Going Paperless: What’s The Hype?




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When I was younger, I used to be fascinated by futuristic things. Be it science fiction TV series or the latest cutting edge novel with flying cars and minute gadgetry that could do nearly everything – I would lap them up like cold milk for a kitten. Now, it seems that we are on the cusp of an era where technology is catching up with fantasy. The concept of levitating cars might still be locked away in some genius mind, but technological progress in communications and computers have defined the workplace since the 1980s and continues to do so at a breakneck speed.

To me the technological Holy Grail in the office has always been going paperless. It has tantalised me since I started working because I have never experienced a totally paperless workplace. Where I used to work, papers would accumulate and eventually invade desk spaces. Before long, you would be snowed in by file boxes, reference copies and hardcopy printouts. We were constantly reminded that a cluttered workspace reflects a cluttered mind – every three months or so, most of the paper would be shredded, dumped in recycling bins or worse, disposed as trash.

Positive Points for Paperless

It is quite an eye-opener to find that the idea for a paperless office was mooted as early as 1975. I remember an intern working in Intel Penang’s HR division back in 1992; it was already scanning and digitising hardcopies into MS Word format documents via OCR or optical character recognition. The whole concept of going paperless is not new. Going paperless is certainly one that most new offices will consider.

Not only it is the trend that most modern offices are following, it is supposed to promote sustainability and cost-effectiveness among others. According to accountant Maria Christensen in the Houston Chronicle, going paperless saves space – especially if rental is an issue. It creates the minimalist look for most offices and that translates into an office that is neat, organised and efficient. Add on a predominantly white colour scheme to your décor and you will have your guests thoroughly impressed.

Paper costs are among the rising concerns of office administrators. The UK digital print and document solutions provider AltoDigital noted that in January 2012 the price of European benchmark pulp (the main raw material of paper) rose 50% since the middle of 2009 to £528.27 per tonne. The less paper is used, the more a company saves. In addition, cutting paper usage is logically the ecologically sound thing to do.

According to a report on Apr 6, 2010 in The Star, 900 million trees are felled annually for paper, making it one of the world’s largest contributors of greenhouse gases. In the bigger picture, lower the use of paper and more trees will be saved, as less forests would be exploited. To switch the focus back to the office, going paperless means less time spent digging through files and stacks to find that piece of invoice from three months or even three years ago – provided your archives are digitised that far back.

Scanned documents can be retrieved on the computer monitor in less than a minute. And it is the speed at which things get done – you can electronically send faxes via your computer or forward e-signature documents. Going paperless allows the company to focus on getting work done faster instead of messing around with paperwork.

In a report by the Environmental Protection Agency USA, the typical office employee generates up to 680g of wasted paper per day. In a 30-person office, this is equivalent to disposing about 1,060kg of paper annually. By reducing this waste, an office can save up to seven trees per year. Going paperless allows a company to adopt flexible working hours, which has shown to increase productivity and efficiency in employees.

Peter Boucher of UK daily The Guardian Professional observes “a more efficient and productive organisation; a more empowered and motivated workforce; better customer service and increased customer loyalty; increased staff retention and attractiveness to potential employees; reduced levels of sickness absence; and working hours that best suit your employees and customers.”

Barriers Against Full Implementation

For all the wonderful promises that a paperless environment can deliver, there are some companies that are hesitant to make the transition. Among the many things that hold companies back is the enormous IT upheaval in order to make this model work. For established companies, it involves retraining staff in the new ways of doing things – ways that are ingrained as a corporate culture. Some will be resistant to change.

Furthermore, this new system requires constant upgrading to keep it efficiently at the cutting-edge. That translates as extra expenses because the company has to spend on new hardware and software, in addition to training. That burden is also compounded by the downtime in productivity during the transition period. These pecuniary factors make it rather costly for companies, especially startups, to take the initial setup.

Another serious issue concerns the security of documents and confidential files. While documents become more portable and mobile, the probability of it being hacked and copied out is high. In addition, the system is vulnerable to extraneous attacks and virus infections. Constant updating of the system becomes a necessity and again therein lay more expenses. And unlike physical filing of documents, human errors are more evident.

Improperly scanned documents result in incomplete records, while files incorrectly named or wrongly stored electronically are often difficult to retrieve. But intrinsic to all the problems above is the basic human need to still use paper. It has been around since the ancient Egyptians first scrawled cursive hieroglyphs upon papyrus sheets and gained impetus after man invented the printing press – it will not go down without a fight.

Reality Check

The fact is, with the annual rising cost of paper, combined with the idea of a mobile workforce, the whole concept of the paperless office is another way of cutting costs and increasing productivity, whilst being ecologically correct. But does it do so in reality? Most companies attempt to lessen their carbon footprint by adopting the paperless concept and do so in order to be competitively sustainable. In doing so, some begin to show discrepancy between the ideals of a paperless environment and what is practised.

In most cases, paper is still required in certain sectors of business – government-related matters, legal contracts and even some companies’ proposals and memoranda are still circulated in a physical format everyday. These documents require signatures, which some hope will be superceded by emerging e-signature formats. Property Casualty 360° magazine’s David Lamartina found that e-signatures are more reliable than hardcopy signatures. With today’s rigorous online system, tracking down IP addresses and email accounts are easy.

Furthermore, most servers save chunks of data on user histories, authentications and more. While it was easy to slip through holes in the “net” in the early years, today the mesh is tigher with more security. So what we have now are companies making a compromise by using less paper if they cannot go paperless. Michigan car accidents lawyer Michael Morse has been championing the paperless movement for his law firm.

He has even published a 16-page guide to law firms on how to go paperless. His blog www.michaelmorsesblog.com concentrates on using technology within the legal environment. Now running at 80% paperless, his company “still cannot or do not throw away about 20% of the paper; things like motions, case evaluations, facilitation summaries, and authorisations where original signatures are required.”

Nevertheless he hopes to achieve 100% like his Colorado counterpart David Masters, the ex-president of the Colorado Bar Association and an American Bar Association book author. For many companies in Malaysia the jury may still be out on the totally paperless stand but there are notable local companies that have done exactly that.

Most banks such as RHB and CIMB, and insurance agencies have adopted the paperless plan or have adapted it within their culture partially. The Esteé Lauder Companies Malaysia has also taken the lead and so have some hospitals, notably the Selayang Hospital, touted as the first paperless and firmless hospital.

It may take a while to achieve a complete paperless work environment, as Tony Bradley of PCWorld pointed out in a recent article, but when using paper becomes critically unsustainable and costly, companies will be hard-pressed to switch to a full paperless platform.

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