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
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
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
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
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
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
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.