This content is part of the Essential Guide: Digital transformation strategy guide: From e-fax to AI

Is the paperless office imminent?

Going paperless in the office often seems like unachievable goal. An expert outlines some steps to get there.

It is 2015, and we are still talking about the "paperless office." It's disconcerting, because it is a major raison d’être of the document and content management industry. This isn't a new problem, but we are still struggling to achieve the nirvana of more paper-free operations.

What is holding us back from achieving this goal? Are the benefits so elusive that people are not willing to make the investment? The answers lies in reality that the goal shouldn't be to remove all paper from our processes. The goal is to provide the tool so that business operations  can proceed without relying on paper.

What is the paperless office?

When we talk about the paperless office, what do we mean? We are not talking about removing all the printers, setting up a few scanners, and telling people to get to work. I've seen that approach, and it never works. The worker rebellion that ensues usually results in more printers, not fewer.

The true goal is our reliance on paper to enable the flow of business. Even with the wide adoption of tablets and lightweight laptops, many people still use paper copies to review and share. Battery power is still an issue for all kinds of devices, and reading paper is easier on people's eyes.

We need to get to the point where information that is born digital stays digital for its entire life.

Convenience is the key to eliminating paper from these processes. People use printed  documents to make the consumption of  information easier. Revisions, comments and sign-offs need to be electronic, but if someone wants a to print a paper copy to read on the subway, he should be permitted to do that.

The question is why, aside from saving a few trees and money on ink, should we strive for a paperless office?

Why do we still care?

The reason we still strive to eliminate paper is efficiency. Let's look at the contract process. When a contract is created, it is likely written in Microsoft Word, then emailed back and forth until both sides agree on the specifics. Once completed, the contract has to be signed by all parties. This often translates into printing out a copy, signing the contract, scanning it into the system, and emailing it to the other parties. In some cases, a fax machine is involved.

How much time is wasted in the print-sign-scan process? Are those printed copies shredded and disposed of properly? This process also creates three electronic versions of the contract, none of which are connected to one another. There is the original, a copy signed by one party, and the fully executed contract. This makes the proper management of the contract -- including placing it under proper control and creating a definitive version to be archived -- challenging.

This juggling of different copies and systems creates confusion and generates work that is not core to the process. This additional work is generated by every process when paper is required. We need to get to the point where information that is born digital stays digital for its entire life.

What do we need?

Many uses of paper are behavioral and can be conditioned out of people. Reducing the number of printers -- not eliminating them – so workers have to leave their desks to retrieve  printouts is a tried-and-true method. Ensuring each worker has a large enough PC screen so he doesn't have to squint is another, often-overlooked, step. Issuing laptops instead of desktops so people can take them to meetings helps reduce the printing of convenience copies. While people will still print documents, the amount of printing will decrease if it's easier to simply pull information up on the screen.

Next on the wish list is digital signature technology. The tool has to show, beyond a doubt, that the person in question "signed" the document and the document has not been altered once signed. There also needs to be visible evidence of the signature, not only for those looking at the document on-screen, but for those that print the document. It must also be available to everybody.

This is where the use of collaborative enterprise content management systems comes into play. Documents can be edited and shared collaboratively among workers, then sent through a formal approval process. If the workflow is an internal process, a person simply clicking an "approved" checkbox may suffice. If the document sharing involves different organizations, cloud services not only allow them to collaborate, but also to create digitally signed versions that each party can store in internal systems.

Getting there

To cite a cliché, getting to the paperless office is going to take a blend of people, process and technology. The proper tools need to be acquired and deployed so people can take advantage of them. Leaders need to set the example by insisting their teams work digitally. Processes need to be mapped to the tools and set up to streamline work without adding extra steps that are cumbersome rather than process-enhancing.

Can we get to the paperless office? Definitely. Will we get there soon? Hopefully. But the process needs to be taken one step at a time.

Dig Deeper on Enterprise content management (ECM) workflow