The lead taken by UK government to become fully paperless by 2020, shows there is a concerted effort to change the way we all work. Despite this lead, many companies undoubtedly face an uphill struggle to attain this goal. It’s likely many issues will have to be dealt with on the road to a greener workplace; finding technology with the tools that help make the transition easy, training staff to use new technology, adopting new methods of working, etc. Going paperless will reduce the cost of paper, and other goods and services associated with the use of paper, and it will also deliver many other benefits to deliver improvements of efficiency and productivity to businesses.

Over time, it’s probable that some of the types of paper documents and files that are common place today will disappear completely and be superseded by new technology solutions yet to be developed. The means to transform from paper to digital is available now and new solutions are being developed too, and as with any transformation, problems will be encountered, new issues will be created and processes will need to be changed. The move to a paperless office and the journey along the road to a greener ‘eco-friendly’ business world was started some time ago, but now that road has become a highway and we’ll all be getting there faster!

Once a decision has been made to remove paper documents from a business, the transformation can begin. This will entail deciding how best to file and index this information, choosing what documents need to be filed, determining how these documents need to be stored, and for how long and where, creating workflows for document review and approval, etc.

Take a look at the backlog of historical files in paper form, stored in a filing system that bears very little similarity to the way in which the electronic files are stored. Not all of this paper has to be stored for ever of course. There will be some documents that may form part of a company’s “knowledge base” and there may be some that have to be retained to satisfy regulation. There will also be many that can be recycled.

Today, most document creation is computer based. The filing, storing, access and delivery of this electronic information is not always as simple a task as it may seem. Existing electronic filing structures will probably exist already. These have evolved over time, containing much duplicated data. They are used randomly, they are uncontrolled and grow continuously. Consider this an opportunity to create a new electronic filing system specifically suited to the business. A filing system that will be familiar to all who will be storing and accessing these documents, but one that can be controlled and extended to improve efficiency and productivity.

Electronic document management and customer relationship management systems provide an easy solution for many organisations who want to reduce their reliance on paper. Many companies adopt and embrace these established technology systems to help them store and file electronic documents and maintain a company’s information.

Selecting a suitable system should be based on the requirements of your business. The following list is designed to provide some guidance and points to consider when thinking about implementing a paperless office.

  • You have a paper filing system and it will be converted, but do you need to convert it all? What files do you convert? Some documents will include intellectual property. Should these documents be stored as a part of your organisation’s knowledge base? What about logos, patents, health and safety information, quality management documents, design drawings, formulations, customer correspondence, photographs etc. How about documents that need to be stored to comply with business regulations? Select a solution that provides the flexibility to create a filing and indexing structure that is suited to your business and familiar to those who will use it.
  • Is there a retention policy for documents that are filed already and can this be adopted easily in the electronic filing solution? Many systems will provide features so you can set how long information is held before it is archived or deleted forever.
  • Do you have the necessary utilities and devices to help you scan the paper files and convert these to a suitable, searchable electronic file format? Do you have a scanner or other network device that can convert these documents already? What volume of paper documents do you need to convert now and also in the future? Consider if the old paper documents can be converted into a batch and stored for historical purposes? Once these documents are scanned, can they always be previewed or the content searched for?
  • If you are filing electronic documents on a computer file system already, switching to a system to help manage documents and information offers a chance to evaluate if the filing methods and structures are appropriate and if they can be updated. It is an opportunity to make it easier to describe and find these valuable documents and important information. Being able to describe a document, show what it relates to, it’s status and what it contains can be made easier with tools that add further information. Adding this metadata helps categorisation, aids identification and generally makes it easier to find what you need.
  • Can you ensure the information is secure? How will access to this information be provided? As with every business, it may not be appropriate for everyone to see every document or access every piece of information. There will be documents that are private to individuals (HR) or confidential to the business (product development). Make sure your system can offer the level of granular access that your business may need.
  • Making documents and information easy to find is the result. But first documents and information have to be filed and indexed, and continually thereafter. Look for systems that make the process of filing and storing documents and information easy. To be able to scan and then file, index directly from the filing system, file and index directly from an application, such as Outlook or Word, are all essential features. Being able to file documents and information effortlessly adds efficiency and improves productivity.
  • Electronic document management systems offer many ways to make it easy to find indexed documents and information. Providing a visual representation of a file structure brings clarity, being able to see or preview the file helps identify content and being able to search the content or text of a document narrows down the search. The ability to find what is needed is key, and there are many different methods available, so make sure all your preferences are covered.
  • Managing emails and being able to store and file them can present a huge challenge for any business. Should all emails be kept or should they be selected? Are attachments kept or not? Make sure there are tools that manage how emails and attachments are managed and stored.
  • Email may be the most common form of business communication these days, but be aware that times are changing. The way in which sensitive, personal and private data is handled is the responsibility of everyone, and regulation demands it. The suitability of general email as a method to deliver important documents and information is now questionable and suitable alternative secure delivery methods must be found!
  • Another common file format used in business is PDF. It is important there are sufficient tools that enable documents to be converted, reviewed, combined and merged.
  • Many traditional paper-based business processes will disappear when the switch to a paperless office is made. But remember, even the simplest processes are important: the receptionist receives the post, recycles what is not wanted and delivers the remainder to colleagues, and in some instances, these may require approval or a signature. Make sure any solution adopted includes the capability to replicate these business processes or workflows and provide the tools to manage these common tasks.
  • Accessibility and portability of data is paramount. The documents, and all the other electronic data, is generally an organisation’s lifeblood – they are business assets and a responsibility. Share it all securely to those who can have access, and protect it all as if it were a child. As it grows, make sure the infrastructure that surrounds it can grow or can be changed or modified to fit the continually changing needs of your business.