On the trail of Ireland’s paperless tigers

31 Jan 2008

As an economic downturn begins to bite, could cost-conscious firms’ use of technology finally bring about the paperless office?

Eoin O’Connor (pictured) may just have made Irish legal history without meaning to. Last January, the solicitor had been waiting for a report to arrive by fax to Bray District Court on the morning of a hearing.

The court’s fax machine was broken so thinking quickly, O’Connor accessed the document remotely using his laptop and presented it electronically to the judge, who accepted it.

“It wasn’t a piece of evidence that was the lynchpin of a case,” says O’Connor, at pains to stress he might not have taken the same approach if it had involved vital evidence in a criminal case.

That said, O’Connor is definitely in favour of using electronic documents in conjunction with and ultimately instead of paper forms where feasible.

For the past couple of years his practice in Naas, Co Kildare has used specially developed software from the Irish company eXpd8 to manage what would have previously needed rows of filing cabinets to contain.

The software controls all client files and staff diaries and automatically notifies users about important legal dates. It also tracks the activities and costs associated with each file.

Digital Sender technology supplied by HP converts all paperwork associated with a case to digital files for storage.

Staff at O’Connor’s office scan paper documents and save them electronically so they can easily be accessed online.

“I don’t need the hard copy file anymore,” says O’Connor. “If I want to work from home, which I do most mornings from around 7am, I open my laptop and I see the entire file in front of me.”

“I’m not looking to create a paperless office; in my opinion we are always going to need paper,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is to use my time more efficiently.”

It’s a lesson much of the Irish legal sector has yet to grasp. Like healthcare and construction, it is a sector of the Irish economy still working mostly with paper forms, even though cost-effective technology exists to use electronic documents instead.

According to Gary Tierney, country manager for imaging and printing with HP Ireland, cost reductions of up to 25pc are possible simply by examining how a business manages its current printing and document output.

“If you think of healthcare’s reliance on paper, if everything was available digitally, from X-rays to test results to patient records, the cost of delivering healthcare and taking care of patients would be reduced considerably. The same if banks were to reduce the number of paper statements they send out in the post,” says Tierney.

Construction is another industry that has a poor image for technology adoption. But as the economic downturn begins to bite and work gets scarce, embracing IT could be the key to survival.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) will host a training seminar next month to show members how to use technology to help their business.

“It will look at how companies can increase revenues, productivity, efficiencies and standards while reducing costs and time,” says Cathal Lee, public affairs executive with the CIF.

He acknowledges the construction sector has yet to embrace technology on any widespread basis. This, he believes, is partly due to tendering processes that still heavily rely on paper forms.

“If the procuring agencies decided they wanted all tenders submitted online or electronically, the companies would respond. The construction industry is responsive to whatever technology is there,” says Lee.

Some firms have already implemented technology and claim tangible benefits. The Galway-based civil engineering firm Maveric Contractors uses IT extensively, from GPS systems in its heavy machinery to digital documents, to function more efficiently and to keep its costs down.

Maveric’s marketing director Philip McNamara believes this adoption of IT helps the company to win business. “With the technology, we can do jobs a bit faster,” he says.

The company has always had an ethos of adopting new technology, which it sees as a way to reduce costs and not simply as an expense. “Ultimately it’s a cost benefit,” says McNamara. “We’re realising already how things are slowing down. The more competitive we are, the better. There is still work out there, but pricing has become very keen.”

Examples from other sectors are plentiful. GS1, a non-profit standards body, has been involved in a scheme to introduce electronic invoices for the grocery sector. In the 16 years since its inception, 95pc of suppliers and retailers have signed up to the initiative.

“The savings and efficiency you get are quite significant. If you think of the back-office costs, there’s no more need to store, process and file paper,” says Jim Bracken, CEO of GS1 in Ireland.

A similar pilot project for the DIY sector began last September and the signs are already encouraging, with one of the early participants set to make its operations entirely paperless from February.

There have also been some signs of the legal sector warming to technology. Last week, the Irish Courts Service announced a €16m contract with the IT provider Fujitsu to replace the manual stenography process with a digital audio recording system.

The technology will be initially deployed on a pilot basis in several courtrooms and if successful it will be introduced throughout the country.

Following this, all proceedings in Irish courtrooms will be recorded to provide an accurate record of evidence in cases, which can be accessed for the preparation of transcripts or for subsequent playback.

Tierney believes it won’t be possible to eliminate paper from many business processes outright but the digital and analogue worlds can co-exist.

Much office printing takes place in an uncontrolled way. By managing it more closely, an organisation can track its costs more easily and reduce its overall reliance on paper, he says.

“If you get a professional in to look at how many printers, supplies, faxes and copies are used, that exercise alone can identify a 20-25pc cost saving,” he says.

Not long after the term ‘paperless office’ was coined, wags dubbed it as realistic a prospect as the paperless toilet. But for many organisations across a range of industry sectors, a less-paper office can still be a worthwhile and achievable goal.

Paper cuts lead to a healthy reduction in hospital errors

Patient safety rather than business efficiency is healthcare’s overriding priority, unlike the legal or construction sectors, but reducing paper use plays directly to this aim.

“Medical errors are a big part of the healthcare system,” says Jim Bracken of GS1. “That’s a process that could be transformed by eliminating paper.”

There are proven examples of how this can work. A patient identifier scheme developed at James’s Street Hospital in Dublin uses technology to track and trace supplies and medication given to people suffering from blood disorders.

Other uses for similar technology within healthcare include tracking instruments or even medical devices used in surgical operations, not to mention administrative work.

“If you’re going to have a safer, traceable secure service for the patient, you’ve got to have it automated,” says Bracken.

“It’s calculated about 20-25pc of doctors’ and nurses’ time is taken up by paperwork. It’s crazy in this day and age to use paper when there’s plenty of technology around to do the job.”

Collecting data electronically would also make it easier for medical teams to analyse the information for patterns to improve patient care in the future.

Since the PPARS debacle, technology investment in healthcare has a bad name. If managed correctly it need not be perceived as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“Electronic systems are safer, more accurate and in the end cheaper to run than paper systems,” Bracken observes.

“Investment in ICT, where it has been made in the US and UK, has had returns within two to three years, never mind the patient-care benefits. It’s not a case of spending vast sums of money and not having a return,” he concludes.

By Gordon Smith