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Is paperless the answer to being a more sustainable business?

Is paperless the answer to being a more sustainable business?

Arena's Neil Maude gives us his top tips on taking the paper out of your office.

Going paperless “would save NHS billions” …. so says Jeremy Hunt. This was so bold a statement that I started getting phone calls as early as 7:30am that morning.  Hardly surprising, given that we provide consultancy to NHS Trusts on how to deploy a range of solutions and some of our electronic document management (EDM) solutions have been in place in NHS Trusts since 1998.


So, it’s a hot topic. Everyone wants to know if it’s possible, and whether going paperless is really the answer to running a more sustainable business.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the plain ugly of deploying EDM solutions to organisations of the scale of an NHS Trust and we’ve learnt a lot. Turning a business into a more sustainable operation (for whatever reason, be it to create savings or to live brand values) is a huge challenge and requires a substantial culture shift. 

The trigger for the BBC headline was on the publication of a PwC report and a ministerial speech by Jeremy Hunt, recommending ‘better use of technology in patient care’.  Just to set right an initial confusion, much of the £9Bn+ proposed savings are linked to better use of data systems and not just “going paperless”.  This is an important point to make. The two are naturally connected and there is no magic formula to just ‘going paperless’ – there’s a quite complex process required to make this actually work. The huge savings figure actually covers a broad spread of efficiency gains – mainly from information sharing between different components of the NHS but also in patient self-service (access your own data, make choices, report on outcomes) and reduction in areas of risk/liabilities.  The actual “paperless” bit – which I read as “removing a large chunk of paper filing and providing that information to be used electronically” - is based on a number of case studies and anticipated results.

What struck me as very good in the PwC study was the inclusion of best practices from a wide group of organisations outside healthcare.  There is also a detailed analysis of the challenges involved in this kind of organisational change – winning support, nurturing the ‘early adopters’ and measuring the benefits.  This again is fitting for organisations in all sectors and there are many useful insights here.

Clearly, the report is talking about a very large piece of work  but leaving aside the peculiar challenges which come from that scale, these challenges mirror those which we see time and again in organisations big and small.  And whilst the NHS doesn’t have the best track record of IT implementation, the “on the ground” problems of system implementation are little different to those encountered elsewhere.

Understanding how to make our businesses more sustainable, more productive and more efficient is a challenge many of us face. It is not an overnight transition but there are some simple steps which can often get you started on the right tracks.

1.     Get end users involved early, or they will not come along for the ride

Ideally in the decision making and how the system will be used.  It sounds obvious, but even just a few end users who will ‘champion’ the system can make all the difference.  With any process change there will be a learning period and your users should want the system to be a success rather than a failure. 

2.     Be pragmatic

paper is still the best tool for some jobs and overall “usability” is the aim of the system. Involving users will highlight some areas where 100% “paperless” just won’t work.  Sometimes a piece of paper is the best way to capture or share information – accept this and look at complimentary technologies to produce documents and capture the data from paper.  This isn’t failing to “go paperless”, it’s just providing a solution which is fit-for-purpose!

3.     Select key short-term goals to win support for the initiative

   Pick the low hanging fruit”.  Having a particular team or business area  lauding the benefits they’ve had from document management will create interest from everyone else.  Even if you want to have a “big bang” change, someone has to go first and this should be managed carefully.

4.     Set realistic measurement parameters and make sure they are used to appraise progress against the plan

Ideally these measures should be quantitative – which can sometimes require a creative way to define ‘softer’ benefits.  There is nothing quite like a number to prove the benefit of the system.  It’ll also tell you how well your project is progressing.

5.     Get management buy-in across the organisation

This is important even in the areas who aren’t going to be paperless straight away.  Sharing a vision creates “pull” and energy – it also avoids pockets of naysayers.

6.     Be aware that information is used for many purposes

As well as allowing for efficient retrieval, think about how information is created/collected/modified (forms, updates and extra notes added to existing pages).  What are the appropriate tools for each situation and what technology is already in place?

7.     Think of who needs to see the information and where

Accessibility is vital to a successful implementation, without it you’ll just have printouts. Ensure you are making it easy for those who need to, to access it otherwise you will have failed before you’ve begun.

8.     The flip side to accessibility is security

Make sure yours is upgraded. Paper can be lost, but electronic data can be lost (or stolen) in vast amounts and many board directors are nervous of this.  So build in appropriate security from the start.

9.     Think about the structure of what you’re storing

(A taxonomy, in the jargon). Consider what indexes are required to allow the information to be retrieved quickly – once you start storing information you will be locked into a structure which can be hard to change.

10.  Consider the different ways that information comes into the organisation

(i.e paper, e-mail, electronic data). Aim to consolidate this to a single path based on purpose rather than managing by where it came from – this is the next step towards managing your processes as well as controlling your paper.

These all seem obvious things to do but we’ve seen plenty of examples where one or more has been missing – always to the detriment of the overall initiative.  It is possible to reduce your paper usage in a large organisation, and improve your business processes at the same time – but only if you have a clear plan.
Taking these points on board, the NHS may have a better chance of realising those billions of pounds they have earmarked in savings…and other businesses of all shapes and sizes can also look forward to a ‘greener’ 2013.


About Neil Maude

Electronic Document Management General Manager
Tel: 0800 863 8000 | Email: neilM@arenagroup.net

Neil joined the Arena Group in 2006 and has almost 20 years of experience in the electronic document management industry, working with both private and public sector customers.  Neil sits on Arena’s board of directors and manages the delivery operations of Arena’s EDM business.  His team spend their time developing software, implementing solutions for customers and providing after-sales software support services, both in the UK and internationally.

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