The paperless office is no longer being held back by technical challenges. Everything you need to “go paperless” exists. The current barriers are cultural and process issues more than anything technical. In this article, we are going to look at ten of the common myths about going paperless.
1. Technology isn’t ready for a paperless office
The components of a paperless office are readily available and fairly inexpensive. The technology is readily available not only to scan in your existing paper, but to eliminate the creation of new paper through better workflow tools. While the technology for going paperless is readily available, the rate of adoption for these tools and this system is quite low.
In particular, tools like digital signatures and encryption could revolutionize the way we do business and these tools are accessible today. However, they are only useful if a large number of people use them. Think of the usefulness of a fax machine before they were commonly used. A fax machine is only useful if a number of people you want to communicate with also have fax machines. Digital signatures and encryption work in a similar way. You need both sides of the communication to be adept with using the tools.
2. Going paperless is “All or Nothing”
The ideal situation would be for the entire world to go paperless and start using electronic data interchange for doing business. That isn’t going to happen any time soon. You don’t have to convert everything over to be paper free to get some benefits from using less paper. Identify the places where you will get the best return on your investment and start there. Here are some examples:
- A maintenance department that handles written work order may get great return on their investment by moving the work order process from paper to a system that uses the web and email to assign and track work orders.
- A community college could replace their paper enrollment forms with a PDF. When future students fill it out and submit it, the information is transmitted directly to the school’s database. This saves the paper and the expense of having someone type in everything again.
- You can save on paper storage area in your home office by switching to electronic statements from your bank and storing those in some type of digital filing system.
- If you need to frequently exchange signed documents with a small group of people, consider going to a digital signature solution. (Using PKI or something like Echosign.) It may take just a bit to get everyone on board, but it can save you a tremendous amount of time and make your business function more efficiently.
If you are thinking about trying to go paperless, you will probably be waiting on the rest of the world instead of the other way around. Pick the parts that give you the biggest advantage and don’t worry about the parts where you still need paper to interface with other outside entities.
3. Paperless is less secure
When you send something through the mail, it gets handed from person to person until it finally sits outside of your house in a box by the road for a few hours; then you come get it and take it inside. How secure is that? On the other hand, a paperless workflow that uses proper encryption and digital signatures is very secure and is recognized by the government just like a physical signature.
The real thing holding us back is the fact that many businesses don’t understand or support a lot of the technology needed to make paperless workflow a possibility. Even those that do face the problem of customers who don’t have the necessary knowledge or setup to sign and encrypt documents.
Paperless is more secure than paper, even when you use inexpensive, commonly available technology; however, most people haven’t taken the time to understand how these technologies work. (If you want to change that, take a look at our article on digital signatures and encryption.)
4. Scanners are the most important part of going paperless
Scanners are usually the most important part if you just want to have paperless storage. If you really want to go paperless, scanners are just a stop-gap measure that you use to interface with other entities that are still using paper. The most important part of going paperless is probably going to be your digital signature and encryption tools.
Scanners show you where the problems are with your paperless system. If you have to put something in the scanner, it probably should have been given to you electronically in the first place.
5. Reading on a monitor is too hard
Reading on a lot of monitors is about like trying to read a novel printed on business cards. Either the text is so big that you can only see a few words at a time, or the text is so small that it strains your eyes. A good monitor makes it easy to read documents. There still may be cases where you need to print something off, but at the very least, a good monitor can make it easy to scan a 100-page document and locate the 3 or 4 pages you need to print.
Even if you can’t switch to a better monitor, you can often improve your ability to read documents by turning the monitor on its side so it matches the orientation of the paper you are using. Take a look at this monitor orientation illustration for an example.
6. Going paperless is good for the environment
Going paperless only helps the environment if you produce less paper. If you simply scan and discard all of your incoming paper, you really haven’t changed anything environmentally. To help save on paper, you have to use processes that reduce the amount of paper consumed—not just how much you store. Here are several ways that you can reduce the amount of paper that you use:
- Electronic forms. If your business uses forms, look for ways to let people fill them out electronically. This can be done through a website or by creating PDFs that have form fields built into them. Not only do these types of solutions save paper, they also help make your workflow more efficient because data doesn’t have to be re-keyed into the computer.
