Ream team

We all know when the paperless office will arrive. Same day as the paperless toilet. For such a wired-up world, the amount of paper we consume, produce and store is frightening. 1999 figures show global paper and board output increased by 4.6% to 316m tons, with North America producing 108m tons in 1999, followed by Europe (94m tons) and Asia (92m tons) (Pulp And Paper International, July 2000). According to the American Forest and Paper Association, US paper shipments of all types increased by 40% from 1980 to 1993. Similar growth was seen in the UK for paper and board consumption between 1986 and 1996, increasing from 8.7m to 11.5m tonnes.

Office use accounts for some 40% of these nuked forests.

Then there’s all that junk mail. Consignia, albeit loss-making, still had a turnover of £7.2bn from its mail business for 2001, compared to £6.5bn for 2000, and is estimated to have processed some 20bn mailed items in the UK last year – many of them business generated.

“The franking machine market is still buoyant,” confirms Russell Wadd, director of the Document Systems Division at French postal services consultancy Neopost. “Most companies don’t even really know how much they spend on postal cost or how they could reduce it.”

And as for storage, while undoubtedly document management and the scanning and electronic storage of documents has made an impact, there’s still a real-world storage nightmare for many organisations. Some 25,000 conventional metal filing cabinets are still produced each week in the UK, says Nick Tuggey, marketing director with Swiss-based hard copy record storage specialist Kardex. Translate that into square floor area and the numbers soon get scary; that adds up to 13 million square feet of filing cabinets per year.

“It’s not unusual to find clients devoting 25% of their floor space to storage, and we know some with 10,000 linear metres of filing area,” he says.

And just because we’ve fired all the filing clerks doesn’t mean that their job function has gone away. Kardex surveyed 1,000 UK organisations in May and June of 2001 and found that only 28% used any form of electronic filing, 55% say files end up being filed in the wrong place, and 77% of respondents believe a paperless office is not achievable.

“For all the talk of EDI or e-mail, there are still many clients who prefer to get paper bills and invoices,” says Wadd. “Intelligent mailing, like sending selected items to be printed on laser printer, is not seen as a boardroom issue, even though it can often reduce mail costs by 15% to 20%.”

As we reject paper as a medium in favour of the virtual document, generations of office disciplines are being lost. It seems we’re still seduced by the concept of the paperless office.

Which makes no sense, according to a recently published book, The Myth Of The Paperless Office (MIT Press). One of its writers, Richard Harper, professor of socio-digital systems at the University of Surrey’s Digital World Resource Centre, says that he thinks “the paperless office is a strange notion indeed – a kind of Maoism, a rejection of what people think is old-fashioned”.

No-one should be surprised we’re cutting down more trees even as we shuffle more bits, says Harper. “In ‘knowledge rich environments’, paper’s importance has increased, while in transaction-based environments, if the technology can be designed a little better, we can do with a lot less of it.

“Work practices were developed hand-in-hand with paper. Don’t be obsessed with getting rid of any technology that works – and that includes paper.

For example, any electronic files may be good for storage, but can lose a lot of annotations that would improve their usefulness. Some companies are offering systems that can maintain such interaction, but generally it’s a poor picture.”

Where did the whole idea come from, then? It seems that the press may have something to do with it. According to Harper and co-author HP researcher Abigail Sellen’s book, a Business Week profile of the work being done at the famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre published in the mid 1970s conveyed – somewhat to the discomfort of Xerox staffers, given the company’s business was, after all, based on photocopying – the idea that this was what their stunning new inventions were all about.

That’s not what you’ll hear from Xerox now. David Jones is head of marketing for its Global Services arm in the UK. “We no longer believe in the paperless office, and in fact have funded research into paper technology that shows it will be with us for a considerable time yet. The issue is how much time information spends being in either an electronic or a paper form.” Jones uses the analogy of the Mexican pinata, where the scheme of the stuffed animal is paper and the goodies inside is the electronic form.

Thus “the role of paper has changed; it the medium a document lives in for some period of its life, but the truth lives in the server”.

Xerox says it concentrates its consulting on work practice and the way information and knowledge is shared and passed round organisations. Jones gives an example of how this electronic system can replace a more informal knowledge sharing practice. Telecom Italia is using a system based on an Xerox internal project where engineers were sharing online the sort of war stories they might have done had they more time to interact face-to-face electronically.

