Paperless Office? Get Real

Reducing paper can help you save money and improve collaboration. But the path to paperless isn’t always smooth.

For years, document management and other technology companies have proclaimed the coming of the paperless office. In the paperless office, small and big businesses alike achieve greater efficiencies, cost savings and other benefits by relying on digital processes to collaborate, communicate, maintain records and invoices.

And yet, the concept has always had its skeptics. Some people argue that low-cost printers and other technologies have actually caused us to print more paper, not less. At a minimum, “It seems that the new technologies shift the point at which paper is used rather than replacing its use altogether,” wrote Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen in their book The Myth of the Paperless Office.

The reality likely lies somewhere in-between. “Many small businesses are still dependent on paper to make their business case to prospects and customers,” said Merilyn Dunn, an analyst with research firm InfoTrends. But as prices decline for document management systems and other technologies, a growing number of small businesses—often those with 20 or more employees—are striving to become at least partially paperless, she said.

In addition, many large corporations increasingly require their suppliers and vendors to have paperless workflows, said Carl Frappaolo, vice president of market intelligence for AIIM International, a content management association. As a result, small companies that don’t meet those requirements are likely to get shut out of doing business with those large corporations.

And some small businesses may need paperless document systems to comply with government regulations mandating data security and confidentiality, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The Benefits of Going Paperless
Going completely or partially paperless can benefit small businesses in many ways:

Reduced costs. “Paper and all the attendant costs associated with it, such as toner and ink, have become a big expense for companies,” said Dunn. Reducing paper can save a small business hundreds per year. Also, a paperless environment means you have less need for physical space to store paper records. In turn, that can help you reduce your total office space footage, delivering significant cost savings., an e-commerce invitations design company with eight employees, saves approximately $100,000 each year by being paperless, said Alina Uzilov, the company's president. The business saves money on paper, printing, mailing, physical storage for paper files and other expenses. has eliminated paper from nearly all of its processes, such as design comps, contracts, invoicing and purchase orders.

Enhanced collaboration. Through such technologies as e-mail, shared workspaces in networked applications and other tools, small businesses can more effectively and efficiently collaborate with partners, suppliers, contractors and employees, noted Dunn. “Multiple individuals can look at and comment on the same document at the same time, wherever they may be,” she added. Electronic collaboration can help small businesses speed decision making, and it eliminates the time-consuming back-and-forth and potential for errors common to paper-based workflows.

Improved efficiencies and customer service. Electronic documents can be accessed more quickly than paper files, Uzilov said, which helps improve efficiency. Also, because her employees can access electronic files from their homes, they’re able to respond more quickly to customer inquiries, she added. In a paper-based environment, employees would have to physically be in the office to access those records. Given the time zone differences between the company and some of its customers, anytime access to customer records is especially important.

The Potential Drawbacks
The path to paperless isn’t necessarily without bumps. Here are a few tips to help smooth the way.

Not everyone will be a believer. To be successful, you must first ensure that everyone in your company is on board with the plan to go paperless, advised Uzilov. If there is significant reluctance or skepticism among employees, address it right away. Explain the benefits of going paperless to them—not just the benefits to the company.

You’ll need a solid plan. Going paperless usually requires a small business to rethink how it organizes and accesses its records, said Uzilov. To make the smoothest transition possible, determine what your priorities and goals are up front. Decide how your records will be organized and which employees will have access to which records. (You probably don’t want — and shouldn’t allow — all employees to have access to all company records.)

Carefully choose the technologies in which to invest. Map specific technologies to your priorities and goals, Uzilov advised, to ensure that you buy the best technologies for your current and future needs.

Be prepared. If your data network goes down, you may not have access to your files. And if your files aren’t backed up properly and frequently, you could lose irreplaceable company data, Uzilov warned.

Paperless Technology Options
In the goal to become paperless, a small company can purchase anything from a scanner priced less than $100 to an advanced document management system that costs thousands. uses include a private data network (installed by Cisco) to provide secure access to its customer data. The company runs its telephone, instant messaging, e-mail and other communications over this private network; Other technologies include Web-based video conferencing and document collaboration tools, to conduct virtual meetings with overseas suppliers; password-protected online workspaces, which allow customers to review and make suggested changes to design comps; and redundant, automated data backup and network security, to ensure documents are accessible whenever they’re needed.

Small businesses on a tight budget can start by taking baby steps toward the paperless office, see how it goes, and ramp up later if desired. For example: The $200 NeatReceipts Scanalizer is an affordable way to start digitizing paper receipts, business cards and documents. The scanner comes with software for organizing those digitized documents, too.

Is It Worth It?
Is going paperless worth it? Consider this anecdote:

Not long ago, received an urgent call from a potential client, Uzilov said. The client had hired another company to create invitations for a big event, which was to be held in one week. But that company had botched the job so badly, the client was frantically looking for a last-minute replacement.

“We rarely accept a project with a one-week turnaround,” said Uzilov. But she decided to take on the job (the client was a prominent celebrity). “We made it happen, to the client’s satisfaction, largely because we could access and share electronic documents so easily.”

p> This article was first published on Small Business Computing.

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