Predictions of a paperless office began over 10 years ago, statistics show that 90% of the world's information is still on paper. Can that change? Will it? After spending more than 25 years in offices of all sizes, from one-person home-based businesses to the offices of the largest corporations in the world, I contend that a more important question is “Can you find the information you need when you need it - regardless of the form it takes?"
I have yet to find a company that was able to manage its electronic information effectively without first learning to manage the paper. Why? Because we haven't addressed four fundamental questions of information management:
(1) What information do we need to keep or create?
(2) In what form?
(3) By whom?
(4) For how long?
The ability of any individual or organization to accomplish any given task or reach any desired goal is directly related to the ability to find the right information at the right time. Unfortunately, statistics show that the average worker spends 150 hours per look looking for misplaced information.
What Should We Keep or Create?
Research shows that 80% of the information we keep, we never use. Our fear of throwing out paper is enormous. I have heard participants in my seminars say “Every time I throw something away, I need it again!" When I challenge them to elaborate, they often respond: “I can't think of an example right now!"
Whether it's the fear of not being knowledgeable in one's field of expertise, or being asked by one’s manager to produce information, the results are the same: overstuffed filing cabinets and full-to-capacity hard drives. For 15 years I have orchestrated “File Clean-Out Days" for companies. I used to have nightmares that after one such event, someone would call with a horror story about something he or she threw away and later needed. It's never happened!
Many companies hold their own file clean-out days, yet fail miserably because management didn’t create any criteria, approaches, or tools to enable and empower their employees to make decisions. Clutter is, in essence, postponed decisions?.
So how do you decide what to keep? Begin with your company's mission and goals. What business are you in, and what information do you need to reach those goals? And of course, what information is required by regulators?
Another important and often overlooked question is “What information can you create that would add value to your company?" Filing cabinets and computer drives are packed with information that, when readily available, can save time, improve products and services, and even create new revenue streams.
For example, whenever an employee learns a new technique, such as how to create a new report from a particular software program, a how-to guide can be written and made accessible to all employees on the company’s intranet or network. Or, consider this: What resource information do have available in your files which could be packaged and sold to potential customers, or given as “added value" to existing customers? To adapt that old Wild West saying, “There's gold in them thar files…!
Paper or Electronic?
Only a small portion of the information currently on paper is worth converting to a computer-readable format. However, as the quantity of information received and generated by businesses increase, electronic storage options become more attractive.
There are basically two approaches to saving information electronically: One approach scans in paper documents and stores them as images. They can be viewed using a variety of file- viewing tools, such as Adobe's popular Acrobat Reader. The second approach scans in documents and converts their contents into computer-readable format (i. e. , text) using optical character recognizing (OCR) software. Then there's the issue of how to store the files. Optical recording technologies, such as CD-ROM disks, as cheaper, while magnetic storage using hard drives allows for faster retrieval.
There are numerous other issues to decide, such as color vs. black-and-white, how many documents you handle on a daily basis, or whether they're handwritten or computer-printed.
The obvious advantage to electronic storage is saving space. Speed is also a major benefit, and can be particularly attractive when electronic customer information records are interfaced with a telephone system that identifies callers. Even if you have to type a customer's name before retrieving the file, the increase is customer service can be remarkable.
Other records, such as expense reports, invoicing, credit reports and other documents relating to customer accounts are obvious candidates for electronic storage.
The downside? If the system is too difficult to learn or too slow, employees will quickly retreat to paper. The biggest threat may be people who believe they are storing vast quantities of critical information on CDs and other digital storage media, but haven't considered that the lifetime of such media is not always guaranteed. (Remember all those 5 1/4-inchd floppy disks for which we have no hardware!) The obsolescence issue is a big challenge. However, the biggest hurdle for most companies is cost of equipment and training, and time for implementation.
In my experience, the answer is a carefully managed approach using the best attributes of electronic and paper storage. The more effectively a company learns to manage paper, the easier and more cost-effective it will be to move to electronic storage.
Who Should Keep It?
Unnecessary duplication is a big factor in poorly managed information. Not only does it take up unnecessary space, it creates unnecessary risk. If you have multiple copies of the same document, how can you be sure the document you are retrieving days, weeks, months or even years later, is the correct one?
A simple first step to solving the problem is implementing “The Originator's Rule?" which simply states: “Whoever generates a document is responsible for its retention. " Instead of five people on a committee filing minutes, one person should be responsible for the master file. Other people can choose to keep a copy, but will not do so by default because they are afraid to throw it away.
Every company with computers has an information systems person. While many companies have a person in charge of records retention, they are often brought into the picture only after the files are full, or the information is no longer used on a regular basis. Why not have someone in charge of making and implementing decisions about current information?
Digging through someone's paper piles or frantically searching a hard-drive for a desperately needed document is a horrible waste of time and immense producer of stress. It is essential to create a system so that when someone does leaves suddenly, the company is not left in jeopardy. The key to successfully managing and sharing paper files is a File Index. This can be created automatically with Taming the Paper Tiger software. (www.thepapertiger.com )
How Long Do We Keep It?
One of the big advantages of electronic storage can become a disadvantage, as Bill Gates learned when he was called to account for messages sent to his e-mail box years previously. The issue of how long to keep personal information, such as bank statements and expired insurance policies, triggered the first edition of Taming the Paper Tiger in 1988. I quickly learned that most businesses faced the same dilemma. Employees are scared to throw anything away, because the boss might ask for it, and many bosses were afraid, or don't take the time, to make a decision about records retention. Even when they do, the decision often breaks down in the implementation.
Ask any 100 employees, “If you had the time, do you know there are things in your files you could comfortably toss?" Ninety- nine would answer, “Yes, " but who goes to work and says “Well, I don't have anything better to do today. I think I'll clean out the files!" And if they do, quite likely someone will say, “We've got to finish that proposal! What are you doing?"
Through the years I've seen company after company faced with a problem of hundreds and even thousands of boxes of “archives" in storage rooms or off-site locations. When management finally realizes the cost and the risk, they decide they have to do something. By then, the people who created the paper are long gone, and current employees have little energy for making decisions about something that doesn't affect their ability to leave work at 5:30.
While there is no “quick fix" for years of postponed decisions, avoiding the problem in the future is easy. Today's mail is tomorrow's, so to get results, ignore the mistakes of the past and start over. Our company offers a money-back program we call “The 24-Hour Miracle. " We teach people to start making decisions about information with the papers on the desk - after all, that's where the most important stuff is. There are only three choices for any piece of paper. We call it The FAT System: File, Act, or Toss. When we finish the desk, we move to the papers on the floor. That's where you put all those good intentions, isn't it?
Paper is here to stay - at least for the foreseeable future. Research shows that introducing e-mail into a company increases paper printing by 40%. Let's face it. The portability of paper often makes it more desirable. A printout of a complex e-mail message which requires thinking and conversations in meetings, and results in handwritten notes, is frequently far more valuable than the original electronic document. On the other hand, the ability to send information electronically, and let the user determine when and if to print it out, offers the best of both worlds.
One financial management company spent an immense amount of effort developing and producing an incredibly valuable policies and procedures manual, which ended up in dusty binders on employee shelves. Today it resides on their wide area network, easily accessible at a moment's notice and always up to date.
Before this article reaches your desk, new technologies will be available to store and easily retrieve electronic information. But don't get the cart before the horse. Making the decision of whether to go electronic or remain paper should come after a careful analysis of what information is important to you and your company.
Now work happily ever after!
© Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at www.ProductiveEnvironment.com