It seems senseless that in 2020, paper documents of all varieties are still causing headaches for many finance teams. But the reality is that organisations in all industries still struggle with sorting, processing and managing a barrage of physical documents.
The assumption by many of us as consumers is that the digital processing of documents is par for the course in the back-office departments of large businesses.
This is, however, not the case. Many businesses still struggle with the integration of physical content into a digital infrastructure – and perhaps none more so than the accounts payable (AP) team, which continues to find itself on the receiving end of piles of purchase orders and invoices.
Part of the problem lies in the sheer variety of forms in which invoices can arrive. Some are delivered physically in the post, others come as attachments to emails and a few may be shared via an online portal. With a complete lack of uniformity in invoicing, it’s still common for AP teams to spend hours manually sorting through pieces of paper and online documents.
One company that felt this problem acutely was the retailer J. Barbour & Sons. Over its 125-year history, Barbour has become a staple of British rural life. But with customers now based in over 40 countries, the company needed to move away from the laborious manual processes of the past towards a system that can handle the invoicing demands of a modern-day retailer.
Manual vs. digital – keeping up with the pace of change
Barbour’s AP department processes approximately 50,000 invoices a year, an incredibly time-consuming task if taken manually. It requires staff to sort, arrange and process each invoice by hand, as well as leaving the process vulnerable to human error – errors which are all the more likely to occur given the drudgery of the task.
And from a practical level, storing and organising physical records on such a scale requires huge effort. Not only does it occupy space and cost money, but it becomes difficult to file and keep track of documents, particularly during busy periods of business.
All these issues were at play in Barbour’s AP department, and solving them demanded more than an investment into a simple scanning platform. When dealing with large volumes, it’s not enough for content capture technology to scan a file and save it as an invoice – the solution must be able to further classify a document, store it in the right place, and remember it for next time.
By investing in a solution with the right type of AI-based technology, Barbour’s invoices are now conveniently organised and easy to retrieve. The technology is integrated into Barbour’s existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and here the benefits of sophisticated paperless solutions become even more attractive.
With this integration, invoice images are loaded into the solution, which captures and scans the key information – from the invoice number to the issue date to the name of the supplier – before extracting the data and exporting it directly into Barbour’s ERP. The result is an easily accessible, centralised data repository that vastly improves the efficiency and productivity of the accounts team.
How can this technology change a business?
The key metric on ROI in any investment of this kind is time and money saved. With the introduction of the new data capture technology, the team can process around 200 invoices in a couple of hours – where before they would struggle to process 200 in a day – and can speed up the approval process from its suppliers.
But perhaps more important than the tangible return on investment is how this technology can sharpen the insight of accounts managers and their teams. Gareth Dixon, Group Financial Controller at Barbour, explains, “The technology gives us greater insight into the wider workflow context of our entire ERP – we can now clearly see what’s pending, what’s processing and what’s been processed throughout the business.”
This context can help team leaders manage their time and the time of others to much greater effect. Lori Sproat, Group Management Accountant, highlights this point: “The solution affords me much greater visibility across the team. I can clearly see which invoices have been processed and which haven’t. Before we acquired this technology, all I could see was a pile of paper on people’s desks, the volume of which I was never quite certain. Now I can manage everyone’s time far more efficiently.”
Technology and sustainability – looking beyond the business perks
The business benefits of these solutions are numerous: time and money savings, greater efficiency of workflows, and more accurate data inputs, to name a few. But beyond these, investing in context driven content capture technology of this kind paves the way to a greener, more sustainable future.
This environmental consciousness is one of Barbour’s six core values, as Dixon states, “From an environmental perspective, these solutions are far more sustainable than processing everything on paper. We’re always delighted to invest in business technology that contributes to a greener supply chain and our document capture solution is certainly doing that.”
James Adie, Vice President EMEA Sales, Ephesoft