Inefficient document management means western European businesses are effectively losing billions of pounds of potential profits because of wasted time, according to a report.

Research conducted by Coleman Parkes shows that employees across Europe responsible for managing business critical document processes spend around 362 million hours of their time per year on the function. This equates to a rough overall business cost of 147 billion (£133 billion), according to the research.

The Ricoh Process Efficiency Index examines how European organisations are managing their business critical document processes - those that occur regularly and repeatedly and have a direct impact upon businesses interactions with clients and employees. This would include purchase orders, invoices, patient records and other documents.

The study also identifies areas for improvement and the economic return that those improvements could deliver.

Carsten Bruhn, executive vice president for Ricoh Europe, which commissioned the survey, said: "The Index shows how outdated, manual processes have multiple impacts on the business. For instance, if critical information is processed using traditional hard-copy methods, business risk is enhanced as the data is less likely to be backed-up."

Bruhn said hard copies are also easier to lose, making them more prone to security breaches, although the news headlines are full of reports of lost USB sticks carrying important documents.

A main emphasis of the research though is the growing market for end-to-end electronic document management, which can replace invoices and purchase orders, for instance, being physically passed from one department to another, when they can be lost or misfiled.

Respondents in the Ricoh research said their top three priorities were to increase knowledge sharing and improving security (67 percent), and driving workforce effectiveness (65 percent).

The main barriers to making these improvements were lack of time (45 percent) and lack of resources (35 percent).

One-in-12 European businesses revealed that their existing security procedures do not protect confidential documents, with 36 percent admitting that either they themselves, or their staff, have lost or misplaced important information.

Only 22 percent of respondents said their organisation used a fully automated workflow system for their business critical documents.

For the research, 460 firms across western Europe employing over 1,000 staff were interviewed by Coleman Parkes.

In other recent document management news, publisher Random House recently updated its supply chain, with a real-time data system that automates the exchange of business documents across several distribution sites.