Getting Off the Paper Trail

Expense-reporting apps for smart phones can save time and money for businesses. As for saving trees, perhaps not so much.

Since the dawning of digitization, the paperless office has been a holy grail, glimpsed from afar. Wouldn’t it be nice to rid ourselves of all that clutter while saving money and trees?

One sometimes imagines the grail is within reach. For example, according to the American Forest & Paper Association, U.S. industry demand for uncoated free sheet paper (UFS), the stuff of books, stationery, and office paper, declined 2.1% in 2010.

Last year International Paper, the world’s largest pulp and paper company, eliminated 19% of its production capacity. Boise, the third-largest American UFS manufacturer, reported in its 10-K for 2010 that “many traditional communication paper markets have declined as electronic transmission and storage alternatives have developed.”

Yes, but a 2010 Forrester report notes that even as banks strenuously try to get their customers off paper, customers strenuously resist. Combining all the statements banks issue, 47% of customers still receive paper only, 29% percent get e-statements and paper, and just 24% have gone paperless.

One business activity, however, seems to be grasping the paperless grail: expense reporting.

Everyone hates expense reports. Road warriors hate collecting receipts and filling out forms to get reimbursed. Finance hates trying to decipher a patchwork of receipts copied helter-skelter onto a sheet of paper, and everyone, especially CFOs keeping their eyes on cash flow, hates waiting to be paid.

But NetSuite senior vice president for product strategy Edward Marshall has a snappy, two-year-old iPhone application, OpenAir Mobile, that removes the pain (and paper) from expense reporting while increasing top-level visibility into enterprise expenses and payables. Here’s how it works:

Sign up with NetSuite OpenAir. Download OpenAir Mobile from the iPhone App Store. Log in. Get your hotel, meal, or airline bill, whatever. Create “receipt” on an expense report on iPhone. Click on paper-clip icon to add an attachment. Take picture of bill with phone camera. Submit expense report via Internet. If integrated with financial system, you get reimbursed automatically (once approved). After approval, receipts can be rebilled to a client, including the photo of the receipt as an attachment on the invoice.

Pretty cool, no?

“I don’t even have to be in the office,” Marshall says. “I can do it all from the road. I can rebill clients right away. And it’s accurate. The CFO gets visibility and accuracy. There are no ‘fat finger’ entry errors.”

(There are many e-expense applications that will digitally capture and organize expenses — Expenses on the Run, for BlackBerry; Expensify, for the Android system, among others — with varying capabilities for integrating with an accounting system. As a stand-alone, OpenAir is free; connecting it to your accounting system isn’t.)

At MetricStream, a Palo Alto enterprise software provider, the 20 people reporting to vice president of professional services Joseph Longo all use the OpenAir application. “Our CFO realized,” says Longo, “that if our expenses aren’t in OpenAir — if people don’t use it — we’re not going to get paid. This may sound trivial and petty, but it’s not.”

Longo describes a nontrivial event: a “top tier” customer that has a rule that unless it receives an invoice within the same quarter the billable is incurred, it will not pay. Longo couldn’t pinpoint OpenAir Mobile’s return on investment, but figuring the difference between getting paid by customers in 45 days instead of 90 (“the cost of money”) or not getting paid at all — and the time he saves by not having to chase his team members around for their expense reports — he estimates the ROI to be in the hundreds of thousands annually.

But what does Longo do with his paper receipts?

“I put them in an envelope and stick them into a drawer,” he says, somewhat abashedly. “I’ll hang onto them for a year.

“What I should do is file them somewhere and once everything is reimbursed by the customer put them in storage off-line. But who on earth is that organized? I’m certainly not.”

We’ve been hooked on paper for a long time. We can only kick the habit one day — and one app — at a time.

First Published in CFO Magazine May 17, 2011, written by David Rosenbaum