Paper-Free Progress: Measuring Outcomes

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For more than 25 years, AIIM has advocated the reduction of paper in business, initially to save office space and improve records retrieval, but in the past 10 years more focused on removing paper from business processes in order to improve productivity, accessibility and compliance. Despite the widespread acceptance that reducing and removing paper is a best practice, there is a huge difference between the best performers and the laggards. Piles of paper contrast with clear desks, post bags and delivery vans contrast with mobile capture, warehouses full of boxes contrast with electronic archives, and forms-based processes contrast with automated workflows.

Even amongst those who have transformed their back-office processes, there is still much work to be done to capture multi-channel customer communications and unify front-office response. The early movers in digital mailrooms and mobile capture are achieving strong competitive advantage by capturing as close to the origin as possible. Meanwhile, the efficiency, effectiveness and resilience of all offices could be greatly improved by removing those legacy hiccups of approval signatures and mark-up copies that still cause paper to pile up on the desk.

In this report, we take an in-depth look at the amount of paper in the office, the impediments to removing it, the take up of digital mailrooms and multi-channel capture, and the increasing exploitation of mobile and cloud. Above all, we look at the progress towards paper-free processes, the triggers and decision-making processes, and the issues, benefits and ROI.

Key Findings

Paper in Processes

  • Paper in the Office-only 17% of respondents work in what could be described as a paper-free office.31% admit their office is piled high with paper documents and paper processes. 40% still use paper for filing “important stuff”, and 56% are wed to signatures on paper for contracts and order forms.
  • 20% report that their consumption of paper is increasing; but for 49% it is decreasing, including 11% where it is decreasing rapidlyThis 2015 net of 29% compares with 23% net in 2014 and 3% net in 2011.
  • 55% report that paper flowing through their processes is decreasing including 12% rapidly decreasing.With 20% increasing, this net of 35% compares with 21% in 2014 and 21% in 2011.
  • The number of organizations actively looking at every process for paper elimination has grown from 9% in 2014 to 16% in 2015, including just 3% who feel they have reached the limit.36% feel they are making good progress, with just 7% sticking with paper processes – down from 11% in 2014.
  • Lack of management initiatives is given equal weight to staff preferences (49%) as the reason there is still so much paper around.39% feel there is a general lack of understanding of paper-free options.


  • 41% are using OCR in some form. 23% are capturing process data including 9% using intelligent/ adaptive workflows. 16% are not using OCR, but workflow flat images, and 18% scan primarily for archive.
  • The biggest driver for scanning and data capture is improved searchability and sharability (53%). Higher productivity, reduced storage space and faster response are all key drivers. 27% have an environmental policy to reduce paper usage.
  • 40% of organizations report that more than half of their invoices are now delivered electronically- but 35% agree that most get printed anyway. 31% agree that most of the paper documents they retain are only there for the signatures, and that most of the documents they scan are unchanged from printer to scanner.

Digital Mailroom and Multi-Channel Inbound

  • 26% scan in advance of the process, including 7% using a digital mailroom and 11% with multichannel capture. 22% scan to archive after the process – much more so in North America (26%) compared to Europe (10%) where digital mailrooms (10%) and multi-channel (14%) are more popular.
  • A hybrid of centralized and distributed is the most popular digital mailroom scenario (40%), with a further 25% using only centralized floor-standing scanners. Faster turnaround to customers (54%), improved mail productivity (48%) and improved data capture quality for downstream processes (41%) are given as the biggest benefits.
  • 40% admit that they deal with multi-channel content in an ad hoc way. 35% are likely to print electronic inbound and process as paper. 32% deal with paper and electronic through the same workflow, but just 3% have a comprehensive multi-channel system across paper, electronic and social.

Process Optimization and Workflow

  • In 40% of organizations, line of business heads and departmental managers are deemed responsible for “radical process review”. For 14%, the head of IT is tasked. 33% place responsibility with a central efficiency department or the main board.
  • For 14%, the rate of converting key processes to paper-free is moving quickly or even completed (4%), and for 48% the rate is increasing slowly. 15% admit they are stalled after the first few, and 37% are making little progress or have as yet no projects (11%), including 7% of the largest organizations.
  • 36% have no access to workflow capability, plus 13% who have it but don’t use it. 34% make use of basic workflows in imaging systems or SharePoint, 17% have full workflow/BPM.
  • The biggest benefits reported from paper-free processes are faster customer response (43%), then productivity and compliance, then better monitoring of the workflow.The biggest lessons learned were to establish executive buy-in, and to gather input from all stakeholders in advance.
  • 59% achieved a payback in less than 12 months from their paper-free projects, including 26% in 6 months or less. 84% achieved payback in less than 18 months – the highest we have ever recorded..

Mobile Capture

  • 24% are not looking at any mobile projects and 39% are still in the planning stage. 12% see mobile access, data capture and forms input as a required option for any process update.
  • For those with mobile capture projects, speed of data availability and keeping paper out of the process have been the biggest benefits. Connection bandwidth, connection security and device security have been the biggest issues.