Would they have done so on paper, though, or at the watercooler? In a way this doesn’t matter. Andrew Graham is UK MD of Easy Software, a German company that specialises in SAP document management and archiving, and whose clients include TNT and WH Smith. He says: “Terminology isn’t something we should be getting that hung up about. All the workflow or document management guys are really talking about is getting the information customers need back to them via screen. In that sense, the paperless office is closer than it’s ever been.”

Harper and Sellen argue that the paperless office has many roots, even including some of Edison’s writings, and that it’s hard to see what clear underlying concept was ever meant to be articulated. Nonetheless, clearly what was being worked over was the idea of a seamless way of working in teams that involved less physical moving of documents. We’ve come up with a variety of definitions of how we want to do this: document management, content management, knowledge management, workflow, groupware, ERP, intranets and extranets, and now web corporate portals and maybe even peer-to-peer document sharing.

That’s not to say all these technologies are completely interchangeable.

Back in the mid ’90s, for instance, it was a given that the main users interested in document management would be those organisations with long paper and audit trails to manage, such as financial services, legal, government and auditory, and pharmaceutical firms.

This is still true today. UK-headquartered global law firm Linklaters, for example, has one of the largest content databases in the world, handling approximately 1.5m compound documents per year, currently totalling more than half a terabyte of content, managed by Documentum, for instance.

The need may even be getting acuter in this sort of sector. David Cornwell is senior vice-president for CDC Solutions, a company specialising in document management for the life sciences industry, which is more heavily paper-trail oriented than ever. A recent European customer had to submit a one million page proposal for regulation to three regulatory bodies in the US, UK and Canada. One recent US submission from a drug company to the Federal Food and Drug Administration was a 640,000 page document.

With an industry shift to fuller use of electronic media in this area, he says, with Japan promising to be fully electronic by 2003, there’s great scope for business process redesign to exploit emerging standards like the Electronic Common Technical Document standard.

Nonetheless this problem is now shared by many sorts of organisations – perhaps all of them. There are two main culprits behind the problem: ERP and e-mail.

The perhaps surprising side effect of increasing the paper burden through the introduction of ERP in corporations is worth explaining. According to Giga Group, over 600m pages of production reporting output is generated every day in corporate America, with less than 1% actually used by the end-consumer. And when a user prints out an ERP report they usually get the entire wodge of paper, even if they only really need the last page.

So serious is this issue that a whole mini-industry has sprung up dedicated to fine-tuning the output of such systems. Darren Atkinson is chief technology officer at document management specialist company FormScape Software, a privately held UK company based in Fleet which has engagements ongoing at PricewaterhouseCoopers and DaimlerChrysler. “The quality of documents and output as well as sometimes the quality of information from ERP systems can be quite poor. We help customers analyse what the final destination documents produced will be, and what they must look like to be successful.”

Charles Hayward is product manager at Quest Software UK, the local office of Irvine California information availability specialists Quest. The company claims 475 customers worldwide including Cable and Wireless and Swiss Life Europe. Haywood quotes Gartner statistics that printing a piece of paper in an organisation can cost as much as 50 cents a page. The heaviest time for such printing is at the end of the month or the end of a quarter, and this can create pressure and bottlenecks in terms of a network contention and server access. His company specialises in reducing the number of reports physically printed from applications such as Oracle and SAP: “The point is to view and manipulate the essential elements of reports, and send those elements, not print them all out.”

Heavy-duty ERP systems are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to paper generation, he says. “One telecom company we know recently bought SAP and found it had major problems when it needed to output and distribute reports because the system relies on the native printing system within either Unix or NT. This can cause some problems in terms of formats and styling, if nothing else. What the company decided it needed was an output management solution as well as an ERP solution. The lesson is to only print what you have to print, and send everything else out electronically.”

Many companies will sympathise with this problem, but not realise they may have other problem areas. Rob Glenn is managing director of process automation specialist Staffware UK, based in Maidenhead. The company, whose clients include Yorkshire Water and Easynet, has moved beyond its original workflow and document management positioning, and is now partnering worldwide with companies like CDC and EDS on so-called business process outsourcing.

“The problem with document management systems when they first came out was everyone in the world realised they could scan everything now and so they blindly scanned everything in. They didn’t stop to think why they were receiving 50,000 letters a day, only that they needed to store them.

There was no thought until recently that they shouldn’t be getting 50,000 letters a week, and if that was the right process, and the right way to handle them.”

That would be fine when we were still being sent that many humble vellum letters: what of its ubiquitous e-mail modern usurper? There is certainly a sense that the impact of the web on the shuffling and handling of the internal paper chain is only just beginning to become clear.

