I hate paper. Why? I’ve worked in accounts payable.
Managing paper invoices is a painful process, sometimes literally—those paper cuts hurt.
It’s also a thankless task. The teams I worked in often worked late into the evening, yet we still struggled to approve invoices before the due date. It felt like all we did was disappoint our sellers and our internal teams—and they made sure to let us know.
Accounts payable is reluctant to give up paper
Although it has been some time since I’ve worked at the frontline of accounts payable, I know many teams still feel this way today. Paper is alive and well. It’s thriving, in fact—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just under half of all invoices today are paper-based.
I find this stat astonishing given how much accounts payable teams hate paper—and how easy it is to go digital today.
So what’s holding teams back? From my experience there are several reasons. These include: budget restrictions, a lack of seller engagement, and business not leveraging the full capabilities of the digital tools they have.
Another barrier, and one that always surprises me, is that accounts payable teams are often reluctant to give up paper despite the pain it creates.
I’ve seen this when supporting accounts payable transformation projects at previous companies. We’d usually have reasonable success to begin with and see an immediate reduction in paper clogging up the office. But then, after some time, we’d begin to see more files stacking up on desks. Why? You guessed it. Paper was making a reappearance.
I’d ask the team what was happening and the answer was typically the same. They’d say it was a tough month. That they were under pressure to complete the close. And to be sure that the invoices were being processed they’d gone back to using legacy paper workflows.
Past behaviours become instinctual choices under stress
Change is hard, especially under pressure. In accounts payable, minor mistakes can have a huge impact on the company's cash flow. Imperfect processes can expose the company to fraudsters. It’s also sometimes difficult to defend unfamiliar processes in front of auditors or even internal budget holders.
And what I learnt is that in times of stress there is a tendency for people to default to their old habits. The amygdala—the part of our brains historically in charge of keeping us alive and healthy—is good at turning past behaviours into present instinctual choices. Because of this we naturally find comfort and trust in pursuing the beaten track.
That’s why I am keen to see what happens over the coming months. The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures are putting untold stress upon accounts payable teams. But there is no paper escape route this time; paper is the problem, not the solution.
Can accounts payable kick the paper habit?
So there may be a silver lining to this crisis. The situation is pushing all of us out of our comfort zone. It’s forcing us to reconsider the way we work. And, it’s making it hard to follow our instincts.
I suspect we’ll see change occur faster than it ever has before over the coming months. We’re all learning how to adapt to the ‘new normal’. And whether by choice or by necessity, this gives accounts payable a fantastic opportunity to kick the paper habit and make digital the default once and for all.
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