Is COVID-19 the final nail in the coffin for paper?

Editorial Type: Opinion Date: 2020-12-01 Views: 486 Tags: Document, Covid-19, Workflow, Cloud, Compliance, Strategy, iManage PDF Version:
Paul Walker, EMEA Technical Director, iManage, examines how the pandemic has spawned new processes and ways of working, and made a digital work environment "business as usual"

A top law firm recently mentioned in conversation that they had 93% fewer requests from lawyers to retrieve paper documents from their storage locations during the lockdown period compared to pre-lockdown. Given how well ensconced paper processes are in professional services firms, one assumes that this organisation's lawyers have found an alternative means to conducting their day-to-day tasks and client work, enabled by technology.

This got me thinking - while paper usage has been on a steady decline for the last decade, could COVID-19 deliver the final push to make the paperless office a reality? After all, typically, adverse situations prompt new and innovative ways of working, set into motion new working practices, and serve as a good impetus for innovation.

The push towards "less paper" has been a goal for many organisations, but prior to this pandemic, there has been a resistance to change, especially in the legal sector. Perhaps the biggest reason is that paper is so ingrained in the working practices of professional services firms - and so is self-perpetuating.

There are geographic and regulatory challenges to moving away from paper too. A full digital approach doesn't yet apply uniformly across the globe - individual countries have their own rules and business requirements. At the same time, there are varying business requirements between industries - for example, the processes pertaining to 'Know Your Customer' in financial services are different to those in the property and real estate sectors.

There is however a paradox - while some of the paper-based processes (e.g. wet signatures) demanded by regulators are designed to protect people and transactions, the corresponding digital processes (e.g. e-signatures) have those protections built-in, are evidencable and auditable, and more resilient than the physical equivalent.

Today document management, as a business function and technology, is sufficiently advanced to facilitate an efficient and secure paperless operation. Cloud technology further enables secure access from anywhere, at any time, from any device to a document management system. Further enhanced with AI, these platforms offer an even greater depth of enterprise-level search and knowledge management capabilities.

Professional services firms are already using this combination of technologies for (historically) highly paper-intensive functions such as contract management, and to automate governance over transactions and deal documents, end-to-end - from creation through to closing.

Consider the closing of a transaction. From a legal standpoint, the management of paper (for, say, a merger) across potentially hundreds of parties and with changes in documents taking place in real-time, is a complex and logistical headache, and a high risk activity due to human error. Technology applications automate this workflow and ensure consistency and efficiency, reducing risk and cost. Going paperless is supremely possible. Companies such as Uber and Deliveroo have already shown that traditional enterprises can be re-engineered to go fully digital.

The reality is that the pandemic has provided an impetus to a 'paperless' direction of travel for enterprise. It has spawned new processes and ways of working, and due to a dispersed workforce, made a digital work environment "business as usual."

Is COVID-19 the final nail in the coffin for paper? Possibly, and time will tell - but it has demonstrated that going paperless isn't as far-fetched an idea as people believed it to be. A digital approach is most definitely the future - regardless of the stage of digital transformation that individual enterprises are at, sophisticated and mature technology is at their disposal to take their efforts to the next level.

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