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The paperless office – long forgotten myth or possible reality?

01 Aug 2011

The notion of the ‘paperless’ office was introduced to the masses in 1975 by Business Week magazine, in an article called ‘The Office of the Future’.Timeline predictions ranged from the 1980s through the 1990s, but somewhere we got off track. Is the paperless office just a long forgotten myth or is it still a fabulous possibility and future reality?Now, paperless doesn’t mean all paper has been eliminated. There will always be times when an actual hard copy is required. But the idea of heavily reduced paper usage, it turns out, is still very popular and closer than we may realise.A paperless office requires the digitisation of paper files, both the capture of these pages and their storage for future use. How involved the repository system is depends on how much the business needs to access and share the information and how quickly.The Enterprise Content Management (ECM) market showed strong growth in 2010 across image/document capture, records management and web content management technologies, according to Gartner research.Furthermore, says Gartner, "In 2010, enterprise imaging was a market of approximately $1 billion (worldwide) in total software revenue; it is expected to grow to approximately $1.8 billion by 2015. Gartner estimates its five-year compound annual growth rate at approximately 12.1%.”Document imaging, very often the starting point for ECM for businesses, is attractive for many reasons – easily quantifiable cost savings, increased productivity and a reduction of waste.Dr Beryl Plimmer, senior lecturer in the Computer Science Department at the University of Auckland, is a researcher with particular interest in human-computer interaction. Specifically, she has an interest in pen-based input devices such as digital whiteboards, tablet PCs and PDAs."Two major purposes for pen input are support of sketching for early design and document annotation with digital ink. These both contribute to a long term dream of mine – to make the paperless office a possibility,” she says.While Dr Plimmer acknowledges that paper still maintains some advantages over current computer tools, she believes we are currently in the midst of a significant shift, influenced by the "always on” work and lifestyle to which we have grown accustomed."Some [New Zealand] companies have very strong agendas to cut down on paper consumption,” she explains. "Many are drifting to reduced paper usage as people simply choose not to keep paper copies of correspondence, documents, etc. This is a combination of their awareness of the cost of paper; better and bigger computer displays; and better document management systems – in particular search – as it is often quicker to search for the digital copy of a document than to go to the filing cabinet and find the paper one.”Ultimately, she says, it comes down to "pure economics”. Paper is expensive, from manufacture to use to storage to waste. Digital storage and computing technologies, however, continue to become more affordable all the time. As the barriers of digital infrastructure and cost are lifted in New Zealand, the adoption of ‘paperless’ will grow.Digitisation at the core"Maintaining confidentiality and security of information, especially in relation to disasters, have driven a spike in the push to scan and store our information. But we still need to focus on when and how to retrieve that information, especially as it relates to day-to-day business activities,” says Paul Prouse, general manager Solutions & Services for Fuji Xerox."Digitising information is the first phase, knowing how to access and pass this digital information inside our organisations to drive better and faster business results is a lot harder, but it will give a business better value.”Paper reduction or elimination is first and foremost reliant on digitisation. Beyond digital storage, documents can be updated, shared, tracked and changed, distributed to multiple sources, held securely, easily searched, sorted and retrieved. Digitisation allows for the automation of workflows and greatly increased productivity, and many companies are finding that outsourcing digitisation (or the capture of documents and images) is more cost efficient than in-house capture."Simply put, the more that it is digitised and accessible to people, the more it can be searched, accessed and shared throughout the digital community,” explains Richard Barrie, Acrobat business manager, APAC, for Adobe. Digital signatures, says Barrie, will be the biggest driver in taking ‘paperless’ to the next level.Virtualisation and cloud give boostPaper reduction requires a mind shift within the office, and a willingness to change standard practice. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make this shift occur unless people understand how it will benefit them and their own jobs.The reality is, with proper roll out and service, a digitised, virtualised, cloud environment can simplify virtually every job in the office, as well as contribute to the "work anywhere/anytime” mentality that has grown so prevalent. Paper need only be used when absolutely necessary, and documents can be printed remotely from a smartphone via any location, using mobile print technology."Increased smart phone usage in the business environment is creating demand for mobile printing, and without cloud services people wouldn’t have that option,” says Hamish Alexander, country manager Imaging & Printing Group for HP NZ.The goal isn’t to eliminate paper completely – HP analysis shows that 75% of business smartphone users still want the ability to print – but to reduce it to just the bare minimum necessity."By streamlining workflows, incorporating digitisation, implementing solutions such as pull printing, and accessing content as you need it rather than printing excess content, companies will not only reduce their paper usage but increase productivity, all while reducing bottom line costs – which is great for business,” says Alexander.The cloud has brought ‘paperless’ possibilities to New Zealand’s SMEs that were previously cost prohibitive and out of reach."When implementing new strategies to digitise your information, think about why you need to digitise it,” recommends Fuji Xerox’s Prouse. "Who needs to access it? How often? And if you did all these things, how could they change the way you interact with your customers for the better? This will help you to make better decisions about the management of your information, rather than the need just to digitise.”At the end of the day, digitisation, coupled with the effective combination of cloud computing and virtualisation, make a strong case for the future of the ‘paperless’ office. All contribute to the reduction of fixed costs, and an increase in collaboration and productivity, which is good news for business any way you look at it.