Martin Hurley est le vice-président et le directeur général des services de sous-traitance chez Ricoh Europe.
"Europe is currently facing one of its most challenging economic times in half a century. European governments cut spending and European businesses need to cut costs, while at the same time remain competitive and innovative to generate the growth necessary for economic recovery.
At the core of the European Union’s Digital Agenda are 100 planned actions ranging from the improvement of the EU’s digital single market, trust and security, and the development of e-skills. Realising almost any one of these items could have major positive effects on Europe’s competitiveness and ultimately on its economic growth.
January 2013 marks a significant milestone for one key action of the Digital Agenda - the deadline for member states to legislate so electronic and paper invoices are treated equally, removing one of the barriers to European-wide implementation of electronic invoicing (e-invoicing).
It is estimated that, once adopted, e-invoicing will save businesses in Europe a significant amount of money, with the European Commission Expert Group on e-Invoicing's Mid-Term Report noting annual cost savings as high as €200 billion. This is money that can instead be invested on driving innovation, supporting business growth and contributing to a healthier economy.
According to the European Commission, companies pay around €1.40 for a paper invoice, whereas an e-invoice costs only around €0.40. Taking the billions of invoices sent in Europe each year into account, this makes the successful roll out of e-invoicing a potential economic game changer.
Using technology to improve business processes like invoicing not only helps to cut costs but also improves the efficiency of the entire supply chain. With e-invoicing, businesses face fewer payment delays, save money from printing and postage costs, and establish an automated, integrated system for efficient processes.
Furthermore, there are huge environmental improvements that can be achieved, not only by using less paper, but also by cutting out the energy costs from the transportation of invoices. According to the same Mid-Term Report by the Expert Group on e-Invoicing, up to 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions can be saved each year in Europe through e-invoicing alone.
The EU is therefore driving the initiative to harmonise invoicing standards across Europe by next year. By 2020, the Commission wants e-invoicing to be the predominant form of invoicing in Europe.
Today, however, most European businesses are far from prepared. Despite the wide availability of the technology, consulting company Billentis estimates that just 15% of organisations in Europe have an e-invoicing process in place. For many businesses looking to switch from paper to electronic invoicing, there are still a number of obstacles to adopting a fully digitised process. The main barriers appear to be the lack of technological expertise or capacity, limited trust in the security of digitised data, and the lack of acceptance by suppliers and customers who are not quite ready to let go of paper systems.
Essentially, what the Digital Agenda must recognise is that businesses can’t simply switch from paper to digital overnight. The reality is that a shift to electronic invoicing must be done in several stages and therefore a business will need a process to manage both paper and electronic invoices in tandem as the business, its customers, and its suppliers, make the transition to a digital way of working. This can be challenging for many organisations no matter what volume of invoices are being processed.
With just under one year to go before the deadline, greater awareness is required of the services available to organisations to make the transition.
Small businesses in particular are often unprepared to embrace e-invoicing, or indeed, other digital processes. A recent report by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), a global body of professional accountants, confirmed that SMEs, which represent 99% of European businesses, have been slow to fully embrace digital solutions, so more needs to be done to support them to make the most of technology.
Which brings me back to the Digital Agenda, where many of the 100 action item elements go hand in hand. Without the promotion of e-skills across businesses, without the roll out of high speed broadband, or without boosting e-commerce across Europe – to name just three of the 100 – many will remain reluctant to embrace technological change and rather continue their business as usual. In order to drive growth, Europe needs to keep on pushing the Digital Agenda and prepare the grounds for the beneficial impacts of technology on business to be fully realised.
For two decades, businesses in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector in Europe have been major contributors to Europe’s economic growth. Even more importantly, ICT solutions are a key enabler of growth in every other industry sector, too, with technology being behind some of the latest advancements in areas such as healthcare, transportation, media and manufacturing. At Ricoh we are positive that the ICT industry will be a key driver of economic recovery, not only in Europe but also globally, as long as companies increase their willingness to improve their business critical document processes as a key part of their fundamental business strategies.
The Digital Agenda is on track for taking invoicing to the digital age. In less than one year, EU countries will have introduced harmonised standards, and will thereby lift a crucial barrier for businesses seeking to benefit from technology’s enormous cost saving potential.
As the countdown begins, European businesses, big and small, must get ready now and embrace technology to save billions of euros every year."