The Shangri-La of the paperless office has remained obstinately distant in spite of all the optimistic predictions that have been around since the PC explosion of the 1980s. In this interview, Leon van der Merwe, founder and executive director of SigniFlow, lifts our spirits with news that the end of the long journey is finally in sight.
Hello, Mr van der Merwe. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to chat with you about your company, its achievements in the area of digital transformation, and its plans for the future.
I understand you have been in various leadership positions since 1994. Being in high-profile posts must induce some stressful moments. Would you mind telling us how you start your day in preparation?
My team and I run a very tight schedule, often consisting of a meeting on the hour, every hour throughout the day. We all get to work early, around 6 a.m. to catch up and prepare for the day ahead, which starts at 8 a.m. and often runs into the evenings.
Having a dedicated team that is willing to go the extra mile to get the job done is what makes the magic happen. The team at SigniFlow is as devoted to our tech as they are to our customers and one another.
People have been talking about the paperless office for decades, but it seems to have been a long time coming. Why do you think it has taken so long? And why does it finally seem to be happening now?
A typical business consists of people; remove the human element and you have no business. Going paperless or digitising the office is often perceived as getting rid of jobs, which could not be further from the truth. Our solutions are designed to make humans more efficient, not get rid of them. A business that serves a thousand customers in a region and has twenty employees can serve ten thousand customers in ten regions after properly automating and / or digitising processes.
The impact of digitisation on a business is often underestimated and thought of as an IT project, whereas in fact it is much more than that. Digitisation requires buy-in and commitment from all stakeholders, as it impacts the entire business and its operations.
We found that most businesses that started digitisation years ago did so by digitising processes in seclusion, or only within certain departments, mostly without consulting other departments or thinking of the overall business strategy. This brought about a disconnect between the departments, or departments in the same business running different, sometimes incompatible systems. The result was that digitisation projects often failed and people reverted to paper, or that it naturally faded away, as employees were forced to revert to legacy systems due to pressures from business units further down the value chain.
Some might say that paper is the ultimate legacy system, and we all know how much effort can be involved in replacing those. How can you convince companies and organisations that it’s worth the effort of moving away from paper-based systems that have served them for so very long? And how can you persuade them to make the leap of faith of leaving solid, dependable paper behind?
There are several, obvious “green office” reasons to save paper and digitise, but none are as convincing as the true benefits that businesses reap from increasing their efficiency and geographical reach once digitised.
Paper-based processes are slow, inefficient and restrictive by nature. As an example, we have a customer in the banking sector, which almost tripled its revenue on a foreign exchange product after the end-to-end digitisation of the entire customer journey. How is this possible? Simple: there are only so many hours in the day in which a broker can process deals. If two-thirds of their time is spent on obtaining documents, printing, scanning, sending emails and getting deals signed off, then only one-third is spent on developing new business. By removing the manual labour components through automated systems, the brokers quickly realised that they were able to serve more customers per day and make more money, so, within a few short months, they tripled their revenue.
Another example is a letting agent that was bound to a certain geographical area, purely because they had to drive out to the customer to get their identities verified and contracts signed. After digitising their contracts and identity verification system, the realtors soon realised that they had more time on their hands but, more importantly, it no longer mattered where their customers were situated. They could comfortably expand their reach into larger geographical areas and had more time to deal with more customers, which meant more revenue.
These are only two examples. There are hundreds like these, spread across every sector of business. Leaving paper behind may feel like a daunting exercise, but it is in fact a freeing experience when it is done with the right partner.
There is huge interest worldwide in effecting the digital transformation away from paper-based systems. But, at the same time, there is intense competition among the solutions providers. What is it that distinguishes SigniFlow from the other players in this competitive market?
SigniFlow’s value propositions are as follows:
Flexible software architecture
SigniFlow is a true enterprise solution, offering Microservices Architecture (MSA) that enables autonomous integration. This allows our customers the flexibility to integrate any third-party application with any micro-component of SigniFlow.
Flexible infrastructure architecture
SigniFlow software is not bound by any infrastructure technology and can be deployed in almost any location (cloud, on-premise, public or private data centres, etc.) and in almost any application environment (virtual machines, containerised environments, Docker, Kubernetes, etc.).
Compliance with law
SigniFlow adheres to the most demanding legal and regulatory compliance across the globe. SigniFlow runs segregated instances across different regions in the world, each configured independently to ensure compliance with local legislation, such as privacy laws and e-signature laws that differ in each operating region.
The SigniFlow team is dedicated to delivering and upholding only the highest levels of customer service.
What are the challenges for SigniFlow in keeping the edge over the competition in the future?
SigniFlow naturally adopted a development culture that is not influenced by competitor products, but rather by customer demand. We are not aiming to be the largest of our kind in the world; we are aiming to be the most relevant.
It would be understandable if organisations approached moving away from their familiar paper-based systems with trepidation. Does hand-holding form a major part of what you do?
Yes, SigniFlow’s top three projects in 2019 were replacing competitor software previously deployed by major companies claiming to be the best in the world. Based on feedback from these customers, it is evident that SigniFlow offered better flexibility and better service delivery throughout the project life cycle.
