By Alan Mason, Director - Outsourcing Operations, Ricoh UK

The ‘paperless office’ is a term we are all familiar with. But can the vision of an office without paper become a reality?

Let’s start by being realistic: paper won’t vanish completely in the foreseeable future. In fact it may surprise people to learn that printing is increasing as the amount of information flowing round businesses increases.

But at the same time, the data explosion and the ability to use big data sets to create business insight, is driving forward thinking businesses to move as much data online as possible. Cost, space and environmental drivers are pushing people to reduce printing and storage of paper records. Together, these are acting as a catalyst for organisations to move closer towards this target.

More data, more problems

The volume of information in the workplace is increasing. Approximately 293 billion emails are exchanged daily. Companies with over 1,000 employees now store more data than the US library of congress (which holds 29,000,000 books).
With such an influx of data, physically printing and storing all paper records is no longer an option. There is a short and long term issue – reducing the amount of paper you use and reducing the amount you store.

Share virtually

New technology is reducing our need for paper. Most obviously, printers and print management help us print more efficiently, e.g. via double sided printing and personal log-ins on printers to avoid the situation of people sending documents to print, forgetting about them, then sending them again.

But our need to use paper is also reducing. Consumer devices like tablets are the most obvious tools. But more business focused technologies also exist with larger screens designed for collaboratively reviewing documents, editing in physical or virtual groups, and reading much as you would paper. Virtual whiteboards allow you to write up notes during meetings and brainstorms – across multiple offices where required - which are immediately saved, converted to digital text and shared. Such technology is transforming our working environment and reducing our need for paper.

Back that paper up

Most companies already have an online repository for their digital information, whether on their networks or via a cloud service. New services allow this to be intelligently managed for easy access and analysis. In most cases there is no reason why they can’t also move their paper records into the digital environment.
Digitisation may sound like a laborious task, but it is simpler than it sounds and can benefit a business enormously. Many organisations store paper records longer than they need to. Where there are no legal requirements, documents can be immediately digitised and physically disposed of. Where there are legal requirements, organisations should keep track of when these expire so they can efficiently dispose of unwanted paper.

Many businesses have already led their own digital transformation initiatives or employed experts to take it off their hands.

As well as freeing up crucial space, digitising records can also ensure faster business decisions and free up time for customer-led innovation. Exploiting the benefits of client data can influence such innovation - CIOs are now well aware that a streamlined approach to information sharing can drive up profits, drive agile business operations and empower employees.

Reaching the paperless future: the path ahead

To reach a paperless environment, businesses should look to automate business processes so that all information is both digitised and can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

Businesses need to respond to change to compete. The ‘path ahead’ is one shaped by flexible working, greater use of personal devices for work and a need for corporate data to be more readily available. Organisations that have yet to take the first steps to automating processes and digitising their business should not wait around much longer. The data explosion is only set to accelerate. It is adding business value and bringing knowledge to employees