Enterprises may have green initiatives to reduce paper, but going paperless isn’t one of them.
“I rarely find any big business that says they are going to be entirely paperless,” said Jim Murphy, research director at Boston-based AMR Research.
OCM Manufacturing started moving from a paper-based to electronic system for managing and maintaining data over five years ago.
The initiative began as an effort to create an electronic version of the quality system OCM uses to maintain compliance with ISO9000, explained George Henning, VP of manufacturing.
Nearly all documentation within the company is electronic, including change notices and requests, non-conformance reports, procedural instructions, drawings and bills of material.
“It’s great,” said Henning. “Whenever we have a revision, we just replace the controlled copy and notify people that a change is made. We make an archive of the old copy, so we have a history of the change, but we no longer have to round up all sorts of hard copies.”
Inbound paper documents, such as invoices and packing slips, are scanned into the system and recycled.
But despite OCM’s success at reducing paper within the organization, the Ottawa-based electronics contract manufacturer isn’t paperless.
“If you come into the office, you’ll still see paper here,” said Henning.
Employees post paper on the walls of their cubicles, paper comes in from suppliers and there are books and manuals in paper format, he pointed out. External clients may request hard copies of documents such as test records or certificates of compliance.
To become an entirely electronic office, enterprises would have to remove some of the issues external partners and customers, noted Murphy.
“The paperless office is still a myth,” said George Goodall, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc.
Boxes of files are disappearing from storage rooms and warehouses, but the piles of paper stacked on desks aren’t going away, he said.
“Despite these advances in the records room, our day-to-day life will still include a lot of paper. It has a lot of advantages: it’s persistent, we can stack and move it, and we can scribble on it with a pencil. It will be every difficult for digital tools to replace it,” said Goodall.
Some employees like to print and cross-check with a pen and keep a hard copy at their desk in case something happens to their computer, said Henning. “You just have to work at educating them that the backups are well-managed and reliable,” he said.
“It’s difficult to replace the piles of paper that exist on an individual’s desk,” said Goodall. “They’re there for a reason: support task work.”
OCM doesn’t enforce a paper policy on employees, but it’s easy to see who is printing and who has filing cabinets, according to Henning. “There’s not too many left.”
Some employees aren’t accustomed to reading documents online, Murphy pointed out, and there can be formatting problems. “Often documents aren’t readable online when they were designed for paper,” he said.
OCM added monitors to enhance readability. “Some of the workstations in the front office have dual monitor sets so if they’re cross-checking documents, they can have one open on each monitor and move back and forth,” said Henning.
The greatest advantage in moving towards a paperless system, according to Henning, is access to data and improved collaboration between people within the company.
“The benefit comes from having the data accessible and the information accessible on the network and readily available to all those who need to see it,” he said.
A financial cycle that takes a month to process, for example, can be reduced to one hour because people can approve documents right at their desk rather than wait for paper to be shipped around, he said.
“When we are interested in mining the data to make improvements to our operation, it’s much more available,” added Henning. “We can look at things like trends in quality, delivery performance, accounts payable (and) accounts receivable, and take action.”
The biggest change in paper reduction efforts over the years is the motivations behind them, according to Murphy. “The environment is one thing … but I think the other major motivation that’s come up more recently is in regards to evidence,” he said.
Recent changes to federal laws of procedure have eliminated the need for organizations to hold onto paper records in the U.S., Murphy pointed out. “Every court in the United States will accept imaged documents versus actual paper documents,” he said.
“[Enterprises] are looking at more efficient ways of making sure they keep that evidence for the appropriate amount of time. They can destroy it programmatically versus having to go and store it at a paper facility,” he said.
But lawyers themselves sometimes have a preference for paper, he noted.
There is a clear business case for moving files into digital archives, according to Goodall. “Storage space is expensive and initiatives to capture records can improve the productivity of business users. Furthermore, replacing paper records with digital images is becoming increasingly easy because the documents are created electronically and there is less of a need to scan them,” he said.
But the conversion process can be costly. “Many organizations have accumulated a mountain of paper-based records that they need to maintain for compliance and business process reasons. Converting this backlog is incredibly process-intensive and expensive,” he said.
The biggest challenge is forgetting, Goodall said. “In IT, we’re very good at ‘remembering.’ Our storage and operational policies are built so that no document gets lost, ever. We are far worse at figuring out establishing disposition policies to get rid of documents and records — paper or digital. For the paperless office to work, we need to be able to get rid of information,” he said.