Episode 115: Quitting Our Paper Addiction with Esker

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Host Sean Daily talks with Renee Thomas of Esker about conserving paper and document management as strategies for combating paper addiction in the office.

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Sean: Hi and welcome to Green Talk, a podcast series from greenlivingideas.com.  Green Talk helps listeners in their efforts to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors and experts from around the world. We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies, products and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.

Sean:  Hey everybody. Welcome as always to Green Talk radio from greenlivingideas.com. This is your host Sean Daly. Today we’re going to be talking about America’s addiction. No, not that addiction. That’s oil.  This is the addiction to paper, both at home and in our businesses, especially in business.  People are addicted to printing -- as my guest puts it -- addicted to the print button and so what we need to do as a country, as a world is to learn to not print, to give over, to change that paradigm and this has been quite a struggle so my guest to talk to me about that is Renee Thomas. She’s the Director of Field Marketing for a company called Esker. And Esker is a company that started in 1985 as a software consulting company based in France and has since expanded into several continents.  I’ll let her tell you the rest so I’m just going to go ahead and start and welcome you, Renee to the program today.

Renee: Thanks Sean, thanks for having me today. As you pointed out we’re a worldwide company and we are in the business of helping other companies get over this addiction that you mentioned. And we help them do that through a technology that helps them to automate a lot of the flow of the documents that today they’re handling manually. But it’s not really as simple as all that. I mean, there’s a lot more to it, there’s a lot behind that addiction and that’s what I’m hoping we can talk a little bit about today.

Sean: Well definitely. Let’s just start right there. Why is it – I’m sort of asking you to be a psychologist in a way now -- but why are, why is, particularly in America, why are we in the business world so addicted to paper?

Renee: I think it’s something that’s just evolved over time and kind of stuck with people. Especially in the business world I think that paper holds a sense of security for people.  We’ve obviously moved to a lot of documents that are maintained electronically, email of course is so prevalent. But, you know, if you walk into any business environment right now you are going to find file cabinets, you’re going to find stacks of paper on people’s desks, you’re going to find people running to and from their printer. It is very prevalent and I think that people feel a certain sense of security when they can hold a physical invoice or document in their hand. So I think that’s one of the things that has kind of evolved over time. The other thing that I think has kept us addicted, in a matter of sense, especially again in the business world, is that a lot of our business practices haven’t really kept up. A lot of companies are, of course very focused with whether its production technologies and things like that, but what’s gone untouched for quite some time is the back office. The back office where the billing is happening and where customer service is operating and where orders are being processed and those tend to be the areas that are last touched but happen to be the most hampered by paper and it’s in those cases where it’s actually those status quo business processes that keep the companies addicted to paper when maybe, in some cases, employees and individuals don’t want to be anymore.

Sean:  It’s almost like there’s a sense that it’s not real until it’s in paper form.

Renee: I think that’s definitely the case. I think that people will look at something online but they just do, as I’ve said, have that addiction to just hit print so that they can just kind of have it sit on their desk maybe that helps them remember the document or something like that. But, yeah I think that it does help them feel like it’s a little bit more real or some sort of reminder. I’m not sure.

Sean:  Lest I be disingenuous here I’m going to say that I’m guilty as charged in certain things. For example when I’m doing these podcast interviews I very much like to have every thing in front of me and though I do have a dual monitor display and I can get a lot on the screen I’m balancing between websites and software to do podcast recording and all kinds of things and it’s hard, I don’t have enough real estate to do it, so I will print. It’s on recycled paper or office paper that we’ve used scraps but still I admit my own addiction, continued addiction to paper. So this fascinates me.  I’m also curious if you agree with me on this, one of the things -- I come from a technology background – and one of the things that I saw in the tech industry and have started to see get better lately but still is a problem is the lack of systems that are well-integrated, reliable and affordable for being able to get off the paper. Which really means, from my standpoint, for example in this office when we get in documents in paper form to be able to easily scan them, quickly by the way, quickly and easily scan them into a system that we can then have reliable retrieval and quick retrieval of. Sort of the old Bill Gates thing of information at your fingertips which I don’t think really has happened in a lot of ways. But there’s this dream of this integrated system, the products that do it.  Where are we in that sort of curve?

