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PAOs operate in a world of regulations, governance, and compliance. It’s an important aspect of a PAO’s role. However, staying compliant, relevant, and up to date in a paper-based office is becoming exponentially harder. There are now several adoptable solutions for PAOs looking to increase the amount of data they work with, in a manner that skips or replaces as much paper as possible. Incoming documents can be scanned in or digitized using an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tool. Anything coming off a printer should be digitally native from the start and sent via email or other document-sharing software like SharePoint rather than being printed in the first place. These solutions are beneficial both from an efficiency standpoint and an environmental one too.

Why Is Going Paperless So Important?

We’ve already touched on the benefits to the environment and the increases in efficiency, but there are several other potential benefits to going paperless:

  • Converting paper files to digital will create a much more tailored experience to the end-user, for example, allowing for custom email notifications or reminders or cloud services bringing outside data into current workflows.
  • Have you ever had an emergency and had to rush back to the office? Needed to be at home but still wanted access to work files? Been on location with a client and forgotten an important document? Storing all your data in the cloud completely does away with that situation, making it all accessible by any device with internet access and the right levels of security.
  • Having to manually keep track of paper files, store them, organize them, copy them, and disseminate them when needed is nothing if not time-consuming. Going paperless can make processes significantly more organized. Disorganization can be a major disadvantage when compared to a competitor who has adopted digitization in terms of responsiveness.
  • Digitizing your paperwork will have a substantial impact on collaboration. The digitization of all paperwork means the entire team (or organization depending on permission levels) has all the necessary access to any data they might need, at any time. Gone will be the days of an important client file being hidden and locked away in someone’s desk draw when they are sick or away on holiday. By their very nature, paper-based processes are inefficient and do nothing to advance an organization's goal in today’s market.
  • A paperless office also has a significant effect on how you’re seen by others, especially when visiting your offices. When members, guests, clients, or other representatives visit your offices, stacks of paper piled up on desks everywhere isn’t the image you necessarily want to be presenting. Compare that to a paperless, uncluttered office and the difference is immediately apparent.
  • Decluttering an office can also have financial benefits as well. As most Operations Directors will know, office space isn’t cheap. Instead of wasting office space on file storage (with the associated security/fire risks that come with that), it can all be saved in the cloud for a fraction of the cost. Likewise, the money spent on printers, faxes, ink, toner, paper, and postage on a monthly or annual basis can be dropped dramatically the more your processes become digitized.
  • Security needs to be considered as well. Physical paper can be a huge liability to a PAO. Aside from fire risks, sensitive files stored on paper can easily be lost, misfiled, misplaced, destroyed, or stolen. As well as the inconvenience that causes, the loss of trust and reputational cost from your members is nearly immeasurable.
  • With digitization comes the ability to add new layers of security, in fact, some tech companies work with the principle of security-by-design — designing a system to be secure from the offset, rather than adding a bit of security on at the end.
  • Various safeguards, encryptions, differing levels of access and enterprise-level security features all become available and simple to implement once data is stored in the cloud. Cloud-based data is also backed up much easier and with more protection than paper files ever can be. An open file on a desk, someone with the wrong security level accessing the file storage — these are potential violations leading to, at best, reputational damage and at worst huge fines from governing bodies. All that data can be secured much easier in the cloud, making it so only people with the right level of access will ever be able to view your sensitive data. Any access or changes to documents can also be audited much easier with tracked changes so everyone can see immediately who has accessed what, when they did it, and what changes were made.

How To Go Paperless

If a PAO has been operating with paper-based processes for a while, it may seem like quite an intimidating task to even start.

  1. The first step is to gather all stakeholders together to discuss the process. It’s vital this isn’t just C-level executives and management dictating how things will be from now on but all future users. C-level managers will often operate under the assumption an organization is run one way, only to find mid-way through a digital transformation that their staff have been quietly doing something completely different for years. To assure the success of the project, everyone needs to have input as to what’s happening, mapping out exactly how the organization runs (rather than how the board thinks it runs) so that those processes can be accurately and effectively digitized.
  2. Try and not re-invent the wheel. The temptation when adopting new technology will be to completely revolutionize your processes, changing everything in the name of efficiency. However, the risk that poses is that you will leave your staff — the people who will be using the new process on a day-to-day basis— behind. To ensure success, it’s much easier to map out your existing paper-based processes and convert them into digital workflows. Changes and improvements can be made from there once everyone has gotten used to the new way of working, but the goal should be for continuous improvement: small changes over time rather than massive changes all at once.
  3. From there, it’s important to map out exactly where all your data is currently stored. Is it all in one central location? Is it scattered over multiple offices? Have some people already started to go electronic, with important data stored locally on their work machines? All that data needs mapping to create a comprehensive plan to migrate it all into a system that everyone can easily access and update (based on their access levels).
  4. The actual digitization of all files. There are normally two choices here. It can all be done internally, with staff scanning in all your documents, or it can be outsourced to a third-party company. There are pros and cons to both. Going the internal route may be less expensive but this can cause a lot of disruption as people are pulled away from their regular roles, potentially for several weeks. Outsourcing will likely cause less disruption but will have a higher upfront cost, and there are security issues that will need to be resolved in advance. Ultimately, each PAO will need to decide which solution works best for them.
  5. Decide who will be able to access what data and from where. Once the digitization process is mapped and underway, individual users can be set up with a login based on their security credentials that will take them to a tailored dashboard with access to all the workflows they need.

Where is your PAO on the Digitalization Journey?

IFAC recently teamed up with cloudThing to offer our membership a free Digital Readiness Assessment Tool that would assess an organization's digital readiness ahead of a digital transformation project. The Digital Readiness Assessment Tool has been designed to measure how digitally 'mature' an organization is, or where they already are on their individual digital transformation journey.

Check out IFAC's PAO Digital Transformation Series webpage which houses helpful resources, articles and videos on Digital Transformation and is regularly updated!

cloudThing, based in the UK, is a technology company that help organizations such as the British Red Cross, The South African Institute of Accountants, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants (England & Wales) to name but a few, digitally transform by taking advantage of the automation technology available to them on the cloud.