As more and more automation solutions are available, are these the “key” to delivering the holy grail of a paperless office?
To start with, the answer to this question lies in truly understanding what an automation solution actually IS, before even considering what it can deliver.
Automation itself is not new, mankind has set out to automate as many tasks as possible since time immemorial. There have been entire times in history that have revolved around technological and automation advances.
Even Document Management, OCR and Document Imaging tools are not new to most of us. This market place has been well established for more than 30 years, and the vast majority of organisations will have explored or invested in some form of technology.
So what are Automation Solutions? For most of us, these are any piece of technology that can move information, or objects, from one location to another without any human involvement.
These solutions cross all industries, from manufacturing and control systems, aircraft and shipping controls to invoice and document control in back office functions.
After all these years, still no paperless office…
Organisations have been talking about the paperless office for many years, few have really manged to make great strides towards achieving this.
Some of the delays are simply because the appetite for change does not extend far enough into a business to make a real change. It is still easier for someone to “just print this report” because that is how they have always worked!
Some will be as a result of logistical issues in trying to push internal and external parties to make fundamental changes to the way in which they work.
More often than not, technology is simply not widely available enough, or affordable for the majority to justify the outlay.
Back office automation.
Accounts Payable, Finance and Procurement though should not be stopped by any of these reasons.
Technology for these teams is well established, there are a number of products available to choose from.
The technology itself is ever evolving. The advent of the Cloud has not only reduced the financial impact of purchasing a system, but has reduced the financial and resources impact on the wider business (think IT!).
Suppliers are demanding faster satisfaction of their invoices, so anything that will allow this to happen is generally greeted with open arms. Supplier portals have made great strides over the last few years.
Well, what is the key to automated solutions for the back office?
Simply put, the documents that need to be managed by these systems are nearly always structured or semi-structured, making it so much easier to train a solution and gain a fast return on the investment. No, I am not talking about that 1 invoice a month from the milkman, I am referring to PDF, EDI etc. format invoices.
Of course, you may still receive all of your invoices as a piece of paper (just consider for a moment the actual cost of this to you, your supplier and the environment). In all fairness, this is probably why you are reading this article.
But why? Why haven’t you, as a business, explored and invested in a solution that would completely eradicate this process?
In fact, it is an incredibly simple task to leverage an automation solution for the full P2P life-cycle.
There is absolutely no reason why an organisation cannot offer an online system for the raising of a PO, this can be routed along internal workflows for approvals, resulting in an e-mail that can be sent to the supplier of choice. Step 1. No Paper.
Your supplier ships the goods to you, they don’t then need to raise a separate invoice, print this and send it to you. They can log into an online portal and upload a PDF. Too advanced? They can send you an e-mail with any sort of attachment on it. The information is captured, extracted, matched and sent for approval if needed. Step 2. No Paper.
Our process is far more complex than that!
Okay, so I may be overly simplifying the process to make a point.
Sure, you have invoices with 100’s of lines. You have cost centres for everything. You have 500 locations globally where invoices are received in native languages and currencies. Your organisation requires that every payment is made via cheque and that must be hand signed by the CFO.
Well, in all but the last of these situations you are not alone (if the last example applied then we would suggest really considering the time benefits of this process, and the cost of your CFO’s time!), and you should not imagine that you are.
So, if a solution supplier can digitalise the P2P process for one multi-national, de-centralised, multi-currency, multi-ledger organisation… The chances are they can do the same for you.
Just even more easily.
One of the great things about the latest technologies is that they are constantly learning. Every user command, every error, every key-stroke. This is AI, this is what is driving the greatest benefits to back office.
It no longer needs to be programmed to understand the difference between US Dollars, GBP, Euro’s etc. it already knows.
So, are automation solutions driving paperless offices?
In short (maybe I should have started here). Yes.
BUT! Automation solutions are not exclusively driving us towards a paperless office.
Capturing the information from documents is pretty standard, there are countless products available, and have been for years. This was for most of us, the first real step towards moving away from paper based processes.
Understanding the information that was extracted and knowing where this information should be sent was the next big stage.
Now, the focus shifts towards being able to move information around without human involvement. And, being able to effectively manage this yourselves in a cost efficient manner. Tools such as BPM in low code are making this task even easier.
Finally, understanding the data that has been captured, extracted and signed off in an easy to do way, making use of real DataViz tools.
If you no longer have paper based PO’s, no longer receive pieces of paper from your suppliers, and no longer have to obtain a physical signature on a document, then there is no reason that these back office functions cannot be truly paperless.
At the end of the day, this is a decision that every organisation must make for itself. All I am saying is, there is no reason not to make a start.