The Big Paper Cut

By Jo Hunter, Head of Marketing, Celaton Limited

Intelligent Document Processing is on the post-pandemic digital agenda for recovery. Ripping up paper-driven processes can no longer be stalled, as the pandemic, and specifically homeworking, continues to push hard on the business world’s needle for digital adoption.

CELATON paper cut


The arguments for becoming paperless have been well aired and debated for decades. The oldest article I have found on ‘the paperless office’ was published over 45 years ago, in June 1975, and quotes the then Head of Xerox Research, George E. Pake, who predicted, “In 1995 my office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on my desk. I will be able to call up documents from my files on the screen by pressing a button. I don’t know how much hard copy printed paper I will want in this world.”

Although Pake’s prediction was correct on many levels, overcoming the struggles of replacing paper has not been as quick or straightforward for some larger businesses, as it has for others. The delay has not been due to a lack of technology. The hold-up in ridding offices of paper has been more about the logistics of change, human behaviour, and huge legacies of paper-reliant procedures that were never going to disappear overnight.

Few today would argue against the proven benefits of the ‘paperless’ (or paperlite) office in terms of increased efficiency, the improvements in data-security and compliance in an ever-increasingly regulated business world. Not to mention the reduction in paper storage costs for big players. However, with the many business priorities demanding the attention of busy executives and their IT departments, becoming paperless has often slipped down priority lists for many businesses, up until now.


Although most businesses today are striving to become ‘paperless’, or at the very least ‘paperlite', the reality indicates our reliance on paper is still surprisingly significant. This is despite the fact most documents in business today are electronic, and artificial intelligence is being used more-and-more to automate processing. Nonetheless, for many businesses, the physical mailroom still exists. Research suggests there are more paper-based document processes out there than you would think.  It is widely reported that globally, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper per annum, and Statista acknowledge that despite widescale progress in digital adoption, global paper consumption will continue to increase, before it slows, from 399 million metric tons in 2020 to 466 million metric tons in 2030.

For those organisations with large, inbound document volumes, eliminating paper is still clearly quite a challenge despite the necessary tech to ‘go digital’ having been available for decades. Furthermore, some executives find themselves embattled by large-scale, paper-heavy legacy processes they have inherited from predecessors.

Thus in reality, despite best intentions, a lot of hard work and the application of smart tech, the paperless office is still a long way off for many companies.

A pre-pandemic survey by SAP of 3000 business leaders highlighted that although 96% cited digital transformation as a top priority, only 3% had completed their initiatives. A Third Republic article lists 10 of the most common barriers to digital transformation which includes the inability to experiment and act quickly enough to change, the enormity of changing out legacy systems and the difficulties working across silos. Post pandemic though, the acceleration in digital transformation has been evident across most sectors. KPMG share evidence of how quickly the acceleration has been so far.


In our business lives many see the pandemic as an urgent catalyst, accelerating change at a rate-of-knots, leaving business owners with little choice but to get the job done, in order to survive. Areas of digital transformation that were starting to build momentum pre-pandemic are now becoming critical digital disruption projects.  

The Covid-19 crisis has indeed forced, and continues to force, significant change in so many areas of our lives, on a scale not seen since times of war. Notwithstanding the humanitarian dimension, the economic ramifications will likely prove far-reaching. First a homeworking revolution happened overnight. Followed closely by the rapid ramping up of cybersecurity, at an unprecedented rate, in answer to the threat of scams as criminals were quick off the mark finding ways through security-gaps left wide open by the switch to homeworking. Next, many believe will be the tackling of long-overdue paper processes.

As we assess the impact of the Covid pandemic, it is clear that processing paper documents has become a major headache for some organisations.

The overnight switch to homeworking has really moved the needle on digital adoption across all areas of business, but deserted physical mailrooms have seen important items such as cheques, purchase orders, financial agreements sat in pigeon-holes gathering dust. Abandoned hard-copy documents, not being dealt with or actioned, of course pose a serious data-security threat and fraud risk for businesses.

Even since venturing back out there after lockdown 3, hundreds of thousands of office workers have remained at home, with hybrid-working looking set to be the preference for the future of many businesses. The widely reported, global, labour shortages haven’t helped exacerbating the issues caused by unseen, paper documents stacking up in offices. As time elapses the reliance on paper is putting date-critical processes at risk and leaving large numbers of important documents sat unacknowledged and unrecorded.


McKinsey predict in their recent report that ‘the recovery will be digital’, and the ‘next normal’ is all about the acceleration of digital transformation, and the scope of possibilities is vast. They highlight how top executives have led on digital initiatives, as a matter of survival, with examples of what specific companies across industries have done differently.

Those organisations that still rely, to some extent, on physical mailrooms for the sorting and dissemination of hard-copy documents have had an added layer of complexity to deal with during the pandemic. McKinsey suggests, “a key priority now is the rapid reinvention of processes that currently require physical documents”.  Our once bustling mailrooms of yesteryear are now well and truly obsolete. Partly because we can. Partly because we want all the promised benefits. But mostly because the pandemic has forced the business community’s hand, due to the inconvenience of paper logistics and the risk of important inbound documents being left unattended at our unmanned offices for weeks on end. 


A good example of an organisation embracing digital transformation is Currys (formerly Dixons Carphone). They started with using intelligent document processing several years ago for accounts payable, using a combination of technologies via the inSTREAM Platform, including Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. Following its success they quickly expanded its use with further ‘intelligent process automation’ of this nature to other functions such as customer claims, customer service and HR for both electronic and hard-copy inbound documents. Currys digital transformation has reduced their reliance on paper and the physical mailroom. Initially, the business achieved a 70% reduction in operational costs for invoice and mailroom processes, and gone on to achieve a further 83% reduction in processing time for customer cash back claims.


When describing the digital agenda for recovery, The McKinsey report said, “For many companies, customers have already migrated to digital. Employees are already working fully remotely and are agile to some degree. Companies have already launched analytics and artificial-intelligence (AI) initiatives in their operations. IT teams have already delivered at a pace they never have before. But for most companies, the changes to date represent only the first phase of the changes that will be necessary.” The report makes a number of recommendations that organisations can kick off immediately to improve their pace of change, with a practical 90-day plan for each, to make it happen. One of its recommendations, particularly pertinent to eliminating paper and other areas of intelligent document processing, is it’s 90-day plan designed to kick-start the use of “new data and AI to improve business operations”.


For an exploratory conversation with an inSTREAM expert, about what AI can do for your business, in terms of the digital agenda for inbound document management, please call us today on +44 (0) 844 245 8000. Outside of normal office hours, you can reach us via our online enquiry form and we will contact you as soon as possible.


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