Renee: We’ve actually come quite a ways. And I think you probably remember this concept of a paperless office has been around for a long time. And I would say that that concept probably did come about a little bit before some of the technology was maybe really ready. But what we find today is the technology is out there for sure. You mentioned scanning, you mentioned connecting systems, that’s already…there are a lot of solutions out there that can do that for companies. Whether it’s helping them automate workflow without the need to ever having to print a document. You mentioned the imaging or scanning of documents. Those documents can then be fed automatically into a workflow so instead of someone manually walking a document around for signatures, for instance, that that will all happen through an automatic workflow process. Electronic archiving, very prevalent. And again, what is important in a lot of these cases though is the integrations between systems or to find the solution that can handle several of these different steps all within one solution that can be helpful as well. So that you have less integration points. I think the thing that for companies is a big struggle is a lot of times companies get good at managing the paper electronically once it comes into their company. So once they get it into their company or they’re generating if from within their company they can manage it. But that’s not reality. Or that’s not the end of it really. Companies when they’re operating, they’re getting documents and orders from all sorts of other companies. And those documents are coming in in a variety of ways.   [INAUDIBLE] some fax, whatever and the company has to manage that incoming flow of documents. So they’re kind of at a standstill right there of how do they get all of those different types of documents and data and information and get all of that into the systems where maybe they do have a good process and workflow already in place. The same comes into play when you’ve got all those systems internally working nicely but then you have to send documents outside of your company. So you have to send acknowledgments or reminders or collection notices and things like that. The ability to automate the outbound as well can be a struggle for companies. So I think it’s a bit of an education process for companies to realize that there are more and more solutions out there now to help bridge those gaps, integrate those systems and really make it very seamless for them to accept and deliver documents really from the minute they’re generated from a partner all the way to them sending it out to maybe a customer, another vendor.

Sean:  So it sounds to me like really what we’re talking about is the requirement and then the challenge I suppose for most organizations is getting that sort of top to bottom commitment from everyone in the company. And it certainly takes a top level commitment to make the purchases of the hardware and the software and implement as standard business practice the processes behind going completely paperless. And you mentioned, it’s interesting, the outside vendors. It’s like even if you get that under control you still will have to have a facility for dealing with the influx of paper from inbound paper from outbound or outside sources. Now it’s interesting. I know they’re been some companies they have literally implemented practices -- one of them is a very big company, it’s either Apple or Microsoft or something like this, I’m blanking on it right now – but they insist that nothing can come into the company that is not electronically generated. So the only way you’re allowed to send them information is, for example, by facsimile which will get generated into a fax based system that is going to be electronic. They’re literally not even accepting paper. Are you seeing a lot of companies that are kind of taking those sort of steps to encourage these processes?

Renee: Yeah, we are with our customers and in fact customers come to us with two different stories. Sometimes they’ll come to us and they’ll say, for instance, our customers don’t want to receive our paper invoices anymore. And we’re like “Ooh! That’s great. We can help you with that.” And in some cases then we’ve got customers who do want to be the ones kind of pressuring outward and saying, “Hey. Don’t send us this stuff anymore in physical copies, we want to get it electronically.” So we work with companies on both ends. Our kind of personal dream is that we can kind of get that whole chain, that whole cycle demanding things electronically and everybody will be better off that way.

Sean:  In addition to there’s obvious green benefits here, we’re reducing waste, we’re killing fewer trees, all of these things are good, but there’s also, I can speak from the level to which we’ve implemented these practices, it’s also a lot easier to deal with information when it’s in electronic form ‘cuz most likely that is how you’re going to use it, regardless of the department. You’re going to take it, you’re going to email it, you’re going to take it you’re going to fax it back out to somebody, hopefully to an electronic fax recipient on the other end or whatever it is. But really ultimately it’s a lot more difficult. Example, my bookkeeper comes in a couple days a week. When she’s not here, she has her own filing system. It’s a good filing system. I still don’t know where anything is so I’m calling her every time like “Where is this paper? This document?” And we do have electronic systems in place and file systems and so when things are there, which is the majority of it now, I know exactly where to go, I don’t have to call her, I know how things are sorted plus I don’t have to leave my desk to do it nor does anybody else in the company. So it seems to me that, from a purely…once you’ve embraced this and done it wholesale it really creates a much more convenient and efficient environment to do business in.

Renee: And you know, the initial thought is there’s going to be a lot of resistant to this change and things like that. But you know we find that when it gets down to like, let’s use the example of a customer service representative, we find that they do embrace this because they realize just how inefficient it is. When they get a phone call from a customer who asks about a document that was sent or an invoice or an order and that person actually has to call that person back. They can’t put their fingers on the document while they’re sitting there. They have to take all the information, put down the phone, go find it, whether it’s in a file cabinet or maybe it’s something that hasn’t even been processed yet so it’s actually sitting in a pile on somebody’s desk? What we see with a lot of those end users is they welcome that change because they know that that’s inefficient and the beauty of being able to keep a customer right there on the phone and say “I’m just going to pull this up for you real quick and actually I can re-email it to you, right here while we’re speaking” and that sort of thing. So it can really help a company’s ability to just be very responsive to customers, very on top of things and again for those people who are executing those jobs it can be just a more seamless job and more rewarding. They can spend more time working with that customer on the phone and maybe answering additional questions rather than running around the office trying to find a piece of paper.

