What Does Having a Paperless Office Really Mean?

  • Written By: N’Gai Cobb
  • Published: November 14 2007

What Does Having a Paperless Office Really Mean?
N'Gai Cobb

Like anything else, making the change from a paper-oriented office environment to a paperless office has both advantages and disadvantages (please see the first part of this series So, You're Considering a Paperless Office?). However, if armed with a thorough understanding of its operations and a solid implementation plan, an organization can make the switch to a paperless office less painful.

I once read an article on the Internet that said to have a paperless office is about as realistic as having paperless toilet paper. Obviously, this person doesn't understand the power of water. Having a paperless office is possible provided an organization's expectations are realistic. But before we jump into that, let me clear up one common misconception about the term “paperless office.” Having a paperless office does not mean a company will never have or use paper. Rather, it means a leveraging of technology to reduce a company's dependency on paper; it does not to eliminate the use of paper altogether.

A wise person once said, “It is possible to change without improving—it is impossible to improve without change.” Most (if not all) organizations constantly strive to better serve both their internal clients (that is, its employees) and external clients. Without a doubt, going paperless requires change, and for some organizations, making this change is a daunting, if not impossible, task. As with any change, organizations should prepare themselves by reviewing the various possible outcomes (both positive and negative) that could result from going paperless.

In other words, organizations should ask the question: will this change have a profound effect on the way we do business?

Knowing Your Operations

An organization's first step when implementing a paperless office is to know its operations—not just its physical processes (although this is very important too, and must be taken into account), but its clients' and staff's attitudes toward this type of change as well. Are clients prepared for a paperless system? Will it change the way the organization interacts with them? Will office personnel now receive those 100-page reports electronically instead of as hard copies? Do they have the technological means to support this change, and are they willing to accept this new way of working?

Here's an example to illustrate my point. My wife has led change management programs for several large organizations, including a Fortune 500 company. Her work involved guiding companies through the process of changing the way they do business and interact with new technology. In the majority of cases, she would inevitably find herself “cleaning up” (correcting) management's errors caused by having made changes without analyzing the effects those changes would have on internal and external clients. Too often, management's focus was exclusively on physical processes. This single-mindedness proved to be very costly for these organizations.

Furthermore, an organization must be aware of the types of documents it is required by law to keep in hard copy. I emphasize “by law” because you would be surprised at the difference between what people believe, based on their personal experience, is meant by this, and what is actually meant by the stipulation “by law.”

To understand how to transform itself into a paperless office, an organization must first recognize the several hurdles that it will need to deal with, and then take the appropriate steps to overcome them. For a smooth transition to a paperless office, an organization should take the following measures:

  • Know its external customers. Will the change to a paperless office be transparent to them? If so, will they feel the change immediately?
  • Know its internal customers. Are employees aware of the intended changes? What training will they receive?
  • Identify the physical processes that will change. Remember, it is not necessary—or even realistic—to be 100 percent paperless.

Once an organization has answered these questions and addressed these issues, it will have successfully cleared the hurdles to moving toward a paperless office, with a clear set of realistic goals. The next big step is to find the right paperless office system for the organization's particular situation.

So what should you expect from your new system? Of course, the price should be right, but apart from that, there are some other extremely important factors to consider.

How Easy Is the New System to Learn?

Implementing a system that is low-cost but harder to learn than advanced quantum physics is useless. After all, a new system needs to be picked up quickly (learned within a couple of hours) by all office personnel. Generally speaking, a system that builds upon the current knowledge of basic Windows functions is one that is easy to learn.

If the vendor of the paperless office system offers a free trial, take it and see if everyone can understand the system without a training session. A training session should supplement everybody's understanding. In other words, the system should be easy enough to learn so that office staff can easily understand how it works; a training session should simply be a reinforcement of that understanding.

How Strong Is Customer Support?

Incorporating a paperless office system is a big decision that will have a major impact on an organization's operations. Therefore, it is crucial that the company selling the system offers a well-defined support plan included in the purchasing price of the system. With so many choices of systems, an organization shouldn't have to pay extra for premium customer support. Questions organizations should ask include

  • How does the provider offer this support?
  • Is support accessible by e-mail only, or can a number be called to speak to a person?
  • How fast does customer support respond to a call?
  • Will the organization have a designated trainer? If so, is this trainer the one who sold the system, or are questions passed on to another department?

Many organizations separate their sales and the training departments. The problem with doing this is that these two departments have different motives. A salesperson separates himself from the client once the client's money is received, leaving the training and support department to defend any discrepancies between what the salesperson said the system can do and what the system actually does. However, if the salesperson is also the trainer, this problem is eliminated because of the continued contact between the seller and buyer.

