Last Updated: Friday, 29 February 2008, 17:03 GMT
Pushing paper out the office
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
Click's North America technology correspondent

The idea of the paperless office has been around since the late 1970s but three decades on paper remains hugely popular. Despite this, there are many ways in which organisations are starting to cut their paper consumption.

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One of the first step that many companies take is to turn those reams of paper documents into something much more portable.

One particular technology proving useful for this is Adobe's Portable Data Format.

About 15 years ago this started life as a simple way to preserve the look and feel of documents as they were passed between different operating systems and computers.

Banks, utilities and many other companies now offer statements and bills as downloadable PDFs to help their customers move towards that paperless state.

But, said Diana Helander, group manager at Adobe, it was worth keeping up with the latest developments in PDF to get the most out of it.

"What you lose if you don't use the current version of PDF is the opportunity to do things like include more dynamic content, like Flash; capturing information from a website, say if you make an online purchase and you want to keep the confirmation of that purchase as a PDF for your records instead of printing it out to paper," she said.

Scanner solutions

Another way to get rid of paper is to scan the documents and turn them into digital facsimiles. The relentless march of technology means today's scanners, even those found in the home, are more like the very expensive ones big corporations use.

Scanner and PC
PDF files and scanners are essential parts of the paperless office

They are capable of processing each sheet in a second or two, regardless of the shape, size or orientation of documents. Character recognition software means that the documents become instantly searchable. The latest scanners can even recognise logos and will categorize each item automatically.

Even better many government agencies now accept scanned documents as readily as the real thing.

But it is not just big business and big government that are making better use of scanners. Small firms are benefiting too.

They have proved a boon to a medical office that must keep track of multiple patient documents generated at different times and requested by different people.

There, everything is scanned and available in one place on a secure server to those who need the information immediately.

"With filing cabinets and old paperwork you can always lose, you can always misfile it," says business manager Reuvin Alon. "When I need the papers, when I need some kind of information about the patient, I always have it.

"I have a lot of papers and charts, so if at a certain point of time I have to store them I don't have to go look for storage space, I can always have them in the computer."

Mail options

Then there are options, such as Earth Class Mail, that aim to intercept paper before it reaches you, your home or business.

For a monthly fee, its processing centre intercepts your post, scans the exterior and lets customers decide if they want the contents scanned and sent to a PC, forwarded to your physical location or recycled.

Just because it's electronic I don't think that makes it necessarily any easier
Diana Helander

Ron Wiener, boss of Earth Class Mail said: "Mail is the least recycled material in our society, only about 20% of it actually gets recycled. A lot of it gets shredded and the shreddings get thrown out and so can't be turned into paper again.

"We offer the customer both options. They can hit Recycle or they can hit Shred.

"Of what is opened and scanned almost the entirety of it is then shredded and recycled."

Organisation considerations

But getting rid of paper does not mean on office or business functions better. A paperless office faces the organisational nightmare as one filled with documents. All those gigabytes and gigabytes of data need to be sorted and searchable.

"Just because it's electronic I don't think that makes it necessarily any easier," says Diana Helander.

"It may make it more compact, perhaps easier to keep track of in terms of where that information resides. But not necessarily easier in terms of how you yourself think through your organisation," she says.

And there are other issues that need considering. At some point the files need to be stored, burned to disk and even encrypted. Even then there is the lingering uncertainty of how long the PDF format will last.

The final consideration is to realise that if an office or home is burgled a filing cabinet is a bit of a chore to carry away. By contrast a DVD full of documents is easy to spirit away.

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