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How to create a paper efficient office


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Catherine Burbage, Director of Papershrink, looks at what the reality of the paperless office has become and how companies can save themselves space and time by creating a paper efficient office using document management.

A paperless office? The idea has always been appealing; gleaming expanses of polished wood with plenty of space for an oversized vase of giant blooms. The reality has been less so; computer cables everywhere attached to grey boxes which seem to churn out even more paper than you had before.

Perhaps the term should be changed to 'the paper efficient office', so you can make room for a decent size vase of flowers, but what you'd still rather have on paper, you do.

To achieve a paper efficient office, organisations should start to look at what document management could do for them. Its meaning can range from tidying up the filing a bit, to workflow systems which manage every document being created or received, from its conception to its final archiving or destruction.

For smaller businesses, complex systems may be a bit over the top, but a well thought out plan of how to manage documentation can significantly reduce a nagging business headache, saving surprising amounts of space and simplifying the businesses' administration.

Just take a look at your filing cabinets. They are part of the growing army of around 15 million filing cabinets in the UK today, taking up as much as 50% of office space. Do a quick multiplication with the average rent per square metre for office space in your area and it gives you an idea of how much this costs.

How quickly could you find the single sheet of paper you need? Even if you know which cabinet, which drawer, which file it's in, you still have to walk over there, open the drawer, flick through the file, find the piece of paper and walk back to your desk. Then of course, you have to put it away again.

So what are the alternatives? Microfiche is the most long-established method of archiving documents. It is a tried and tested approach, with the microfilm itself having a life of 100 years plus if properly cared for. At a push, the image is just visible to the human eye without a reader. Its use is widespread in many countries and is generally considered a safe bet. 

Microfiche can now be produced both from hard copy and directly from computer held files, known as Computer Output Microfiche (COM). Around 200 pages of text can be stored on a 4" x 6" microfiche.

People who frequently retrieve documents from it find it very wearing on the eye, as this must be done manually. Producing the film itself does require some special processing so is often out-sourced.

Electronic document imaging is a more recent alternative to microfiche. One of the big differences is the volume of information that can be held. While a single microfiche can hold 200 pages, the equivalent of a CD produced electronically can hold around 12,000 pages (about one filing cabinet of documents).

Documents are scanned to produce an unalterable electronic image which is indexed for easy retrieval. This makes them faster to retrieve than from microfiche, as the process is electronic rather than physical. Electronic documents can form an integral part of 'live' filing with, for example, customer correspondence accessible on your computer screen faster than you can even stand-up to walk over to a filing cabinet.

The structure and accuracy with which the indexing is carried out is crucial to the ease and speed at which documents can be retrieved. More complex indexing with keywords, file structure and image names can be undertaken so that, for example, all letters to clients on a specific topic between certain dates can be retrieved. Some companies offer tailor-made indexing, so files are structured exactly as you want to them to be, not as the software dictates.

Above that, documents can be scanned using OCR (optical character recognition) equipment so that a full text search can be carried out. With good indexing, OCR scanning is rarely needed as documents can be found more efficiently without a time-consuming full text search.

It is recommended that scanned document archives are held on the organisation's main server, so they become part of the back-up procedure and disaster recovery plan. This also means access privileges can be set so whoever needs to see the documents can. Most suppliers will also provide copies on CD as required.

If you have a lot of filing cabinets, you may think the price of improving your document storage is prohibitive, but you probably stand to gain most. Remember the quick multiplication you did earlier of space taken-up by filing cabinets with your rent per square metre? But there's no need to spend more than you have to, so start by minimising what you actually need to keep. 

Often the worst offenders are brochures for other companies' services and trade publications. Do you really need to keep all of them and of those you want to keep, how many are out of date? If you need that kind of product in the future, you'd probably have to research it again anyway. This kind of brochure is often the most expensive to scan as they tend to require a higher degree of preparation than other documents.

Once you've weeded out what you don't want or don't need to keep, look at what is most useful to keep in hard copy. The Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Courts generally accept electronically held images of original documents as valid, so you probably don't need to keep as much in hard copy as you think.

The vast majority of documents can be electronically scanned, although flimsy or thin, double-sided papers (where the type clearly shows through from back to front) can be awkward. Over-sized documents, eg plans or drawings can also be scanned. Check to see if the originals have been produced using CAD systems, as these original files can be included in the scanned document archive rather than having to pay for them to be scanned and then included.

Now you should have a good idea of what you need to have scanned so can start looking for prices. As ever, check with a few suppliers as prices can vary dramatically. Check exactly what's included if a price per sheet is quoted. Some will include collection, indexing, secure destruction of originals (if required) and delivery, while others won't, so although the price per page looks cheaper, the overall cost can be far more. The most important areas to check when choosing a supplier are what level of indexing is offered, how experienced staff are at handling your type of documents and if files can be indexed exactly as you want them to be, as this will have the most bearing on how closely the finished indexing meets your needs.

Look out for web sites which have a useful online calculator, so you can get a rough idea of how much your scanning will cost and, in the case of www.papershrink.co.uk, how much space you're using for storage and how much that costs you. The comparison will show you if scanning is worthwhile for you.

There are companies who will carry out a 'filing audit' for you, looking at what information you store and how you store it. For documentation unsuitable for electronic scanning, simple changes to storage methods (eg types and layouts of cabinets) can save a great deal of space.

July 2002

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