What Happens When You Find System Errors?

Don't be fooled. No system is 100 percent error proof, and that includes a paperless office system. Don't let a salesperson try to convince you otherwise. Even Microsoft, with all its resources, still experiences problems with its Office products, so why would your paperless office system be any different? Be sure to ask the following two questions: How quickly will the vendor correct a problem once one is discovered? Will you have to wait until other clients find issues, or will these problems be fixed quickly and re-sent to you?

Know Your Office's Core Needs and Your Vendor

It is important to understand your company's needs. One way of doing this is to create what is known as a decision matrix. A decision matrix is a fast and easy tool commonly used by consulting companies and the US military to add up values in order to quantify a particular decision.

For example, let's say your organization is considering a paperless office system, and the two core reasons for wanting one are a) to have the ability to protect the organization's information from unauthorized users, and b) to be able to quickly search for data. A decision matrix allows you to quantify each paperless office system option in order to determine which is the best fit for your organization. Table 1 is a sample decision matrix for an organization wanting a paperless office system that has strong security and search capabilities.

Feature Importance Paperless Office System A Paperless Office System B
Security 3 2 (6) 1 (3)
Search 2 2 (4) 1 (2)
PDF compatible 1 1 (1) 2 (2)
Total   (11) (7)

Table 1. Sample decision matrix

In the column labeled Feature, you list the features you want in a paperless office system. The next column, labeled Importance, is where you assign a weight of importance to each feature listed in the first column. The higher the value, the more important the feature is to your organization.

In this example, the paperless office system's security features are more important than search capabilities, and search is more important than having a system that is PDF compatible. The next step is to decide which system performs a better job for each feature listed, and to assign a “2” (standing for “most”) or a “1” (standing for “least”).

In this example, the organization has decided that Paperless Office System A has better security features than Paperless Office System B. The same comparison is then performed for the other features. The bracketed numbers are a multiplication of the numbers listed in column one by the ranking of the office systems for that feature. This multiplication provides a weighted value of how each system compares to each other for a specified feature. The Total row simply sums up the columns of the multiplied values. The results from this simplified example show that Paperless Office System A is the better choice, based on a quantifiable approach.

However, it is important to understand that this is simply a tool to use when making a decision—one that should be part of a larger, comprehensive evaluation process.

Lastly, it is recommended that an organization avoid a system that uses a proprietary format to secure its data. This way, should the vendor of your system go out of business, no difficulties in integrating the paperless office system you purchased with another system in the organization will be encountered.

In Conclusion

The decision to change over to a paperless office should be approached in a systematic and logical manner. It is extremely important that an organization considers exactly why it wants to move toward a paperless office, and to have a clear understanding of the benefits it can expect from such a system. Since paper has been around for centuries and has many favorable traits that have allowed it to become entrenched in our society, organizations should be prepared to face some strong resistance from its employees and management when introducing the paperless office concept.

Remember, a 100-percent paperless environment is not only unrealistic, it's unnecessary. The goal is to find an ideal mix of paper-based operations you want remaining as such and the ones you want migrated into the paperless environment. The best way to accomplish this is to understand your workplace environment and operations, and to consider the skill set of the employees that will be most affected by this change. Once you have cleared this hurdle, finding the right paperless office system is a matter of identifying what features are most important in achieving the desired benefits. A decision matrix tool can go a long way in helping to decide which system to pick, but this tool should be a part of a much larger evaluation plan.

While finding the right paperless office system for your organization may appear to be an overwhelming task, a solid plan that is properly executed makes the process fairly simple, and the benefits from implementing such a system can be very rewarding financially. Processes that maximize your employees' time on other revenue-generating activities gives your company the power to use existing resources to take on more clients and to better serve existing ones, leading to greater customer satisfaction. The paperless office can play an important role in making this a reality.

This concludes the two-part series So, You're Considering a Paperless Office?

About the Author

N'Gai Cobb has served as a senior operations analyst for a Fortune 500 Company, as a network and data analysis manager for a large disease management company, and as a senior consultant for a health care consulting company. Cobb holds a master's degree in public health administration and in microbiology and immunology. He is currently the corporate director for Future Filing, LLC (http://www.FutureFiling.com), a paperless office system designed to give small to medium sized companies a competitive edge by leveraging affordable technology. Cobb can be reached via e-mail at ncobb@futurefiling.com, or by calling 1-800-291-7129, ext. 701.

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