As soon as a business introduces a computer into its workflow it is faced with filing and tracking information in two formats – paper and digital. In early days of computerisation this doesn’t present too much of an issue, just make a paper copy of the digital version and put it in the filing cabinet along with all the other information on paper about that client or subject. As things progress though, the balance between paper and digital transactions starts to tip towards digital. Orders, invoices and receipts are delivered as digital forms, banking is done online, contracts and blueprints are sent out as e-mail attachments, your accounts are prepared on a software application and even your tax file can be sent electronically.

Predictions that electronic documents would ultimately push out paper altogether generated a lot of hype around creating the ‘paperless’ office. That’s not realistic. There are still many effective uses and needs for paper in a business and that’s likely to remain so for some time. However, what’s now possible, and highly desirable, is to create a paperless, i.e. digital record, for the types of information your business consistently deals with so you don’t have duplicate file systems. For instance, a dental clinic should consider the benefits of digitising everything related to its patients – their dental charts, diagnostics, correspondence, financial records, scheduling and so on. A digital record means that all the information on a patient can be bought together in the one file for easy reference, updating and sharing with colleagues and the office staff who need access to it.

Saying farewell to maintaining parallel workflows, one electronic and one paper, delivers benefits in work efficiency, in saving office space, in costs, in information security – and does reduce paper.

What new hardware and software is needed?

The biggest portion of your planning will go into identifying the components necessary to make a less-paper office workable. Simply adding a scanner won’t make you paperless. You have to have a number of components that work together as a whole, not just a few random pieces of technology.

A scanner to capture images electronically will allow you to make an ‘entry level’ start on reducing paper. Get a scanner with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) capability. This enables you to produce a searchable PDF version of a document and this provides a very handy way to look for files or pull out all files on the same subject. Beef up disk space to handle the extra demand that will be made on it for storage of the electronic documents.

A high res monitor is very useful once you start doing most of your document work online. For the real road warrior investing in portable paper replacement devices like a Blackberry and an e-Reader will free you up from having to carry paper copies of things like travel documents, itineraries and maps.

On the software side, turn your scanned files into PDF format. This is a stable format that keeps the file looking exactly as it looked on paper. It can be read online or printed, takes little space, and in conjunction with OCR can be searched and amended. Security and confidentiality can be maintained using anti-virus, firewall, storage space encryption and file eraser tools. To make records available to all those who need them shift from standalone PCs to a client / server setup. After these basic starting components your conversion upgrades can be as little or as much as you want.

Locating a document

All that electronic documentation is useless if you can’t locate things easily or keep related information together. You need to create an electronic version of your file cabinet. This is done by creating folders and placing one folder in another just as, for instance, you have files on each individual supplier filed in a folder inside the file cabinet drawer named Suppliers. For documents converted using OCR software you can search using an index term associated with the document or a number of documents e.g. a client’s name or a region code.

Making it happen

The computer savvy can create a less-paper office relatively cheaply by purchasing hardware items but downloading free versions of the software components from the internet. If you don’t have that level of comfort with computers, then seek help from an experienced dealer. Maintaining the less-paper office ongoing is not particularly difficult once it is in place, but it does require a little discipline, particularly around regular backup of your records. To get the most benefit, ask your suppliers and customers to prefer electronic methods of dealing with you when they can and do the same with them.