Why office managers can’t stem the tide of paper

Paper is part of our cultural DNA. It is part of our day from the moment we wake till last thing at night. We begin an all-day paper trail by dodging the students distributing fliers outside the station. Then it’s a quick coffee in a paper cup and a glance at the relevant sections of some free newspaper as we commute to work.

We arrive, open the post, write down the day’s to do list and pull together the relevant documents were going to need. We then head off to the first meeting of the day, pen and notebook in hand. Out for a lunch appointment with an important client, we choose carefully from the menu and make sure we pocket the receipt for the expense claim.

An afternoon of print outs, copies and filing, and it’s back home to the family. Once home, we put our children’s latest creations on the fridge, pausing for a moment to add items to the shopping list we keep under a fridge magnet bought on some long-forgotten holiday. Kids all fed and bathed, it’s time for the bed-time story before we too can settle down with book.

And this was just one day. How much paper do we touch in a lifetime? The figure must be staggering. It is the very familiarity of paper that, despite the digital revolution, makes the idea of a paperless world seem an incredibly distant dream. Yet for many businesses, a historical dependence on paper is fast becoming an Achilles heel.

From filing cabinets full of customer files and correspondence to endless stacks of legal documentation and invoices, businesses are beginning to drown in paper. At the same time, they face an increasingly complex regulatory environment leaving many uncertain what to keep and for how long.

And the problem is growing. IDC estimates that the total paper and digital content in organisations is increasing at a rate of 67 per cent a year. If companies don’t start getting to grips with what information they have, what format (or formats) it is in and where it is, they will lose control and find themselves struggling to get the most out of the information they hold and exposed to the threat of reputational damage.

So could a shift to a paper-free office environment provide the answer to manage this growing problem? Again, it is the cultural barrier to a paper-less environment that makes this direction unrealistic. No matter the business practices you may wish to impose, people are going to print out the document, write on it, key in their changes and then throw out the annotated hard copy.

This practice, of course, exposes the organisation to risk. Many a company has built a fortress around its digital data only to see its sensitive information walk out the door on paper.

Businesses shouldn’t be choosing to work with or without paper. They should be thinking more about managing the document life cycle and less about the digital-paper divide. After creation, every document lives a life and when it is no longer useful, and storing it is not governed by regulatory requirements, it can be destroyed.

This is where businesses need help. How do they manage their information from cradle to grave? The huge demand on individuals and organisations with respect to the quantity of data they have, irrespective of whether it is stored on paper, as an image or on backup tapes, creates the need for a coherent strategy.

Few organisations have the time or the in-house expertise to manage this on their own and it is here that third-party providers of information management services can add value.

Whether we like it or not, paper records remain important in business. However, the exponential growth in digital information, set against a backdrop of increasingly stringent legal regulation and changing business needs is making the role of the information manager increasingly complex.

Many are looking for ways to take control of paper and digital information by adopting a hybrid model, wherein both paper-based and digitally stored information can be accommodated and managed effectively. The hybrid model looks to move the majority of the paper out of the office environment through digitising and off-site storage.

Document scanning systems, which transform paper documents into digital images are at the heart of the paper-efficient office. But what to scan and what to keep on paper? A digital one-size-fits-all solution just won’t work: “Make all documents available digitally,” goes the thinking, “destroy the paper and there you have it – a fully paperless office.”

This approach invariably leads to over-investment in digitising documents that are unlikely to ever be accessed and sneaky print outs as employees find a way round the system. So rather than a digitise-all approach, the focus should be on understanding how information should best be used and then investing in digitising those documents you need to access frequently.

I encourage my customers to shrink the problem; to focus their energy and resources on the most important documents. These include the ones required to keep the company operational, such as corporation documents; essential customer data and business intelligence; the documents most often requested by external parties such as lawyers, auditors and regulators; as well as those most frequently accessed by employees. The rest of the existing backlog can either be destroyed securely or stored offsite for an agreed period of time.

If that deals with the paper the business already holds, the next step is to reduce the tide of paper coming in to the company. A trusted third-party provider can act as a perimeter fence, taking charge of the majority of inbound paper before it ever reaches the office, while keeping track of all the complicated legal compliance issues. Relevant documents can be digitised and plugged into relevant processes.

Paper is in our cultural DNA and it is unlikely that any time soon we’ll see businesses with no dependence whatsoever on paper. Yet, the trend towards more flexible, mobile and technology-enabled working patterns is driving cultural change that will accelerate the adoption of a blended paper-digital informational environment. The future office is paper-efficient not paper less.

Peter Eglinton joined Iron Mountain in March 2009 as SVP UK, Ireland and Norway. Prior to this appointment Peter has had a successful career at Christian Salvesen as the Managing Director of the Transport Division. He is married with three sons and enjoys watching and playing sport and coaches a local junior football team.