Did you know that the Digital Era (also known as the Third Industrial Revolution) actually started somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s? That means that businesses have been taking strides to computerize processes and ditch paper-based workflows for over 50 years!

Yet, many companies today are still asking, “Is it really possible to go fully paperless? And if so, is it a moon-shot or a slam dunk?”

In reality, the answer is that going paperless is not only viable, but more easily achieved than you might think. Information technology software has matured enough to completely automate cross-functional workflows, and rugged mobile computing technologies have proven more than capable of serving as reliable "command and control" devices for workers that spend their days on the move. The days of true fixed terminal PCs and pounds of paper-based technical manuals are fleeting for the field service and industrial sectors, including manufacturing, energy, utilities and even government. Fixed-location systems meant that paper was needed to bridge from the service world to the information-system world. But today, a truly mobile environment with real-time access is very practical. In other words, it is possible for companies to go fully paperless. 

But should every company completely digitalize their operations? Many approach this as an incremental path – automate process A, then process B, etc. But with the complete solutions available today, does it make sense to move so slowly, especially when the benefits of automation are so dramatic in reduced costs (increased productivity), higher quality service, and improved customer satisfaction? The question is: Do they have the confidence, commitment and know-how to work through the complexities that are par for the course during a digital transformation of any scale? Just as important, do they have the right mobility solution to foster a digital-only workflow and data management system for today’s widely disseminated workforce?

Substantial Opportunity, Even More Sizeable Task

Many companies will admit that they’re finding it nearly impossible to go fully paperless, despite the many technology resources available to facilitate such a transition. As a result, they are leaning into a model that reduces paper processes and printing, but doesn’t fully eliminate hard copy workflows or recordkeeping.

Many of these “execution” challenges were revealed in this VDC Research white paper. Field service organizations are finding it difficult to effectively apply modern technologies in support of “last mile” service delivery as quickly as desired – and as quickly as necessary.

As researcher David Krebs noted: “From the pervasive use of inflexible legacy solutions to the limited visibility into the complete field service workflow provided by existing processes—often still pen and paper based, the opportunity to modernize the job-site field service operations is substantial. Nowhere is this more evident than at the point of asset interaction where technicians are performing maintenance and inspection services…”

While the continued use of “inflexible legacy solutions” is certainly going to curb progress toward meaningful business modernization, the truth is that organizations aren’t struggling to execute a fully paperless operation because of technological limitations. The many software solutions available along with mobile computing technology required to achieve complete digitalization have been widely available and well-proven to support paperless processes in every private and public sector enterprise environment for more than two decades. Rather, many companies are struggling to achieve their paperless goals for one of two reasons:

1.       They have chosen the wrong mobility solution for their various workers and workflows.

2.       There have been oversights or missteps during technology implementation.

Krebs again: “Specifically, existing solutions fall short of more seamlessly integrating job-site specific reporting into their field service management platforms, leading to poor or inaccurate workflow reporting and workflow inefficiencies. Moreover, the mobile computing and communications used by frontline field service technicians are often not optimized for highly mobile workflows—the ubiquitous vehicle-mounted PC is often left behind in the service vehicles—and are based on legacy or proprietary platforms, incurring higher ownership and support costs.”

That begs the question: How can field service organizations more successfully identify mobile computing platforms that are optimized for frontline workers, and how do we ensure they are effectively integrate into each organization’s unique business structure? After all, as you will see below, it is VERY POSSIBLE for businesses to go fully paperless with the right team and technology in place.

A step-by-step guide to helping those who “walk and work” move to a paperless workflow

As noted upfront in this mobility buying guide for field service, industrial and enterprise organizations:

“The crowded mobile device marketplace can make for a tedious and confusing buying journey, and many honest missteps can be made along the way. For example, it’s not enough to deploy out-of-the-box platforms from familiar consumer brands in order to check a few boxes and make the claim that you’re now a “mobile” organization. Nor can you merely spend a few extra dollars on a “rugged” case and prove the business case for an iPad in an industrial or field service environment. Rugged tablet knockoffs", those that claim to be inherently rugged but lack quality engineering and testing, can be deceiving too. Very few manufacturers engineer flexible rugged computer technologies that allow you to implement future-proof mobility solutions with immediate benefits, without compromising on features, price or performance today. In other words, buying mobile technology for your workforce is very different from buying a device for personal use.”

That is why one of the first things you must do, before even preparing a short list of potential mobility solutions, is to identify the issues compelling you to move to a completely paperless operation – or to reboot your existing technology architecture to achieve your paperless goals. You also need to identify and partner with a technology provider that specializes both in enterprise-grade mobility solutions and the specific vertical industry in which you operate, such as field service, manufacturing, public safety, utilities. (Tips on how to do that can be found in this webinar.)

However, those are only two of the 10+ steps that every organization must complete in order to secure their desired mobile technology ROI, whether taking a “paper light” approach and digitalizing a single business process within a single division or transitioning to a completely paperless operation company wide. Here is the more extensive game-plan that organizations should following when going paperless, as thoroughly detailed in this mobility buying playbook:

1.       Know What’s Fueling Your Buying Journey.

2.       Determine Your Budget and Secure Executive Buy-In.

3.       Shop for the Right Partner.

4.       Invite Others Along for the Ride.

5.       Be Willing to Go with the (Work)Flow.

6.       Complete the Mobile Technology Requirements Worksheet.

7.       Reconfigure Your Budget Based on Your Updated Requirements.

8.       Test Drive Short-Listed Mobile Devices. This is the ONLY way to truly confirm performance in the field, which is becoming non-negotiable for field service organizations that want to avoid a repeat of the issues outlined in VDC’s report.

9.       Calculate the "Total Cost" of Your Mobility Solution.

10.   Refine Your Solution-Based on End-User Feedback.

11.   Make Sure You’ve Asked All the Right Questions, Considered the Future and Trained All Users.


Editor’s Note: Still believe it’s too aspirational to think your business can go completely paperless? MH Equipment, Transportadora De Gas Del Sur (TGS), the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and a top German auto manufacturer have all proven that it can be done. We will share each of their experiences “going paperless” in an upcoming blog. Stay tuned into Your Edge to read their stories.

Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Warehouse and Distribution, Public Sector, Retail, Field Operations,
Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner

Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, under the direction of Bob Ashenbrenner, works with Zebra Technologies to develop future-proof mobility solutions for customers across multiple field service and industrial sectors. As an industry consultant, Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, is focused on optimizing rugged tablet-based solutions for mobile workers of all kinds, including utility and public safety professionals. Ashenbrenner is particularly committed to helping customers identify mobile devices that survive a tough work day, run all the software and tools needed today, and will remain flexible and scalable to adapt to evolving technology applications as business needs dictate.

Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen. He was previously a Solutions Architect with Xplore Technologies and Motion Computing for 13 years. In that role, Ashenbrenner led the development of a suite of rugged mobile tablet computer, services and software, with an emphasis on supporting the whole mobile work environment.

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