The worldwide market for content management systems will be worth $7.2bn by 2006, according to the latest research from UK analyst firm Butler Group. “As the amount of digital content continues to proliferate, unstructured content, such as e-mails, images, and documents account for over 80% of data in a typical business,” says the firm. As a result, “some form of content management is becoming essential for all organisations. Properly managed content should be viewed as a competitive weapon – allowing companies to create more compelling information services, to connect to suppliers and partners, and to find new marketplaces for their products and services.

Without the ability to organise this content, the information contained within it is lost, and a valuable asset is wasted.”

Those information assets are both ordinary communications and e-business content, say experts. Ellen Morton is marketing manager for Aldershot-based document management consultancy Stor-wave. She is another commentator who sees e-mail management as the main obstacle to the paperless office Nirvana.

Organisations are still treating e-mails as very trivial, she says.

“They’re often written in a very casual manner. But many document proposals are now being done by e-mail, and an enormous amount of corporate knowledge is now really held in the e-mail system. Work is created in e-mail, not as formal paper documents now. But when you had a paper archive that was often backed by a strong document management policy; now organisations are automatically deleting e-mail, which may be a bad idea,” she warns.

And if everyone’s using e-mail, we need to find ways to store and manage it, just as surely as we used to have to store paper; how did we think we could get away with not doing so? Guy Bunker, director of strategic engineering at data availability and storage specialist Veritas, points to the issue of the still evolving science of good e-mail discipline.

“People don’t know how to use it. Only 50% of the people you reply to need to see your reply, for instance. In the good old days of paper memos you had to checkmark the top then pass it on; these days you just send it to everyone without thinking. Unless people know how to use technologies properly they can actually create more work. Of course, this is fantastic for us as a storage vendor.”

It looks grim. We’ve no longer any idea what we wanted to be rid of paper for – and yet we’re not shot of it yet. Organisations are struggling to manage how much Central London office space rent to spend on all those metal filing cabinets. Then there’s the burgeoning cost of mailshots and paper generation (with printing itself hardly a trivial cost, after all, given all those new cartridges). Plus, how to handle these monstrous ERP report spawnings and the issue of information overload.

Seems like a tailor-made case for consultancy. What’s needed – a new science of filing, perhaps?

What the technology industry is offering us instead is better ways to share information in chunks, remotely, but in a structured way so that we neither kill forests sending out reports nor waste our wisdom in random e-mailing binges.

There are two aspects to this: the corporate portal and the peer-to-peer virtual blackboard. Sitting on top of existing technologies such as ERP, workflow, document management, content and knowledge management and intranets, we now find the corporate portal, a simple personalised web environment offering one view of all the data and information sources the knowledge worker needs when he comes in each morning, as exemplified by companies like Plumtree, a US company which claims to have invented the idea.

The company has rolled out portals with the aid of Accenture in both BP and Swiss Re, and has also developed portals for Airbus, the Highways Agency in the UK, and Cadbury-Schweppes. “The corporate portal means the paperless office could be delivered,” says its managing director for Europe, Charlie Abrahams. “The question organisations are asking is: how I’m going to web enable applications as well as my heavyweight SAP and Siebel implementations as well as offer access to consent applications both internal and external?”

Portals are held to be one of the few growth areas in IT in 2002. On the horizon a little further out: we’ve all heard of peer-to-peer in terms of MP3 and music file sharing. The company claiming to take this technology and apply it to a real business issue is Salt Lake City-based NextPage, claiming clients such as Baker and McKenzie, the world’s biggest law firm.

“One of the major challenges to knowledge management is centralisation of knowledge, bringing the problem of maintaining it. A better way is to apply distributed technology to a distributed problem with peer-to-peer business networking to promote acceptance of geographical dispersal, and how to share information effectively between organisations. Think of it as Napster for grown-ups: we can empower organisations and knowledge workers across enterprises so companies can work together efficiently from where they already sit,” says Bruce Law, the company’s vice president of corporate marketing.

Such technologies, along with the rise of XML as a document sharing standard, promise much. Plainly, we’re a good way along the road to an “office” where much interchange of information, text and graphics is done virtually, surely what the dream of the paperless office was all about. Yes, paper, like the Victorian poor, seems set to be always with us. But streamlining of processes and attempts to avoid its needless proliferation are as worthy business process projects as ever.

The last word goes to Richard Beattie, business development manager of Ixos Software UK: “Paper has increased in some ways as much as e-mail.

We don’t see that being a paperless office so much as a less-paper office.

In that way there’s enormous opportunity in helping organisations deal with the information explosion.”

– Gary Flood is a freelance journalist.

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