Sean:  Well we’re going to take a break right here and we will be right back with Renee Thomas, she’s the Director of Field Marketing for Esker. They are maker of process automation systems for helping you quit your paper addiction. We’ll be right back on Green Talk radio.

Listen to Living Green. Effortless ecology for everyday living. A weekly online audio program featuring champions of sustainable living. At personallifemedia.com

Sean:  Hey everybody we’re back. This is Sean Daly with Green Talk radio, talking today about quitting the paper addiction at home and in the office. I’m talking on that topic with Renee Thomas who’s the Director of Field Marketing for Esker. Renee, before the break we were just talking about the problem here and the challenge of businesses quitting their paper addiction, and people in general. I’m curious. What are, talking on the business side, what are some of the common mistakes that businesses tend to make that lead to paper waste in the first place?

Renee: Well I think that one of the things that immediately comes to mind is just status quo. For a lot of companies it is easier just to kind of let these things or processes just roll the way they are today and a lot of times the reason that they I guess, justify that a little bit in their minds they hadn’t really thought all the way through what the impact, the business impact is, of all of that paper. So taking into account, not just the cost of the paper, but as we just talked a minute ago in terms of the inefficiency of responding to customer requests, things like that that make them actually harder to do business with. When you start to play out that picture of what the paper is doing to your company it’s more than just a small nuisance. And so I think that what company’s don’t do is they don’t take the time to think that all the way through, about how that can bubble up to affecting their competitive advantage in their industry. I know it sounds a bit dramatic but definitely we have customers who come to us who are looking to improve just that. They’re looking to figure out how can we serve our customers faster, how can we serve our top customers better? And you know getting rid of a lot of this paper waste can do that. So I think it’s about companies taking the time to think through what it really means to the business. We talked before and I do believe that another mistake that businesses make is by not investing in these back office processes. These are the processes that produce and rely on most of this transactional type paper that’s generated. And by not connecting the systems, by not investing, upgrading, pursuing new technology they’re really missing out on an opportunity to not only get rid of the paper but to just make themselves easier to do business with.

Sean:  It’s so true. I think we’ve all had the experience of the different ranges on the spectrum of good and bad in this area that we’re discussing right now. It’s something when you talk to a company on a phone, you talk to a customer service rep or a sales rep and they can pull up everything related to your account instantly, seamlessly. They don’t need to refer you to three other people in the company, you can feel the effects of that well-designed system on that end, whether a business partner end or a customer end and it does, at least on me, it makes a huge impression.

Renee: It really gives you a nice impression that that company’s got it all together. And depending on whatever type of business you’re doing with them, you just feel a lot more confident that the correspondence and the information that you’re sending to them is actually getting somewhere. It can give your customers a nice sense of confidence.

Sean: Not so good when you have to say, “I’ve got to talk to Charlie in the shop about that. He’s got the invoice. I don’t know where…it was on his desk yesterday. Let me go see if we can find that.”
That doesn’t really fly in today’s economy and business world.

Renee:  Exactly, exactly.

Sean: What’s nice I think too is these technologies are becoming available to smaller companies, not just the large companies.

Renee: That’s absolutely true. A lot of these technologies, you can just use bits and pieces for maybe something that’s particularly painful for you. Another nice thing, and this is something we offer to our customers as well, is offering these technologies in the form of service. And that’s particularly interesting to small and medium businesses to where they can really just pay for what they use in essence and not really even have to maintain the infrastructure or pay for things that they’re really not getting out of. That’s another huge advantage for the small and medium business.

Sean: Now you’ve worked with a lot of these businesses and organizations that try to quit paper like this.  What are some of the challenges or issues that people can expect they might run into when they try to go this way?

Renee: Well we did talk a little bit about just dealing with the people. I mean, there definitely is…We do find that people are quick to come around and embrace the change of going from dealing with a process where they were shuffling a lot of paper to now looking at screens and validating information that’s captured on a computer screen. But there definitely still is some change management that has to be undertaken. I think that one of the things that is a challenge, again, is getting those users on board. What we’ve seen are some organizations do well that we had is they get the users involved. They bring the users to the meetings that we have with them to understand what is your current process today. Exactly how do you do the things that you do today in that manual format so that we can kind of help to automate that? So I think that it’s a challenge but it actually can yield very nice results is to get that end user involved and you will go a long way toward making them become more owners of the process and embrace the change.

