The dream of the paperless office Featured

9:57am EDT April 22, 2005
How many years ago did the dream of the paperless office begin? And how many paperless offices have you seen?

Maybe it is simply unrealistic to avoid paper altogether -- it can be hard to handle, but it's convenient and familiar. Maybe the time has come to modify the dream. Rather than a paperless office, how about an office that is more efficient with less paper?

The reason we want to limit the amount of paper in an office environment to its absolute minimum is because information on paper requires a lot of manual steps to produce, file and retrieve. Even the best-organized system of filing cabinets, staffed with people who take filing seriously, has no fighting chance to make information available at the speed of the electronic competition.

But the right document management system (DMS) can combine the convenience of paper with the speed of new technology.

In the past, DMS vendors pointed out the tremendous savings potential of their software. It is still true that you can save money on preprinted forms, postage and manual labor. The true benefit, however, is the way a DMS allows you to produce your business-critical documents and to store and retrieve information from these documents very quickly.

A fully integrated DMS is the best tool to reduce the amount of paper in today's business world. If your existing enterprise resource planning system produces company-external documents (invoices, purchase orders, shipping documents, checks, etc.) that are not ready to be distributed to your customers or suppliers, you can deploy the electronic forms functionality of the DMS to electronically produce these documents.

The DMS should also enable you to print, fax, e-mail or Web-enable these documents. A true, full-function DMS also offers the ability to store these document files in an archiving system by adding index values of your choice for subsequent retrieval.

This, however, covers only the papers that your company produces. Therefore, the DMS also needs to offer options to add incoming documents to the archive. This is an easy task for documents that are received electronically, such as those that arrive via e-mail or a fax service that routes incoming faxes to an e-mail address. The DMS can route these documents into the archive after it scans them to retrieve textual information to be used as index values during the archiving process. Paper documents can be treated in a similar way by using scanning devices to turn them into electronic files.

Once all documents related to a given business transaction have been moved into the archiving system, the retrieval function enables you to easily find all related documents for a specific transaction, regardless of the document's origin.

However, using index values as the sole method of retrieving the information poses a new challenge. You need to know exactly what you are looking for.

Without a customer or supplier number, without a PO number or invoice number, you won't be able to find the documents you seek. This is where full text search capabilities become an important feature. By simply typing some known information, such as the item number or customer name, the DMS can present a list of all documents that contain the search criteria.

Although the paperless office will probably never become a reality, there are numerous DMS on the market that can bring you close to the dream of a paperless business environment.

Alex Reiss is president of Resolutions (www.resolutions.ws), a provider of state-of-the-art document management solutions. Reach him at (678) 714-3400 or areiss@resolutions.ws.