Reviewing business processes to reduce reliance on paper

For more than a decade, government policy has consistently emphasised the need for online delivery of government services and for agencies to provide and accept information in digital formats. All agencies create, and most use, the bulk of their information in digital form (for example, using office productivity software, emails and business systems). Yet most agencies still have some business processes that use paper. There may be valid reasons for this, such as legal or security requirements or equality of access, however it is often because:

  • it has not been an agency priority, or there have been insufficient resources, to move from paper-based to digital processing
  • there is uncertainty about the risks associated with digital processing, while paper-based processes are seen as safe because they are visible and well understood
  • the need for some business information to be retained on paper has undermined support for broader change.

This advice is about reducing the use of paper for transferring or storing business information, not on reducing the use of paper for ease of reading or reference.

The risks of relying on paper

Despite the benefits of fully digital work processes, it is common for business processes to rely on both paper and digital information. Respondents to the 2010 survey reported that information is often created and used digitally and then printed 'for the record'. In these situations, digital information is also likely to be retained after printing for ease of reference and reuse. This increases costs and risks, and leads to uncertainty about the 'official version' of the record. 

In many cases, the risks of continuing to rely on paper are not well understood. Risks include:

  • Information held in paper is much less discoverable and accessible than digital information. This often means the potential value of information is reduced and there is a significant risk of errors or omissions in decision making, legal discovery or FOI requests.
  • When it is printed, 'born digital' information (that is, information that has been created digitally) loses some of the context necessary for demonstrating its authenticity and reliability, which is a risk if it is required as evidence.
  • Information printed from a digital source may need to be retained (or rescanned) if it has been signed or annotated. Additional overheads arise from managing mixed media (paper and digital) as well as rescanning, storage and destruction of the scanned paper.
  • It is not environmentally friendly and is contrary to government targets to reduce paper usage in agencies.

Identifying opportunities to reduce reliance on paper

A review of business processes can and should serve a broader purpose than simply identifying where there is still a reliance on paper. A process review can:

  • improve understanding of process steps, costs, timeframes and effort within the process
  • clarify the purpose and performance criteria for processes
  • identify opportunities for improved processes and better outcomes, and
  • identify risks to be managed.

Line managers can easily identify where paper is still a part of normal business processing. By observing and documenting processes the steps requiring paper as an input or producing paper as an output can be identified and measures can be established to quantify the impacts of paper such as storage volumes, effort, time and costs.

If paper is still being used, the reasons need to be understood and options for moving to digital alternatives considered. In some cases, there may be sufficient reason to retain paper (for example, where there is a legislated requirement), in others there may be steps that can be taken to move to digital-based processing or at least reduce the reliance on  paper so that paper is the exception to the main digital process.

Performance audits can also be used to identify business processes in need of improvement. While they do not specifically target reliance on paper, the findings can identify opportunities for change.

Recommendations from the process review will form the basis of the case for change.

The review process

The major components of a business process review are to:

  • analyse the current process
  • identify where there are problems or performance gaps
  • develop a new or improved process that can deliver the desired result
  • implement the new process, and
  • review the outcome to ensure the new process delivers the desired result.

The process improvement infoKit from the JISC infoNet website provides information on one approach to reviewing and improving business processes. It is aimed at educational institutions but can be applied to other organisations.

ISO/TR 26122 Information and Documentation – Work process analysis for records might also prove helpful in documenting current business processes with a view to identifying the records relevant to them. Identifying records is a key input required when considering how paper or digital information supports business processes and identifying improvements or moves to increased digital processing. The ISO technical report is available for purchase through SAI Global.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017