Document woes cost Canadian business $50B per year

Memo to Canadian office workers drowning in paper: don’t torch those filing cabinets and photocopiers just yet.

Although this country is facing a $50 billion document management crisis, experts said recently that the paperless office is still a mere twinkle in the eye for most managers.

And the real crisis is not the cost of paper and ink cartridges – it is in lost productivity, especially among higher level employees, said Peter Richardson, a professor of strategic management at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting for technology executives presented by CIO Canada magazine, Richardson said that his research on a cross-section of executives, managers and senior sales staff shows that they spend 56 per cent of their time dealing with documents. And it is this time – five minutes to responding to a voicemail here, 15 minutes to find and reply to an e-mail there – that adds up to hours per week, and ultimately $50 billion worth of lost time each year.

Adding to the crunch, 40 per cent of the time spent managing voice, electronic and print documents is of little or no value to the organization, said Richardson. Problems resulting from out-of-control documentation include duplication over multiple media, inefficient filing and tracking and retrieval and lack of version control.

“We’re fragmented in our approaches to [document management]… most people have their heads in the sand and don’t see that there is a crisis,” Richardson said. As a result, he said the “Paperless Society” has become just another dashed dream of the ’60s.

The answer is not simply a move to electronic documents, since “most companies are just paving cowpaths as they move to digital,” but first just acknowledging that a crisis exits. The next step, he said, is to measure it with a holistic approach that tracks total costs, instead of just the obvious expenses such as materials.

With documents becoming more dynamic than ever before, and the lifeblood of many organizations, Cameron Hyde, president of Xerox Canada, emphasized the strategic importance of developing an enterprise-wide document strategy

For example, Hyde said, IT departments typically have a team, a strategy and are closely monitored for costs but technology expenditures typically represent two to five per cent of a company’s total revenues, compared to the six to 15 per cent of revenue that’s swallowed up by managing documents. And having inadvertently helped to create the paper crisis decades ago, Xerox is now committed to finding a solution, he said.

Citing situations where companies have created online expense reports, but employees printed them out and mailed them in anyway, Hyde, too said that a simple switch to e-forms is not the answer. However there are technologically solutions such as “intelligent documents” that share information across databases that can provide some relief if used alongside organizational-cultural initiatives, he said.

Although companies now have the framework to quantify their document problem, host and moderator John Pickett, vice-president of IT World Canada (parent group of, noted that it is hardly a new one. In fact, he noted wryly, in the 1950s rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun quipped that humanity can overcome gravity, but the paperwork will kill us.