Paper moon

Since the 1970s there has been a gradual move towards the paperless office but new technology could finally make this a workable reality

Look around your office and you will see evidence of the move to online document management systems, applications, ordering and booking systems, digital accounting and other professional services. The promise is that all we will need in future to save, store and access our data is an internet connection and a laptop, tablet or phone.

The concept of the paperless office has been around since the mid-seventies and digitaldocuments and digital document management systems are now commonplace. Paper faxes,invoices, publications and reports are in decline as we exchange documentation and informationelectronically with suppliers and customers.

The cloud

Only now, with the move to ‘cloud’, does totally paper-free working seem to be within our grasp.Paper moon Since the 1970s there has been a gradual move towards the paperless office but new technology could finally make this a workable reality Cloud computing refers to a model of networkcomputing where a program or application runs on connected servers rather than on individual machines. It reduces the need for companies to purchase and maintain expensive servers and otherequipment and can maximise the use of computing power by sharing resources. This also enables data to be managed from anywhere. The PCs, laptops, tablets and phones that many of us have at home are now much more powerful and there is an expectation that the workplace will keep pace with us. 

The benefits of paperless working are obvious:

  • reduced printing, mailing and paper storage costs
  • quicker and easier access to stored data and digital documents
  • quicker response times to customers
  • more space as filing cabinets are unnecessary good
  • increased security of data
  • easier data sharing

There is also the potential to manage business growth more easily as records and processes are now digital.

The downside

There are set up costs involved in planning and implementing paperless systems and the expectedincreased efficiency may not be realised initially, or even at all if mismanaged. Digital records must be indexed and stored correctly and this means the need for additional IT staff and consultants to provide ongoing training.

Even then records can be lost and bugs in the system can arise which either corrupt or interferewith the data flow through the system. Data entry also has to conform to set standards if lostrecords are to be avoided. Backlogs can also arise in the scanning and indexing of documents if staff resources are not made available.

The impact on data security also has to be considered. Providers of document managementsystems will, for example, quote added security of data as a benefit of such systems as permissions and access levels are all provided for. Data can also be stored off site to release office space and is generally backed-up at another data bank to ensure disaster recovery and business continuity. Insurance providers may also take the guarantees of such systems providers into account when assessing risks and this can, but not necessarily will, reduce insurance costs. Electronic data is vulnerable to hackers.

Some managers and staff may not be as enthusiastic about digital systems as others and seethe required changes in working practice as a loss of control over their records and their processes. Some records may well, after all, not be suitable for digital consumption or may even be preferred in hard copy. Legal documents, complicated drawing and plans may not conform to digital storage requirements.

According to Paula Ward, Pre-Sales and Marketing Manager at Documotive, which provides electronic document and records management solutions (EDRM) to the social housing sector, the move to digital is a move to a more efficient way of working, rather than a stark choice between paper and electronic records.

‘Managers and workers want and need to be able to capture, record, store and access data as quickly and efficiently as possible and paper no longer provides the best solution to this’ she says. ‘Yes, there are security issues and there will be teething problems as with any new systems, but  these can and do also exist in a paper environment.’

There are, however, health and environmental considerations to take into account with digitalworking. Digital communications and systems can lead to a more sedentary way of working. Dr.Philippa Dall, Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, says ‘A 2012 study carriedout by the university of Leicester on sedentary time in adults and its association with diabetes,cardiovascular disease and death showed that sitting is associated with increased health risks, including a 112% increase in the risk of diabetes, a 146% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, a 90% increase in the risk of cardiovascular mortality, and a 49% increase in the risk of all-cause mortality.’ The ripple effect of this and increased stress across the workforce is likely to pop up as a cost to NHS and occupational health services. The end result can be increased sickness levels, higher costs and more health and safety regulations.

In terms of the environment we may well reduce significantly the number of trees we cut down as ouruse of paper decreases but we need more power to run the increased data storage facilities required to house our electronic data and to power our ever increasing number of devices.

Working practices

Some organisations have embraced the new technologies with open arms. Others have resisteduntil their customers, suppliers or bankers have required a change. However, research carried outby document archiving company Iron Mountain showed that only around 1% of organisationshave managed to achieve the paperless office, and industry association AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management) found that only 24% of organisations surveyed had a firm policy in place aimed at removing paper from their processes.

For many, the goal has shifted away from the paperless office towards the need to be able to workfrom anywhere and at any time. The ability to access, interrogate and report on data wherever we are and from any device.

Flexible workplace

In his book ‘Business Re-Imagined’ Dave Koplin, Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK argues that the workplace is no longer ‘fit for purpose’ and we need to take a more flexible approach to the workplace and to what we do. We need to enable our employees to be ‘creative individuals’, not committed to ‘aimless productivity or repetitive processes but on helping their organisations achieve their aims’.

Documotive’s Paula Ward agrees that the focus is not just on providing document management anddigital solutions as such but providing flexible ways of working, security and access to data anywhere and at anytime.‘We currently provide these types of services to around 80 housing associations but with a market of near 800 there is still much to play for’ she says.

If you are finding progress is slow and the benefits difficult to assess , maybe you need to shift your aim away from the elimination of paper and towards the needless processes that it passes through. If creativity and flexibility become the main goals then a reduction in paper should follow.

Tom Kelly is a freelance writer and business consultant 

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