Will Workflow Render Paper Useless as a Medium?

This guest blog was contributed by Greg Walters | 8/16/13
Remember when nobody wanted to get into managed print services because it was intended to “reduce costs by reducing prints and the number of devices” in the field? Heck, in the early days, I had dealers come up and give me grief for promoting a process that reduced clicks. How dare I!

Today, if one can spell “MpS,” one can offer MpS, and there’s just as much or more talk about the paperless office. On the flip side, there is even more doubt that we’ll ever see a paperless office, let alone world.

Let’s set the record straight: We will forever enjoy reading Poe, Shakespeare or any number of the classics in print. The traditional “pulp” or informational content like King, Koontz or Keen can be easily consumed under glass. So the “paperless-ness” we’re most concerned with is office communications, not how many newspapers are moving to digital-only formats.

Has the move into managed print services increased the speed along the path toward the paperless office? It’s hard to say, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. We’ll get there someday. In my opinion, the next step in the evolution of the MpS niche is twofold: managed services and workflow.

A case can be made that traditional managed services offerings may impact an organization’s print and output flow, but it would be a stretch unless one includes managed print services under the managed services moniker. Workflow, on the other hand, has a direct influence on the volume of “clicks” an organization generates.

This influence goes both ways. Manual workflows revolve around information moving through an organization on pieces of paper – invoices, configuration forms, packing slips, and expense and financial reports each travel from department to department, knowledge worker to knowledge worker. A quick example would be the order you just initiated: proposal, lease, work order, delivery and acceptance, on and on. So manual flows tend to maintain a level of hard-copy output.

Now consider how the “new” workflow shifts paper-based processes into the digital ether. Instead of moving paper through a system, a digital document remains in one place as its status/type/stage/metadata is updated and “presented” to the next sequential process. This document lives entirely in a digital format. Toner never hits paper. Forms, invoices and purchase orders rarely get shoved into an intraoffice envelope; instead, they wind their way around the office electronically and ultimately result in fewer prints.

Because in this scenario, a physical medium never exists, the word “document” takes on an archaic and inappropriate meaning. Some in the electronic content arena substitute “chunks” for the word “document.” I like this. A chunk can refer to a collection of documents, a database, video, audio files or any other form of information conveyance.

Well, any form but paper. Good or bad, it is all true.

Digital workflow doesn’t reduce paper consumption to rescue the planet, eliminate carbon emissions or save trees. Talk with any workflow provider, and the second sentence out of his or her mouth will be something about how paper processes bog down entire business systems. Nuance, Pharos, Equitrac, Kofax, Documentum, Intellinetics, Etactics, PaperCut, AiiM, IKON and M-Files have been talking about this for years; there’s nothing new here. The reason digital systems lower paper’s relevancy is because they provide speed and access that paper can’t. Information on paper moves too slowly and is a prisoner in print. It’s the difference between the speed of light versus UPS.

Déjà vu all over again

So will optimizing your clients’ workflow result in a business world with less paper? Did managed print services result in your customers printing or copying less?

Of course, the answer is yes. Fooling ourselves into thinking we are in control of the number of images clients produce is both naive and dangerous. We do not control the volumes. We respond to the demand. Your clients and prospects are reducing the number of pages they print every day, with or without your consultation. The demand for paper-based output is waning.

The bigger question is this: Do we fight the fight and refuse to embrace change, standing like a rock against the flood in search of more clicks? Or do we transform (again) and confront these challenges head-on?

Instead of fighting the sea change, move with it. Don’t be afraid of declining copy volumes. Position yourself with a software provider you are comfortable with, find workflow in all your clients’ business environments and provide those solution.

Just like MpS in the old days, this is something new and an area that will be rife with ex-copier dealers in the coming years.

Cloud atlas

One argument against the sale of workflow solutions is that these opportunities represent one-time revenue. The only recurring revenue is built around support and licensing renewals, which are not very attractive. My recommendation is to look toward the cloud and partner with a workflow solution hosted off premises, provided on a per-seat basis and billed over time. This model is the shape of things to come.

Not only should you look for cloud-based workflow, but you should also investigate mobility access and mobile workflow capabilities. Think about the times you sign for a UPS shipment for inspiration.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of mobility and workflow, look into an emerging entity referred to as “mobile business intelligence.” MBI isn’t simply the shape of things to come; it is the thing to come.

Today, in almost September of 2013, Google is talking about computers without screens. I’m not sure how soon we can expect ocular implants, but I am convinced the movement toward workflow-as-a-service (WFaaS) will accelerate the decline of paper inside business processes.

Greg Walters is president of Walters & Shutwell, the mobility, communications and transformation consultancy as well as the president of the Managed Print Services Association. During an IT sales and services career that has spanned a quarter century, he helped turn a large West Coast VAR’s struggling managed print services practice into a highly profitable business. Walters started his imaging career in 1999, working with Oce, Panasonic and IKON. A prolific writer and frequent speaker at industry events, Walters considers himself a “Contrarian Technologist”; someone with a unique and provocative view of technology and how to sell it in the 21st century. Contact him at greg@waltersshutwell.com or visit www.waltersshutwell.com.