The Dream (and Reality) of a Paperless Business

By Ryan Rosenberg, Vice President, Marketing and Services, FileMaker, Inc., a subsidiary of Apple, Inc. — May 05, 2014

Businesses have been talking about the paperless office for decades.  But haven’t made much headway until now. The availability of powerful, efficient, reliable, and inexpensive mobile devices—initially used only by the intrepid office “road warrior”—is accelerating change in ways not before possible.
 
Mobile devices have the same appeal as paper: mobility. You can hold the data in one hand and transport it anywhere, but without the bulk, inertia, inflexibility, inefficiency and risk of loss or error.
 
According to The Paperless Project, U.S. managers spend an average of four weeks a year searching for, or waiting on misfiled, mislabeled, untracked or “lost” papers.  In short, mobile technology is enabling organizations to really begin to reduce paper. 
 
And companies are doing it now. They are reducing paper and they are increasing revenue, improving customer service, reducing operating costs, reducing risk and more.
 
The amount of participation is impressive. In a 2013 analysis of 102 mobility case studies of customers who had “gone mobile” by creating a custom iOS solution, we found that 51% involved replacing paper-based processes.  Surprisingly, their solutions targeted “inside the building” processes—for example, in operations or information systems—as often as traditional road warrior processes like sales.
 
No Paper in Austin
For instance, the Austin Convention Center, one of the largest convention centers in Texas, which spans six city blocks, put iPads in the hands of maintenance and technical services employees to automate work and change orders. 
 
The convention center virtually eliminated paperwork and reduced response times, improved customer satisfaction, saved countless hours of time, and achieved 200 percent ROI in four months or less. That is a remarkable achievement.
 
Another customer—a large industrial electrical company—wanted to reduce paper in order to improve on-the-job safety for more than 300 employees in the field. The company created a custom, mobile-first solution to automate its job safety analysis process, a set of two archaic paper-based binders located in each truck.
 
Today its solution enables field engineers and linemen to track permits, review site diagrams, verify the number of times job safety materials are reviewed and more.  Ultimately, the company plans to automate roughly 50 core business processes.
 
How to Make the Dream Come True
If you are ready to use mobile devices to start reducing paper, here are some tips on how to proceed:

  • Focus on people, process and workflow. This will help you spot the worst bottlenecks created by paper and identify the best opportunities.

  • Think beyond forms and PDFs. The real value comes not just from digitizing data, but from digitally connecting the data with other data and sharing it.  For example:  think about the power of capturing customer information in a form, getting a signature and updating the backend customer record database in a single step on an iPad, making the information instantly available across the business.

  • Test, test, test.  Remember that your employees have been using paper forever. To them, paper has become familiar and almost second nature. So to smooth the transition from paper to electronics, be sure to make your paper-replacement solution simple and intuitive. And two more ways to smooth the transition are to involve the employees in the development process and to use a development tool that makes iteration fast and easy.

  • Don’t forget the backend.  Put in place a robust server (or cloud) backend that can store and share data efficiently and securely—on everything from mobile devices operating over LANs or wireless connections to a supervisor working on a back-office PC.  Encrypt data at rest and in motion.

  • Pick the right tools. The best development tool will make it easy and fast to create solutions for your business, ideally without programming.  The tool should also simplify sharing, integration with enterprise data sources, security and administration.  If you pick a popular tool, it will typically come with an ecosystem of professional developers (in case you need one), service and support.

  • Go for robust tools.  Robust tool sets can support mobile devices of various sizes, allowing you to deploy right-sized solutions for your teams. Your tool set should support integration of other mission-critical activities such as mobile printing and bar code scanning, while providing real-time collaboration with users worldwide.
 
I predict that once you finish your first paper-reduction solution, you’ll start to see opportunities all over your business. You may even find the paperless office habit-forming.

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