Taming the document management demon

Despite having e-everything at their fingertips, for most white collar workers the paperless office still looks about as likely as the paperless bathroom.

In fact, research now shows that during the 1990s, as electronic devices entered the office in earnest, annual consumption of paper rose from 80 million tons to 96 million tons in the United States.

And that’s not the half of it.

Canada is now facing a $50 billion document management crisis, said Peter Richardson, a professor of strategic management at Queens University in Kingston, Ont. The real crisis, he said, is not the cost of paper and ink cartridges – it is in lost productivity, especially among higher level employees.

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 this 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 dduplication over multiple media, Inefficient filing and tracking and retrieval and lack of version control.

However, he said, 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. “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 another dashed dream of the ’60s.

Against the odds, Pradeep Pathade, Toronto-based co-founder and CTO of Stonylake Solutions actually works in an almost paperless office. Stonylake has managed this by being small, using PDFs, HTML files and e-mail and, well, by just inclining that way because they are techies, he laughed. But, Pathade said, managing the paper is only a small part of Stonylake’s document strategy.

Although it is an independent company, the 35-employee Stonylake started life as the in-house IT solutions department of The Nevada Learning Series, a U.S.-based supplier of quick reference guides for business software. Since their very product involves creating paper and e-documents, Pathade said, if their internal data isn’t managed well it could quickly get out of hand.

“Hard drive space is so cheap that that has actually compounded the problem because since storage is not a barrier anymore, people just keep on saving things.” In fact, he said, they decided they needed to do something when they were backing up systems for Y2K and they realized how much time they were wasting just backing up garbage in people’s inboxes.

The real solution to document crisis is not to use or create fewer documents, but to KEEP fewer of them, Pathade said. The first step, he said, is a good business process that defines which documents to keep, which to shred or delete and sets some guidelines on e-mail forwarding and archiving. Only then, he said, did they look at the management tools out there.

“I would say it is much more of a human solution. If there is a buy-in for the end users it is a win-win solution. That is the best kind of solution because nobody likes to have things enforced on them – mailboxes cut off, or documents locked down,” he said.

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 and online expense reports, but employees printed them out and mailed them in, Hyde, too said that a simple switch to e-forms is not the answer. Although there is a place for technological solutions such as “intelligent documents” that share information across databases, they will only provide relief if they are used alongside organizational-cultural initiatives, he said.

This is why user training and education tops Pathade’s wish list as Stonylake continues to improve its document management. But, he said, this is one of those cases where good IT policy runs headlong into human nature.

“To me it’s human psychology that users will keep everything they can. Look at the books or magazines in your house, but at least these physical things are visible. [Electronic documents] are not visible – they are on your hard drive so we get trapped by thinking what you can’t see doesn’t hurt you,” Pathade said.