Enterprises around the world are increasingly concerned with the cost of printing massive volumes of paper every year at the cost of countless forests and a host of irreplaceable natural resources. Piers Ford asks why we can't shake our addiction to printing.
Whatever happened to the paperless office? Like a mirage forever on the horizon, it has been promised as the natural consequence of an increasingly computerised world for more than four decades.
Yet according to imaging analyst Lyra Research, we printed 15 trillion pages around the world in 2007. And that will rise to 53 trillion by 2010.
Often there is some comfort in printing emails and keeping files of documents stored at arm's length or in cupboards. In reality however, the documentation piles up, becomes unstructured and loses value.
Despite the advent of technology designed to manage and encourage the digitisation of enterprise content, it seems we just can't let go of paper.
"The prospect of the paperless office was received wisdom back in the 1960s, and continued to influence development including Xerox systems in the 1970s," comments Dan Smith, office marketing manager at Xerox's developing markets operation.
"But much of it ignored the cultural attachment that people have to paper. We are simply comfortable with the medium. And there are biological reasons as well: refresh rates on screen don't allow you to take in so much, for example. The storage and manipulation of information frequently requires people to print it on paper, and there are many regulatory reasons why it has to be stored both in paper and electronically," he adds.
Smith says paper still has a lot going for it, both as a medium for storage and for collaboration, and businesses must develop strategies that allow for its co-existence alongside digital media rather than necessarily pursuing the impossible dream of a paperless world.
"Coopers & Lybrand estimates that 90% of the world's corporate memory is stored in paper form. And a typical enterprise spends a significant amount on managing those documents - at Xerox we spend 3-5% of our revenue on it! And that is why the paperless office has not come to pass," he says.
In many ways, the idealised view of a world in which information could somehow be pinned down and structured in an orderly way by document management systems, with huge legacy paper archives digitised and stored in secure, easily accessible electronic repositories, has now given way to a more realistic - and infinitely more complex - vision in which best practice has a vital role to play.
"In today's working world, no-one is spared from the constant flow of communication, whether it be electronic or printed," says Michael Green, regional manager for the Middle East at document management vendor Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software.
He continues: "We are bombarded by messages and often, there is some comfort in printing emails and keeping great big files of documents stored at arm's length or in cupboards. In reality however, the documentation continues to pile up and as this happens, increasingly becomes unstructured, difficult to handle and subsequently, loses its overall value.
"This is where enterprise document management and archiving solutions play a vital role in any organisation, large or small. As well as the obvious risk mitigation from fire, theft or loss, there are a number of operational and customer services benefits to implementing an effective document management strategy," adds Green.These benefits include quick access and change-tracking, leading to the more streamlined resolution of problems and enquiries, customer access to digital statements and contracts which reduces the in-bound call burden on contact centres, and perhaps most important of all, the evolution of an enterprise culture based on constant analysis of information that otherwise stays buried in physical archives.
Green says that improved tracking and auditing is not only a necessary part of compliance, but can unleash the analytical power of the organisation: "If data is fully integrated and accessible at every level of the organisation regardless of physical location, marketers can compose improved campaign reports and decision-makers are finally able to form a fully integrated view of all aspects of the business, wherever in the world they may be situated."
"Our own technology, used by the likes of Telecom Egypt, means that businesses can organise their mass documents such as bills, and store them in any format, while our online platform allows global access controlled by an administrator and is fully searchable, providing instant retrieval without having to trawl through files and folders," he adds.
Enterprises spend a significant amount on managing documents – that is why the paperless office has not come to pass.
Then there are the fiscal benefits. Time taken to retrieve paper documents is an ignored cost in many enterprises but could run to tens of thousands of dollars for even a modest sized department.
Electronic document management will remove that particular overhead at a stroke.
The efficiency of many traditional paper-based processes like invoicing can also be significantly improved by deploying automation that uses a combination of document management and workflow.
James Adie, EMEA channel director at another document management vendor Infonic, says that as well as liberating staff to focus on more profitable or strategically important tasks, automation can also free up expensive space.
"The average cost of office space in Dubai currently is approximately 1,000 AED per square foot," he says.
"A paper-based company of average size may use 200 square feet of office space to hold their documents. The financial burden is obvious and staggering at $54450. This expensive space can be used for future company growth or for more essential activity."
A paper-based firm of average size may use 200 square feet of office space to hold their documents. The burden is staggering.
Adie suggests that a secure and audited document management system - especially one that manages email - is a vital tool in compliance with the global wave of legislation such as Sarbanes Oxley and Basle II, which is presenting enterprises with a series of major challenges as they are required to provide accurate data on their financial records and corporate communications.
Adie agrees that the comfort factor of paper as a physical medium has been one of the main reasons why many businesses have been reluctant to reduce their consumption.
The perceived cost of document management solutions, the existence of a legacy paper mountain, scarce IT skills and fear of upheaval across the enterprise have also helped to hold things back.
But Xerox's Smith says enterprises in the Middle East are now doing a good job in their increasing readiness to adopt new methods of collaboration and archiving alongside paper.
"The trends are definitely there and they are starting to take advantage of what's on the market," he says.
"Xerox is collaborating with the Abu Dhabi government on its Centre for Document Research, and we've worked with Dubai eGovernment, looking at ways of using less paper and introducing more digital media. In Egypt, we're working with Vodafone on the use of transactional documents and we're working on other projects with organisations including the National Bank of Abu Dhabi," he concludes.
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