The inspiration for this conversation occurred at Inspire ’15, Coupa’s annual conference, when Anu Gardiner, head of global procurement at DocuSign, and Sunny Manivannan, director of business operations at Coupa Software, realized that they shared an enemy: paper.

1. How much do you personally hate paper? Why?

AG: Actually, I have a love-hate relationship with paper. I still remember looking for archival-quality, 100% cotton paper for my doctoral dissertation, and when it finally arrived, I happily flipped through the beautiful pages. On the other hand, in business, I despise the stuff. In a prior role, binders full of “contacts to be signed” bursting with yellow “sign here” stickies came to represent everything that was wrong with the procurement process. It would take 4-6 weeks just to get a deal approved and signed. Beyond procurement, sales teams trying to make quota at quarter-end, HR professionals trying to get a star candidate to sign on, legal teams trying to hit M&A deadlines – in all scenarios, paper is undeniably the bad guy. It slows things down and time is money.

SM: Like you, I have a mostly-hate relationship with paper. I grew up using paper 24/7, but rapidly, I’ve successfully replaced most of it. My only vice is that I love reading physical books, and I continue to buy a book a month. Even on that front, I find myself eyeing Kindles now and then because I am a prolific reader. Thankfully, everything else in my life is electronic – music, email, bills, whatever. I find that reducing physical clutter helps me clear my head and think straight. Oh, and it’s SO much faster to search my email than it is to search my office or apartment for that missing piece of paper.

2. Why do people still use paper at work?

SM: I’m taking us back to high school physics – Newton’s First Law, i.e., objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. We grew up using paper, and without an external force, we’ll go with what we know. It’s inertia.

But what does this external force look like? Almost always, it’s game-changing technology, sometimes accompanied by a disruptive business model. For example, DocuSign and others have gradually eliminated a killer use case for paper – signatures. Now that process can go fully electronic, what’s next? I’d put my money on paper invoices, which I believe will follow a similar path as paper signatures. Coupa continues to have tremendous success in moving the world forward on this front.

AG: I love your point about inertia! I recently read a fascinating post on productivity by Ben Evans of Andreessen Horowitz (http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2015/5/21/office-messaging-and-verbs). He says that “new tools start out being made to fit the existing workflows, but over time the workflows change to fit the tools.” Today’s enterprise processes matured in an era where heavy-duty computing was done by computers, but communication was done by people. If the document needed to be signed, you reverted to paper.

Today, electronic signature solutions are the standard because they are legal, secure and fast. They make signing possible on mobile devices so business can move fast without having to wait on someone to sign on paper. Leading companies have changed their workflow to fit the tool; laggards will take longer.

3. How have you achieved success in reducing paper for your customers?

AG: I love this question because I have two great examples of companies that I have had the privilege of working for that address reducing paper head-on. At DocuSign, we help customers conduct their business transactions digitally: we call our offering Digital Transaction Management (DTM). Starting with document preparation, then approvals and signature, through to retention and management, everything is done digitally. Our customers experience turnaround time reduction of 85% or more and cost savings of $6-$102 per document depending on use case and existing processes. We are making a massive impact.

In the past, I was responsible for IT procurement at Kaiser Permanente, which prides itself on being the first healthcare provider in the US to implement Electronic Medical Records (EMR) across the board. Even today, I am a proud Kaiser customer – I communicate with my doctor, make appointments, fill prescriptions, access my medical records – all digitally. The business case for eliminating paper is a slam dunk.

SM: The data paints a very clear picture, doesn’t it? I believe in the old management saying – “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” At Coupa, we help companies save money. Often, our first step is helping our customers measure and track spend in one place. This is impossible with paper-based processes. There’s no way to aggregate data, no way to store transactions centrally, no way to enforce approval chains, etc.

Once a customer goes fully electronic, they can measure spend accurately, which means they can start reducing spend, which creates massive financial value. We have saved customers more than $5bn since inception, and it’s all about fixing problems at the micro level. A big driver of our success is that we have virtually eliminated paper in all of these processes, leading to more transparency, which leads to better management. But going fully electronic is a big deal for customers. It’s not a fad-of-the-month initiative; it’s a full-on commitment to transforming the way you work. It works with Coupa only because our user experience is so intuitive. To move large numbers of corporate users away from paper, the alternative better be simple and delightful.

4. What will it take to eradicate physical signatures and paper invoices from the workplace?

SM: We are at the tipping point with invoices. It has to do with the convergence of three factors: (1) availability of user-friendly software for both suppliers and buyers, (2) elimination of the pay-to-play business model, and (3) rapid adoption of mobile technology all over the workplace. Today, with Coupa, any supplier in the world has access to technology that will let them submit an electronic invoice (without signing up for a portal!) free from any mobile device with just one click. How cool is that? This is doing for e-invoicing what the iTunes Store did for MP3s or what the Kindle did for e-books. We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now it’s inevitable, just like it was with eSignatures.

AG: Paper signatures and paper invoices are going extinct. Leaders who own these processes in any organization know that digital alternatives are available today. The biggest barrier to adoption is getting these initiatives prioritized, funded and implemented. Usually, I’ve found that an individual or a group will initiate the inquiry and work with IT to implement a small solution and when it succeeds, they expand up and sideways. There’s another factor at play here that doesn’t get a lot of press – attracting talent. The next generation of workers has a very low tolerance for inefficient and slow processes – and they are happy to share their views on Glassdoor and Twitter. So if you think that inefficient back-office processes can stay in the closet, think again.

5. Anything else you’d like to tell us?

AG: If anyone in your organization is printing documents to get them signed and then mailing (or scanning and emailing) them, you have an opportunity to improve. You can manage transactions requiring signature easily from anywhere, at any time, from any device — and with greater transparency, evidentiary value and security than ink on paper. Add to this the speed, cost and environmental benefits, and it’s hard to find a reason to stick with paper.

SM: You and I obviously share a high level of disregard for paper. The world is moving toward a fully electronic, highly mobile future, and we are lucky to work at companies that are leading that transformation. One final thought I want to end with is that with any technology-enabled transformation, it’s important to empathize with those who are affected most by these changes. While it’s exciting to move toward a better, brighter future, it’s important to bring everyone along, and really drive not just adoption but also a sense of excitement. That’s what leads to long-term success.

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