Many businesses nowadays are talking about “going paperless”. And why not? Laying dead trees to rest can save money on stock costs and can mean significant efficiency gains. But whilst many leaders believe this process to be about scanning existing paper to sexy digital storage, for most of the businesses I meet, the challenge is actually the reverse.
Most documents nowadays are already born in to this world electronically – after all, we all use digital tools to create them in the first place. The real question to ask, then, becomes: how do we stop printing the damned things in to the analogue world, where they take up space and get lost?
To find the answer, businesses must step back and examine what’s really going on behind their workflow. Look at it this way – a document is not an artefact; it is the process by which information is communicated between people, and all the associated consequences that this bears. When you regard paper in this way, developing a strategy for handling digital documents becomes straightforward because, suddenly, the true characteristics of print and digital are really visible.
We can see this thinking in the music business. MP3 and iTunes didn’t abolish the basic cultural unit of the pop song – they just made it easier to shift tunes between formats, and to manage access to familiar versions in another guise. In the same way, the best “going digital” strategy for business is one that begins by respecting the intrinsic value of paper – and adds the digital benefits of search, storage, cloud access, mobility and cost reduction.
Whilst it is seductive to think we will soon work in a world where everyone uses enterprise collaboration tools like BaseCamp or Asana, many of the institutions on which our businesses depend – like legal, government and administration – are not as quick to revolutionise as some of us would hope. That’s why format-shifting paper from pulp to pixels is an important step in on-ramping the entire business communication chain with a familiar version of digital, before an eventual outright transformation.
Why is familiarity important? Because old habits die hard. Some of my customers are buying iPads for workforces of up to 4,000 staff. An impressive digital commitment, this can cost literally millions of dollars – but the organisational cost of re-tooling workflows and re-training staff usually end up costing five to 10 times more.
Falling back on familiar processes, digitally reborn, has benefits. My company’s service is used by local governments that, each week, send new iterations of legislative document bundles to hundreds of elected representatives. Some of these policies can take a year to be developed in this way.
That’s a lot of paper – at this kind of scale, business can get expensive. More importantly, the communication chain can be be broken – who remembers to carry around and act on those pages all the time? But we are seeing remarkably higher levels of engagement from politicians and professionals who carry around iPads packing leaner, cloud access to the same information.
Note that the information being engaged with here is not facilitated by some newfangled social, collaborative business tool – it is familiar, old-fashioned paper, re-energised by digital devices. So, for companies grappling with a print-to-digital challenge, I would recommend the following process:
1. Set Out Your Goals
Don’t blithely go paperless because digital is the buzz du jour. Ask yourself: what are my concrete business objectives in this endeavour? Is it saving on printing costs? That is often the most straightforward rationale but not always the most significant benefit.
Do you want to achieve faster turnaround in business communication? Or do you want to get customers and employees signing documents digitally, creating an electronic paper trail in case problems arise? Each of these outcomes is perfectly valid, and perfectly achievable – but your business is unique, and not every organisation wants or needs the same goal as another.
2. Cloud Storage: Consider The Implications Carefully
Online access to corporate documents is like rocket fuel for business efficiency, helping employees stay productive whilst on the road and eliminating the confusion of sending around multiple iterations of files. Nowadays, even non-technical staff find it easy to use storage services like Dropbox.
Most businesses should embrace these gains wholeheartedly. But responsible IT leaders should set aside the cloud hype and consider whether the very nature of this storage, in fact, mitigates against their paperless ambitions. Businesses in medical, legal, government or otherwise matters of high sensitivity should assess the legal terms of storage operators, who are often based in overseas jurisdictions, to examine whether policies are compatible with their corporate culture and with their customers’ expectation of privacy.
3. Mimic Your Existing Workflow
Unfamiliarity breeds friction. For companies, the biggest cost of switching to digital is often not the cost of technology but of getting employees to change their ways. Reduce inertia by aligning your online business processes with your offline ones.
At its simplest, this could mean not introducing radical and strange new indexing ontologies but replicating your corporate server’s folder structure and deploying a familiar file-naming convention so that staff know where to find their documents. But, more fundamentally, it means ensuring that the interactions represented by engagements with these digital files accurately represent your business’ own human workflow.
4. Evolve Slowly, Iterate Quickly
Don’t rip up years of business processes for the sake of going digital in one night. Your required next system developments will naturally emerge out of a desire for continual improvements, meaning a radically improved but responsible new-look infrastructure emerges in the medium term. But decision-makers in businesses must also recognise that the market itself moves extremely fast.
One of my clients, a large bio-tech firm with around 2,500 staff, spent $300,000 just to evaluate Adobe LiveCycle, only to realise – after six months, many long flights and meetings – that it was not something they should deploy. In that timeframe and for that outlay, the business could have road-tested five to 10 lower-cost alternatives and assessed the best option. But now it is months behind. The lesson: consider your strategy carefully, but don’t overthink your deployment.