Going beyond Paperless…

Published in INSIGHT - Fall 2017
By Neil Miller

Everyone gets excited about the idea of going paperless. 
It is a good thing after all, Is it not? Save some trees, embrace technology, streamline processes, declutter your church office.
But if you dig into most paperless initiatives at churches, the impact on office operations is pretty bleak. Processes are often no smoother or faster than they were before. And a paperless office often just shifts the clutter from the desk to the desktop. 
So why all the fuss?

What does it mean to go paperless?
In the paper world, in order to reserve a room in the church, make a purchase request, or ask for a day off, someone needs to fill out a paper form. That piece of paper floats around to everyone who needs to see or approve it.

A paperless church office means that all of your forms are digital, oftentimes available from a central cloud location. You fill out the form online and instead of printing it out, you either email it as an attachment, or it goes directly to someone as a spreadsheet.
Paper-based Processes
Let us look at the example of a reimbursement request. Assume an associate minister is coming back from a conference and is submitting some expenses for reimbursement. 

In the paper-based office, the minister gets a printout of the reimbursement request, fills out the form with a pen, lists all the expenses, attaches the receipts, and signs the form. He would then put that form in his manager’s mailbox to get signed. The manager signs to approve, or sends it back to the associate in case any changes are needed. Then, the manager gives it to the finance manager who processes the claim, uploads the information into the financial system, cuts a check for the minister, and puts it in his mailbox. 
All in all, this is not a terrible way to handle the process, but there are some significant disadvantages:
Each person in the workflow must know the next step. If anyone makes a mistake or sends it to the wrong person, it could delay the processing, or end up in a lost request. 
It is very hard to check the status of a single request. The original submitter has to do a lot of research to see where the claim is in the workflow at any given time.
There are a lot of manual tasks. This is a simple 3-step workflow, yet it takes significant amount of effort from several people to push the item from start to finish. 
It is slow. It is hard to imagine a process like this being completed in anything faster than a few days.

Digitized Processes
Now, let us look at the same process in a paperless office. This time, the associate minister loads the reimbursement template spreadsheet on his system. It has the same fields to fill out, but automatically calculates the total of all the expenses. He takes a picture of all of the receipts and creates a folder with the spreadsheet and all the images.
Then, he sends an email to his manager with the link for the shared folder. The manager either writes “Approved” and forwards it to the finance manager or replies back for any changes. Once the finance manager receives it, he enters all the information into the financial system, and arranges for a direct deposit to be made into the minister’s account. 

Did you notice the differences? There are not many. Aside from the means of communication, the process is pretty much the same. 
This paperless process still requires each person to be aware of the next step, is still hard to track the status, still involves a lot of manual steps, and is still not likely to be completed in anything faster than a day.

In addition, you have the added challenges of digital such as lost or forgotten emails, un-updated forms and templates, and the chance for someone to edit a form without anyone noticing. 

Think Beyond Paperless
Rather than just thinking of removing paper, you need to look at how technology can improve the overall process. You can use technology to reduce errors in processes, improve processing time, and reduce costs. 

If you really want to improve your regular office processes, you need to think about automation. Automation is the delegation of manual tasks in a workflow to a system rather than a human. 

In our reimbursement example, the associate minister can fill out the same smart digital form that validates all the data to make sure there are not any errors. An automated process follows a predetermined workflow so that the software knows who needs to act next. The manager gets a notification either by email or phone that a form is ready to review. He might send a quick chat message to the associate to clarify an item, but after the manager clicks “Approve,” it automatically goes to payment processing. 

You could set up the next task for the financial system to make a journal entry and a direct deposit automatically. You could also set up a system where the finance manager must approve the task if it is over a certain amount to help with cash flow.
In an automated system:
Each person only needs to worry about one task. The system takes care of knowing who the item should go to next. 
The initiator can check the status of any request instantly. He can see the progress of the item and who is next to act. 
Manual tasks are reduced. Automation software can be integrated with financial software so that no one actually needs to make the entry. 
Processing time can be measured in hours. After submitting the form, it is very possible that the associate could see a deposit in his account by the end of the day.

In addition to all this, an automated process can generate data to help you analyze how well the process is performing, where the bottlenecks are, and where improvements will be most effective. 

Think Automation, Not Paperless
When a church wants to be paperless, they want to be more fluid and effortless, reduce chaos, and see things move at the speed of work; however, just going paperless will not take you there. Instead, look to automation to help get you on the track towards a more efficient and productive office.

To learn more about church office automation, download the free eBook at kissflow.com/church.
Neil Miller is Creative Services Director at Orangescape. He can be reached at neil.miller@orangescape.com