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The Green Agenda: IDP’s Role in Shaping Sustainable Business Practices

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Petra Beck | Senior Analyst, Software Practice at Infosource

AIIM selected “Guardians of the Future” as the theme for their annual global conference. The primary focus was to underscore the importance of information management in the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a subject that resonated with the attendees, who are predominantly practitioners. However, to ensure a balanced conference agenda, I was invited to discuss the interplay between Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) and sustainability – a topic perfectly aligned with the conference theme.

While I usually consider IDP as Intelligent Data Processing, for the purpose of this article, I’d like to delve deeper into the realm of documents, considering all input sources and formats.

As part of our quantitative evaluation of the Capture & IDP market, we analyze the current mix of business inputs in newly implemented solutions, based on vendor reports. Post-pandemic, digital documents have surpassed those still arriving in paper format, a trend we anticipate will intensify, driven in part by the increasing mandates for e-invoicing.

Despite this, paper inputs continue to play a significant role in business transactions. And our offices are far from being paperless, with an excessive number of digital documents being printed for review and annotation.

Therefore, our environmental considerations for IDP must begin with an examination of paper. The data points related to the carbon footprint of paper vary significantly, beyond the expected ranges caused by differences in paper types, levels of paper recycling, and the use of renewable energies during production. The most impactful factor appears to be the methodology employed, particularly whether the complete life cycle of paper is taken into account. It’s crucial to consider all aspects, including the use of trees and water, the CO2 emissions from paper mills, and paper disposal, which also plays a significant role in calculating the total carbon footprint of paper documents.

The digitization of business inputs, especially those arriving in paper format and forming part of mission-critical business processes, offers significant advantages. These range from expedited transactions and enhanced customer experience to cost savings and increased competitiveness. When comparing paper-based processes with those that begin with paper inputs, which are then digitized, processed, and stored digitally, it’s challenging to advocate for the latter purely from a sustainability perspective.

However, the narrative shifts when comparing a paper-based process with a fully digitalized one. For the digital process, all aspects need to be considered. This includes the servers and data flow involved in the customer-facing application, the IDP software, the process automation tool like RPA or BPM solutions, and finally, the digital storage of electronic documents, their metadata, reporting, etc. For a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, we must also include the PCs, laptops, and screens used by personnel who perform active process steps or review results as part of a HITL process. In both scenarios, the office space required for the respective knowledge workers is also a factor. In the digital process scenario, the energy consumption in the various process steps, particularly the type of energy used, i.e., the level of renewable energy sources, needs to be considered. Cloud-based solutions likely reduce the carbon footprint, as does the centralization of data center capacity. However, significant differences exist in data centers based on their infrastructure, energy sources, energy reuse, and locations. It’s important to remember that the majority of energy consumed by a data center is used for cooling and redundancy infrastructure; less than 10% is used for computing.

When evaluating the current carbon footprint of an IDP solution and a new solution or upgrade that employs advanced AI tools, particularly Large Language Models, their impact should be monitored as it is likely significantly higher compared to conventional Intelligent Capture and IDP solutions.

The importance of an eco-friendly information infrastructure continues to grow as sustainability becomes a strategic priority for an increasing number of organizations. This is also driven by the rising number of legislations that mandate transparency and reporting of the environmental footprint and risk of organizations. These regulations will evolve into directives that set standards and require emission reductions.

When assessing the maturity of green IT infrastructure and IDP strategies, we find organizations fitting into all four levels below. The largest group falls into level 2, where awareness has been established and regulations are heightening sensitivity towards sustainability aspects. A growing number of businesses, particularly those in verticals with higher carbon emissions, are establishing carbon footprint goals which necessitate the sustainability assessment of all departments, including IT. We anticipate seeing the evolution of standards for the methodology and benchmarks of carbon emissions in the coming years.

For organizations that currently operate information-intensive business processes, it is recommended to conduct an initial assessment of their carbon footprint. This will provide a crucial benchmark for the digitalization of process steps and the planned implementation of IDP solutions. This proactive approach not only aids in the transition towards more sustainable practices but also provides a clear measure of progress as the organization evolves. It’s a strategic move that aligns with the global shift towards sustainability and the reduction of carbon emissions.

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