Is A Paper-Free Workplace Possible?

by John Mancini | 1/6/15

The concept of a paperless society originated way back in 1978 by information scientist Frederick Wilfrid Lancaster – a world where paper documents would be replaced by electronic storage and communication. Progress has undoubtedly been made, yet it sometimes feels as if we are as far away from that vision as ever.   

In a recent research report we conducted at AIIM entitled “Paper Wars 2014 – an update from the battlefield,” nearly half of businesses said that the biggest single productivity improvement they could make would be to remove paper, yet paper consumption is still increasing for one in five organizations. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said that business at the speed of paper will be “unacceptable in just a few years’ time,” yet only one in five has a board-level endorsed policy to cut paper consumption. So where is it all going wrong? 

Businesses are all too aware that removing or reducing the paper trail can improve customer response times, workplace productivity, and their environmental footprint, but they don’t seem to be able to put a practical solution in place to address the problem. It seems to me that there should be more focus on paper-free processes.

The Paperless Goal is Unachievable

For an information-based organization like AIIM, this statement is hard to swallow. But unfortunately we have to accept that it is true. A paper-free office is unlikely to become a reality. Our recent research highlighted the fact that 50 percent of respondents still print out personal paper copies to take to a meeting, or to add a signature as well as read offline when they are out of the office.  Why, you may ask, in an age of mobile devices and digital signatures would they resort to using paper? Respondents said it mainly came down to a lack of management initiatives and the ingrained notion that a physical signature on paper is required.

The physical signature notion is an odd one, with the many different electronic signing solutions available today.  Putting the brakes on an all-electronic process to put a physical signature on a piece of paper that is normally then scanned, doesn’t make sense and more often than not opens up a greater confidentiality risk than a digital one.

So what is the way forward?  World Paper Free Day 2014, which recently took place on November 6 of last year, sought to spotlight how much paper is wasted and how we can actually work without a paper trail. Hundreds of organizations around the globe joined the initiative and the main takeaway from the day was that paper-free business processes are a much more realistic target than trying to go completely paper-free. There are a number of technologies that can help business achieve this.  Here we outline three of the most important:

1. The digital mailroom – scanning all inbound mail at point-of-entry and routing it around the business electronically is feasible and it can reduce or even eliminate internal mail distribution. To bring this strategy into play, businesses do not need to deploy large central mailroom scanners.  Mail can be scanned via branch offices or the task can easily be outsourced.  There is a significant investment required in scanners and capture servers from the onset, but according to our research, respondents who have gone down this route saw a relatively quick return on investment, with 38 percent reporting payback in 12 months or less, and 60 percent within 18 months.

2. Portable scanning – with an improvement in camera quality and functionality on mobile devices, the idea of using them as portable scanning devices has become more popular. Tablets, for example, provide a way of accessing electronic forms and apps are available that carry out a number of previously paper driven tasks such as paying checks and scanning receipts. The big advantage of mobile data capture is the speed at which it is available.

3. Cloud  over the past three years, we have seen businesses become more at ease with using cloud across the whole Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system.  Capture is an engaging application for cloud, or particularly SaaS, in that data requirements are high, but the recognition technology involved can take advantage of large, dedicated servers and complex software. Our study found that larger organizations are the leaders in using this solution, with midsized businesses dragging their feet – just 6 percent currently using cloud or SaaS.

All these technologies can play an important role in reducing the amount of paper used by organisations, which must ask themselves how they are going to maintain a competitive edge in an always-connected business world, if they cling to a paper working environment across the board.

The road to adopting paper-free business processes will take time. But every step towards a paperless environment will help your business to save time, money and reduce storage space.  These in themselves should be an incentive for your business to look where it can cut paper use now.


John Mancini is an author, speaker and respected leader of the AIIM global community of information professionals. He believes that in the next five years, a wave of digital transformation will sweep through businesses and organizations, and organizations now face a fundamental choice between information opportunity and information chaos.

AIIM’s John Mancini believes that there is real value to be gained from content analytics – both in business insight and risk mitigation. But enterprises need to have a well-thought-out strategy in place to gain the biggest advantage.