By Phil Greenwood, Director, Information Management and Business Outsourcing at Iron Mountain

There is a suggestion that firms should reduce their dependence on paper and move towards a seamless and secure paper-free world. A world where all information is digital or, at the very least, securely archived and readily accessible so that it can unleash its full value into the business. And every year, at least one study discovers that organisations are, yet again, creating and using more paper documents than they did the year before. In fact, the use of paper is actually increasing in a third of firms*.

This is not sustainable. As companies aim to become more efficient, cost-effective and keep their information secure, they must improve the way they control, manage and make use of the paper documents they generate. Trying to impose a complete ban on paper is clearly not the answer – and it doesn’t address what to do with the legacy paper archives you’ve already built up.

The best way forward is to embark on a journey that embraces digital and paper in what we would call a ‘paper light’ environment. Going paper light is about gradually reducing your dependence on paper, introducing a managed and cost-effective digitisation programme and taking your employees and processes with you every step of the way. It’s about helping your business to release the full power and value of information in a way that is both realistic and achievable.

So where do you begin? The journey to paper light is not a linear one. Organisations start from different places and have different needs along the way. The information landscape changes so fast that there can be no fixed end point. The important thing is simply to make a start. Focus on the most important information initially (it is expensive and unnecessary to digitise everything) and ensure your employees are on-board. If staff don’t understand the direction or won’t accept the change, you will never get there.

The first thing to do is to identify and collect ‘inactive’ paper – those documents that you no longer need or are unlikely to access. Remove them from the office into a secure environment where they can be managed against defined retention periods but still accessed if required.

Next transform how you handle your active documents across the business. People keep information close to hand because they want to refer to it regularly or get to it quickly. You need to offer them an acceptable alternative that combines ease of access with the benefits of secure storage and management. This is where digitisation comes in. It involves scanning the documents your employees most need or use. If you complement this with the introduction of smart document retrieval systems, you can provide employees with the same ease of access they are used to with paper.

The next stage is tackling information at the point at which it comes into the business and ensuring data can feed directly into your automated processes or workflows. The latest document digitisation techniques, such as inbound scanning, will let you extract information on arrival and inject it straight into the relevant process.

By the time you have reached this point there will be very little paper left in the workplace. Moreover, you will – gradually and painlessly – have steered your organisation to a stage where you have truly ‘intelligent’ access to all your information, whether it is from the past, the present or still on its way. Digitised records can be searched, analysed, compared and shared far more easily than paper documents, enabling your organisation to harness the accumulated knowledge for the benefit of innovation, decision-making and customer service.

Such future-proofing of information management is incredibly important. We live in a world overwhelmed by information, and the volume, variety and velocity is increasing exponentially. Your document management processes need to be able to accommodate changing trends. Acting now but in stages will make the challenge more manageable.

*The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) The Paper Free Office - dream or reality? Feb 06, 2012