These days, we take for granted the ability to access a seemingly infinite range of systems from our mobile phones and other devices, as well as our desktops. How much of a challenge are mobile platforms for SigniFlow as a solutions provider, and for organisations, too, as they transform to digital workflow?
In today’s world of technology, mobility plays a major role in the success of software deployments. Consumers and corporates alike demand the ability to use their mobile smartphones to access software and perform important functions. SigniFlow understands this as well as it understands the importance of balancing security and compliance with user experience. Our R&D department works around the clock to reduce the number of steps (each step classified as friction) that a user needs to perform in order to complete a process.
The successful transformation to paper-free systems might seem to be an end in itself. What do you see as the next big milestones in the digital transformation process?
Getting rid of paper is only part of the many milestones that exist in digital transformation projects. Once a business has decided to embark on a digitisation project, the success of the project will largely depend on how committed the organisations’ people are to the project. Instilling a digital culture among employees and stakeholders is the next big task at hand.
Most failed digitisation projects are as a result of employees and executive members not buying in. It is critical that everyone in the business should see the advantages of digitisation and the vision of company.
What are the issues in terms of disaster recovery, in comparison with traditional systems? How can an organisation be sure that an outage, natural disaster or other unforeseen catastrophe won’t bring their operations to a standstill?
SigniFlow operates in highly sophisticated environments like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS), which offer the latest tech to ensure maximum uptime and data redundancy. Local redundancy (replication within a single location) has its limits in offering redundancy, so, to mitigate these risks, SigniFlow offers and recommends zone redundancy (synchronous replication across multiple zones in a region) and even geo-zone redundancy (replication across multiple regions).
SigniFlow has its roots in the South African environment but has expanded rapidly on to the international stage. What are the issues in adapting the company’s solutions to organisations that may operate in and across different regulatory and fiscal environments?
Before entering a new territory, the SigniFlow R&D department spends as much as a year investigating local legislation and regulatory requirements within a new region or country. Only once we have a clear understanding of these requirements do we proceed to launch a segregated instance of SigniFlow in the new region that is configured to comply fully with local laws. Our core system has been adapted to work with a multitude of technologies designed to satisfy local regulatory demands for digital and electronic signature methods in each region.
The “arms race” between legitimate business organisations and less-admirable elements involved in cybercrime is ongoing. Systems that involve large financial transactions and digital signatures seem bound to attract the attention of criminals. Should businesses be worried? What can SigniFlow do to allay their fears?
SigniFlow has a massive drive to ensure compliance with international regulations for anti-money laundering (AML). We have researched and developed digital processes that work independently or with the SigniFlow platform to perform state-of-the-art “know your customer” (KYC) checks at a transactional, or customer onboarding level (https://signiflow.com/kyc/). We have partnered with global leaders in digital identity and human authentication to bring world-class solutions to our customers to assist them in combating cybercrime and financial fraud.
As the executive director of a dynamically developing company, how do you look after the well-being of your employees? How do you encourage a working culture of continuous innovation and learning?
All our employees are guided and financially supported in growing long-term annuity for retirement. The sharing of knowledge from senior to junior employees and coaching among peers is instilled in the company culture. We have an open-door policy and every employee has the freedom to share new ideas with peers and senior management. We are proud to say that not a single employee left our employ during 2019, a statistic that speaks for itself.
What do you think are the most valuable lessons you have learned? What would be your advice to those who want to venture into this industry?
Writing software is easy. Turning that software into a commercial business is something that requires a bit more thought, planning and funding. Commercial customers pay a licence fee not only to have well maintained, functional software; they also rely heavily on a solid support infrastructure. Having dependencies on other software is risky and must be avoided as far as possible. Having state-of-the-art infrastructure that supports maximum uptime is a must, but it is not cheap and needs to be carefully planned and micro-managed throughout the growth cycle. People are your most valuable, yet most expensive, assets. Ensure that all your employees share in a common goal and are fully invested in the company’s vision.
Finally, you have many years’ experience in ICT. Moreover, your career to date has been closely connected with digital workflow technologies. Do you see the increasing uptake of digital transformation solutions internationally as being somehow what your career has all been leading up to? What further challenges are you, personally, looking forward to taking on?
There is no doubt that there is a massive uptake of digital transformation worldwide in both private and public sectors. The adoption of web services is largely responsible for removing incompatibility between core systems by promoting integrated, yet federated systems. Companies can now deploy multiple core systems in a single IT landscape faster and more effectively than ever before, each performing unique and specialised functions, thus eliminating the need to rely on legacy vendors in order to catch up with the latest technologies.
Apart from ensuring that SigniFlow and all its stakeholders have a bright future, I constantly strive to find more innovative approaches to automating the workplace in ways that responsibly promote machines, helping humans achieve their goals.
Thank you very much Mr van der Merwe. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Leon van der Merwe, founder and executive director of SigniFlow, has been with the company since 2012. With over two decades of experience in the ICT sector, he is a keen marketer with a passion for all things digital. His innovative spirit has been the driving force behind several new and progressive cloud solutions, such as SigniFlow and pbVerify.