Cloud and Outsourcing

  • 11% are already using cloud products for capture, and 17% have plans in the next 12-18 months. 21% are unlikely to use cloud (down from 25% in 2014) and 49% still have no policy or decision on cloud capture (21%) or cloud in general (28%).
  • Data capture is the biggest growth area for outsourcing, along with managed capture services. Archive scanning and back-scanning still have growth – as does shredding. Box storage is still popular, but in decline. Managed print services and outbound print are stalled.

Opinions and Spend

  • 80% agree that paper content and processes are a huge impediment to remote access and teleworking.72% feel that “business at the speed of paper” will not be acceptable in 5 years’ time.
  • 57% say they are committed to digital transformation, and paper-free is an essential starting point. 79% agree that all businesses should have an e-signature mechanism.
  • Workflow/BPM and mobile data capture are set for the strongest growth. Capture, OCR and AP are still strong, then mobile image and MDM. Some MFP growth is likely, but scanners are mostly flat - although this is an improvement on 2014 projections.

Paper in the Office

Despite the shiny minimalist images of office life that grace the world of architecture and advertising, the reality for many is that paper still has a strangle-hold on their personal office space, and on most of the processes they are tasked with. Nearly a third of our respondents describe their offices as piled high with paper and bogged down with paper processes. 40% still feel the need to reference and file their important documents on paper, and 56% of organizations still require contracts, orders and booking forms to be signed on paper.

Most have the equipment needed to scan documents, but 35% say their MFPs (multi-function printers) are used more for copying than for scanning. More and more invoices arrive electronically as PDF attachments or on fax, but 32% print them out before processing.

In contrast, just 17% run a clear-desk, mostly paper-free office, and 8% assist this by delivering inbound mail pre-scanned via a digital mailroom.

Paper Consumption

However, despite this somewhat frustrating picture, progress is being made. Although 20% of respondents report that consumption of paper is increasing in their organization, 49% report a decreasing trend, resulting in a net of 29% decreasing. In our 2014 survey, this figure was 23% and 4 years ago in 2011, there was just a slim 3% difference between increasing and decreasing.

Progress in paper-free processes is even better with 55% reporting a decreasing trend, with the net of 35% decreasing having jumped from 21% in 2014 and 22% in 2011. For 12%, paper in the process is decreasing rapidly.

Paper-Free Progress

As we will see later, making progress towards paper-free processes needs to be seen as a continuous improvement campaign, with the policy that every process should be reviewed for the potential to drive out paper. 16% of our responding organizations do this, although only 3% report that they have nearly reached the limit of suitable paper-free candidates. For the largest organizations, this rises to 19% with a pro-active policy, although not surprisingly, it’s even harder for these bigger businesses to reach the goal (2%). On the other hand, it is surprising that 21% of these large organizations have yet to move beyond the evaluation stage, with a further 17% having just one or two of their main processes paper-free.

Compared to our 2014 survey, the number of organizations with a pro-active policy has increased from 9% to 16%, and those with a paper-only view has dropped from 11% to 9%.

Paper-Free Candidates

Across different vertical industries there are obviously many, many different processes, but in Figure 4 we have listed some of the more common ones, and asked our respondents to firstly judge where paper is continuing to increase (in red), and then to tell us where they have made the most progress in reducing paper (in blue). In general, contract management and legal processes are showing the biggest increase in paper, and our respondents are evidently struggling to achieve reductions here. On the other hand, accounts payable is showing the next biggest increase, but is also the best candidate for paper reduction. Records management, accounts receivable, and in particular, technical documentation are also good candidates for reduction, followed by HR.

Barriers to Paper Reduction

It is often said that “people like paper” (and we all know that they don’t like change), and this is given as a strong reason (49%) that there is so much paper in the business. However, an equal number give the lack of management initiatives or mandates as the biggest reason, and despite AIIM’s long campaign to educate business on paper-free benefits, 39% feel there is a lack of understanding of paper-free options. The perceived need for physical signatures shows up as the 4th most likely reason (35%), along with legal admissibility (18%) - despite the long history of both standards and legislation on this point.

Better progress is being made towards paper-reduction compared to previous years, particularly in AP, AR, technical documentation and HR. People factors are an issue, and signatures is still a major barrier, but so is the lack of management initiatives to overcome these.


Beyond ad hoc scanning in the office, document digitization covers a wide spectrum from, image scanning simply for archive, through imaging workflows, to OCR recognition and data capture. The results of recognition can automate routing to the appropriate workflow, and also populate the search index. The extracted data may also be used to populate a process such as accounts payable or customer on-boarding. More recent advances use machine intelligence to automate classification of documents and to adapt the process workflow depending on the content (and context). These “smart” techniques can be used on any digitally originated content as well as scanned paper documents.

In our survey, 34% scan flat images only, 16% for workflow and 18% for archive. 41% are using OCR in some form, with 23% capturing process data. 9% are using this data for intelligent or adaptive workflows to optimize complex case management, and to “lock-in” compliance.

There has been a sharp rise in the use of OCR from 21% in our 2013 survey to 41% now. Although this rises to 47% of the largest organizations, the difference is mostly down to those using OCR for routing or indexing, with the numbers capturing to the process and/or using adaptive workflows being almost identical across company sizes.

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