- Cancel magazines and junk mail. Get off the mailing lists you never intend to purchase from. If you are just going to throw it in the trash, it is worth calling in to cancel it. Not only does it reduce the amount of paper being produced, but it means less clutter for you to deal with.
- Use electronic signatures. Much of the paperwork we consume and generate has to be on paper for people to sign. By getting an electronic signature for yourself and encouraging the people you do business with to accept and use electronic signatures, you can cut out this source of paper.
- Good monitors. One of the best ways to keep people from printing out paper is to give them a good monitor so that they can read documents on their screen.
- Central printers. Instead of giving every computer a printer, get one or two heavy duty machines and put them in a central place. This saves on the cost per page printed because you are printing on machines that are made for higher volume. It also helps keep people from printing off things they don’t really need. It is amazing how amounts of pages printed are reduced if people will have to walk 30 feet to pick it up.
7. Going paperless is too expensive
The cost of the equipment to make a small office paperless has come down drastically. Good flat bed scanners can be had for less than $75. High quality sheet fed scanners that scan both sides at once cost in the $300-to $400 range. Many people have access to a high speed copier/scanner at work.
Often the most expensive part of a paperless setup is a good quality monitor, but many people already have a good monitor or are looking to upgrade for non-paperless reasons. Most people can create a very good paperless home office environment for less than $1000. In many cases, the cost is significantly lower. Most people already have a good percentage of the components they need and it is just a matter of using them.
8. Paper is safer than digital
If you have a poor back-up strategy, this might be true. Hard drives all eventually fail. If you have all of your data on one hard drive that goes bad and don’t store it anywhere else, then paper is definitely safer. However, if your hard drive is properly backed up with off-site storage, it becomes much safer than paper. Simple back-up solutions like Apple’s Time Machine and cloud storage backup like Jungle Disk and DropBox make it easy to get enterprise-level backup redundancy at a very low cost.
Physical paper can burn and be stolen. Digital information backed up in multiple locations is protected from pretty much any scenario that can cause the loss of paper data. The biggest threat to properly backed up data is that it might be stored in a file format that goes out of use. By sticking to standardized formats, you can most likely avoid this problem.
9. Digital formats are all equivalent
What you can do with a digital document is very dependent upon the format that it is stored in. A TIFF image of a page of text is pretty useless. Pretty much all it allows you to do is print it out and view it on the screen. On the other hand, a properly created (or converted) PDF document will allow you to search for text, copy and paste, reorder pages, integrate in a workflow, go through an approval process, mark up without damaging the original document, etc.
Make sure that you understand the benefits and drawbacks of each format—particularly if you are trying to use something other than a PDF. Also make sure that you understand how to use the format that you choose. Many of the capabilities are only available when documents are created in a particular manner. For example, a text document created incorrectly as a PDF is simply an image, so it functions just like a TIFF without any of the text-based search or manipulations features.
10. Going paperless will save time
Simply scanning in documents will not save you any time. The point of going paperless isn’t just to create digital copies of everything. The goal is to create a workflow that is more efficient than what you’d get with a paper-based system. Just throwing a bunch of scanned documents into a computer folder is going to waste a lot of time. In fact, it will probably cost you much more time than dealing with a marginally functional paper-based filing system.
Here are some of the things to consider if you want to actually save time with a paperless setup:
- Optical Character Recognition – One of the biggest time savers is your ability to search through documents. However, you can only do this on documents that have been converted using OCR or that were created with the text embedded in the first place.
- Organization – Rarely do you want just a big pile of documents on the computer. You need to have some system of organization. There are a number of ways to do this, but you have to design a system based on how you will look for the document in the future. Ask yourself “how will I find this?” instead of “where should I put it?”.
- Workflow – Think about the types of things you normally need to do with documents. Most people need the ability to:
- Fax – Send the document to someone else using a fax machine. I use Ring Central for this functionality.
- Annotate – Mark up the document with notes. You may also want a system to share and obtain comments and annotations from/with others.
- Sign – Add your signature to a document.
- Email – Send the document to someone via email.
- Sorting – You will want a simple way to sort incoming documents. Check out our video of DevonThink’s semi-automatic classification feature.