Paperless Office is Still a Far Cry from Reality

Six characteristics to look for in a solution to move your organization to the “paperless office” goal.

The promise of an entirely paperless office, in which computer technology replaces paper forever, has been a popular topic of debate for more than three decades. Businesses large and small have looked forward to reducing the amount of paper consumed for obvious reasons—to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

In a March 2002 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell reviewed “The Myth of the Paperless Office” by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper. The book examined the reasons why the vision of the paperless office had failed to materialize. It’s not surprising that the authors conclude the paperless office is not a realistic goal; rather businesses should endeavor to find a middle ground. Gladwell even noted that paper consumption at the time was on the rise.

Fast forward to 2006 and the paperless office is far from reality. E-forms technology has matured, but it still hasn’t fully taken off due to the slow adoption rates of e-signature technology in part because humans, by nature, are averse to change.

Forms critical to records management aren’t going away just yet, especially in paper-intensive industries, including insurance, banking, health care, and state and local government. By design, organizations in these industries face several challenges in translating their business to the digital world.

One significant challenge is that today’s workforce is increasingly mobile. This holds especially true for insurance companies (where employees often work from home offices) and in state and local law enforcement agencies (where employees spend most of their time in the field). Employees in these industries have something in common: they record data on paper forms and submit these reports to a central or regional office. The forms are reviewed and sent to a corporate office for approval.

In these business environments, the issue isn’t that the document is in paper format. Instead, it’s a workflow issue. This is exactly the point that Sellen and Harper make: there needs to be a happy medium between paper and technology. Some forms will continue to remain in the paper realm.

Consider how many paper forms have been developed. Consider a motor vehicles department with forms available on its Web site in Adobe PDF format that can be printed and filled in at home. These forms, while one step closer to digital format, are still filled out manually.

Another significant challenge facing organizations is security. In today’s business environment, organizations need to be more sensitive about how transmitted data complies with industry regulations and privacy laws. There is also a need for accountability. Organizations still largely paper-forms heavy need to accurately capture and transmit these forms into a central repository for processing.

For example, many government entities still use digital senders, which are essentially modified printers and scanners that allow for IP-based faxing. This allows a user to scan a paper document and send it to a computer IP address. In this case, there is no accountability as a cover sheet is the only way to determine the source of the document. There is the potential for the document to go to a false server where someone could modify the data.

To address this business challenge and meet the requirements of effective and secure information capture and transfer, significant improvements have been made to scanning technology solutions. Organizations can integrate content capture technologies into enterprise-wide applications, moving beyond traditional database applications to further streamline business process management.

Finding a Solution

While a scanner may seem like a rather simple technology, consider these characteristics when choosing a solution:

  • Data Security: Since your scanner will be directly integrated with software applications in your organization, carefully evaluate a scanning solution from a security perspective. Look for advanced security capabilities (such as encryption) to ensure the integrity of your data. Public folders, thumb drives, and USB drives all pose security risks. All communication between the scanner and the host application can all be done today through secured Web services. Also, the installation of scanning software and drivers creates other security problems since administrator rights are needed to install them on Windows-based PCs.

  • Simplicity: Many scanning solutions are difficult to set up and present a configuration management nightmare. However, new technologies can help bridge the gap between paper and the digital divide. They can be easily installed by non-technical personnel; IT managers can configure settings and manage updates centrally. Users can use pure, browser-based clients to scan without the need for ActiveX controls or Java applets.

  • Platform Neutrality: You solution should support multiple operating platforms. This way, administrators won’t have to work around other vendors’ operating system upgrades.

  • Standards Based: Today’s enterprise architectures are moving toward a service-oriented architecture (SOA) model. To take advantage of your scanning solution, an administrator needs to be able to easily integrate it into an organization’s existing SOA-based applications. When evaluating a solution, be sure it offers a software developer kit that includes relevant Web service APIs to eliminate development challenges.

  • Ease of Use: Make sure the scanning solution is easy to use for employees at all levels. If not, you will face challenges with adoption rates, which in turn will negatively impact ROI.

  • Ease of Deployment: The solution must be easy to deploy and set up in a remote office—as easy as plugging in a scanner.

Final Thoughts

If the past can foretell anything about the future, it’s a safe bet that organizations will not be paperless anytime soon. As technology evolves, we’ll see new opportunities to increase efficiencies in records management, which in turn will help streamline business processes. Let’s check back in ten years to see if we’ve made progress or if the paperless office remains a myth.