Sean: Great. We’re going to take one more quick break right here. One last break. Then we’re going to come back and I would like to get from you some tips on how specifically companies can reduce their paper consumption. So we’ll be right back on Green Talk radio. We’re talking on quitting the paper addiction with Renee Thomas. She’s the Director for Field Marketing for Esker. We’ll be right back.

Listen to Living Green, effortless ecology for everyday people. A weekly online audio program featuring champions of sustainable living. At personallifemedia.com.

Sean:  Hey everybody this is Sean Daly with Green Talk radio. We’re back. We’re talking on quitting the paper addiction with Renee Thomas, Director of Field Marketing for Esker. They’re document automation specialists. Renee, I said that I was going to ask you, I want to put you on the spot a little here.  I would like to get some tips…We always like to leave our listeners with specific tips that they can take away to their homes or businesses that they can use, in this case, to become truly paperless. Can you help our listeners out there with some tips on reducing paper consumption?

Renee:  Sure. First, in talking about just the paper consumption that results as a part of business processes that are not optimized. That’s the first place that I think companies can go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck, so to speak. So leveraging technologies, doing the research, finding out what’s new out there in terms of how you can bring different systems together, how you can complete that flow of electronic managing of those documents from the time they come into your company to the time that they leave your company. So I would encourage companies to do their research and find out what’s out there because there’ve been a lot of improvements and there are a lot of really interesting technologies that can help quite a bit. I would say that another thing would be to make sure that companies are requesting of other companies to send them electronic documents and as more and more people start asking, systems will have to be put in place to meet those demands. Another way would just be to make it part of an overall business improvement in your company. So whether or not you have initiatives to just streamline processes, make getting rid of paper part of that overall initiative. I think that from an individual standpoint I think that companies need to really raise the visibility and it has to be done at management level in terms of things that aren’t acceptable. In terms of printing copies of certain things, printing and distributing reports that could be easily sent electronically, that has to come down from a top-management perspective. And I think one of the most important things that I think will help, that does help from the individual standpoint as well as people embracing new business processes, is to have some fun with it. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with the whole concept of quitting paper. We’re just trying to have a good time with it and we’re trying to get people to tell absurd stories of how you’ve worked with paper in crazy ways. And we have customers who offer these different stories to us. We have customers as well who are putting up posters, they’re doing internal campaigns just to have a good time and say “Let’s stop this silliness. We can do things a better way, help our business and help the environment.” So I think having fun with it really gets people on board in a non-threatening way and in the end the business will be much better off.

Sean: Definitely. Well it definitely only works if you get people, everyone involved and so it really it seems, the responsibility of management in these companies, to do as you said. I like the idea of having fun with it and I think that we’re in the right climate now for people to -- that was an unfortunate pun -- as in climate change but I was thinking more in terms of the business climate with regards to wanting to be more sustainable in terms of business practices. Everybody wanting to be greener both at home and at work and life in general. It’s the right time to do this. And to sort of gently not shame ourselves for using paper but to sort of say “Hey. It’s time to make this change. Let’s be the generation that changes the metaphor, that changes the paradigm, that changes from paper.” Because it’s really left over from… it’s really very old. I mean we’re going back to the invention of paper, we have not changed that paradigm and we have an opportunity as a society now to be the ones that change that.

Renee:  I agree. I agree wholeheartedly. And like I said, I think getting people involved and you mentioned that times right now that we have are a lot of people are focused on the environment and they are willing to make change in their organization to help. I think it’s just a great band wagon to get on. I mean, this is one we should be proud to get on. And I think, again having fun with it and getting people on band and having them contribute their ideas on how to help is a great thing too.

Sean: I want to make one cross-reference here before we sign off too that in the situation where you have no choice but to print, we prefer that you don’t print, but things to consider would also be to include asking people to consider the environment in your email signature. I see this a lot these days before they print the email. That’s one way to communicate this out. And if you absolutely have to print I recommend listening to a different podcast, another Green Talk podcast episode that’s from a company called Green Print software that deals on a different end of this issue which is when you have to print conserving and not getting all those extra pages that occur with your average print job because of the widows and orphans that occur in print jobs, it consolidates that. So very cool software. Take a look. It’s Green Print software.  You’ll find it on the greenlivingideas.com site. But for today, we’re talking about quitting the paper addiction completely. My guest has been Renee Thomas.  She’s the Director of Field marketing for Esker. You can find them online at www.esker E-S-K-E-R.com. Renee, thank you so much for being with us today.

Renee: Thank you Sean.

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