperless office. Companies are trying to eliminate waste and cost and to develop more efficient ways of working. Companies mired in paper or those that struggle with digital ECM suffer from myriad inefficiencies, including poor project organization and transparency, vulnerable document security, poor backup and document-destruction practices, and insufficient collaboration for distributed workforces.

Companies aren't just [getting rid of paper] to be altruistic. They're doing it to improve the way they work.
Laurence HartWord of Pie

"When we give up paper, we can streamline the process," said Laurence Hart, a consultant at Word of Pie. "Companies aren't just doing it to be altruistic. They're doing it to improve the way they work."

But there is a disconnect in shedding paper: According to Paperless Office 2014: An Update from the Battlefield, an AIIM survey of nearly 450 respondents, while 68% agree that business-at-the-speed-of-paper will be "unacceptable" in the near term, 21% also said that their paper use was increasing. And 44% of organizations have made it only 10% toward their goal of paper-free processes, with 23% yet to achieve any.

Cloud-based apps

LWOB tried alternatives to a cloud-based sync-and-file-share application, but none made the grade. In addition to its hacked SharePoint portal through a hosting provider, LWOB dabbled with FTP, but remote workers still had to log into servers behind LWOB's firewall, which can be tricky, slow or impossible in countries with poor bandwidth. The company also suffered a false start with another cloud-based file-sharing service. So, LWOB settled on Intralinks VIA, a cloud-based sync and file-sharing application.

For founder Storm, the application is flexible enough to enable remote workers to access their files from anywhere but also provides granular permissions at the file or folder level. "If you don't have permission to view the file or folder, you won't even know it's there," she said. The application also logs users out if a device is idle for more than five minutes.

Further, Intralinks enables LWOB to give sensitive documents a lifecycle, then destroy them rather than save them indefinitely and risk a breach. Storm said this discourages attorneys from treating the cloud as a place to save documents indefinitely. That, she said, is what on-site servers are for.

Despite companies' frequent misgivings about cloud-based services, Storm said that her invitation to tour Intralinks' London office offered a level of transparency and security that made going to the cloud more palatable than traditional ECM or other cloud alternatives.

"Here was a cloud-based program with real people I could meet and see the level of security they had in their offices," Storm said.

Traditional ECM software

While users often complain about traditional ECM software as nonintuitive and difficult to learn, some companies are gaining benefits from using it to eliminate paper and gain process efficiencies. At Plymouth, Minn.-based Thrifty White Pharmacy, which has more than 80 locations in the Midwest, digitizing its processes came down to reducing error and increasing the rate at which it can fill prescriptions for patients.

Thrifty had a paper-based process for prescription filling at a central location. Getting patient and medication information logged correctly through manual processes often created more work. So, Thrifty turned to Hyland Software's OnBase, traditional ECM software.

"If there is the wrong spelling, wrong medication -- wrong anything -- you have to rip the label off, update the program and start over," said Michael Brown, senior solutions engineer at Thrifty. Thrifty created an e-form for OnBase so the labels could be imported and viewed electronically, which enables pharmacists to revise the information in the form before printout, he said. As a result of digitizing the prescription-filling process, "the filling site has roughly doubled what it can output in a day," Brown said.

People don't like change, as much as they say they do.
Michael Brownsenior solutions engineer, Thrifty White Pharmacy

While Thrifty's user base is well-trained in OnBase, there are still hurdles in transforming manual processes into digital ones. Brown noted that making the shift involves shining a light on inefficiencies and improving a workflow before digitizing it.

"Part of my process is to sit down and ask users what they do today," he said. "They may tell me the features they would like rather than how they complete a task, but that's what I really need to know" to make that process work in OnBase.

A better work product

Paper-based processes also pose challenges for information retrieval.

For Joseph Montgomery, an attorney at Philadelphia-based Montgomery Law LLC, having a scanner that can digitize and tag documents with metadata has changed the nature of preparing for a case. His clients are children with disabilities whose educational records can take up hundreds of pages. But Montgomery can now use metadata to tag documents so he can search for terms such as bullying or assistance to find a relevant passage and do more detailed case preparation than he could when he was manually wading through a ziggurat of paper files. Montgomery tries to apply a series of phrases that he might use in searching for a document later on.

The big difference isn't just in time saved, Montgomery said. "It's not just about how many hours, but it's just a better quality of work altogether," he said.

Making digitization stick

While companies are making strides toward the paperless office, high hurdles continue to bring processes back into the paper universe. A key barrier is the absence of digital signature technology. If companies don't have the tools to digitally sign documents, users often revert to printing out, signing, then scanning in documents, which derails efforts to digitize. In order for companies to get closer to the paperless goal, they need to solve the digital signature issue. "We need to get to the point where information that's born digital stays digital for its entire life," Word of Pie's Hart said.

Yet another hurdle is users. As Brown noted, moving to digital processes can be a big shift from previous ways of working. "People don't like change, as much as they say they do."

This was last published in January 2015

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Is your company trying to digitize its processes, and which tools are most important in this effort?
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Yes, we are trying to digitize as many processes as possible - this allows us to reduce our costs and remain as competitive as possible in a growing marketplace, so it's fairly high on the list of priorities.

I'm fond of using LIMB from i2S DigiBook for process management (though it was originally designed for doing something else), but outside of that, we tend to do the work in-house instead of relying on tools from outside.
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Our company has just recently converted to the use of a robust timekeeping software that allows us to digitize what used to be odious manual processes that were time-consuming and cumbersome. The most important tool for this was cloud-based software that our staff could access at any place and at any time, with any device connected to the internet. This one simple digitization of what used to be a manual process has empowered our staff and saved countless hours of time for our managers and human resources staff who used to have to do it all manually every two weeks.
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While going paperless poses a number of challenges, it is a requirement for any organization or firm that plans on reducing overheads and increasing efficiency.
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