By Christian Toon, head of information risk, Iron Mountain

Much has been written about the paperless world; a world where all information is digital or, at the very least, securely archived and readily accessible electronically. Yet every year, at least one study discovers that organisations are creating and using more paper documents than they did the year before and in fact, the use of paper is actually increasing in a third of firms([i]).

This is not sustainable. But trying to impose a complete ban on paper is also not the answer – after all, a completely paperless environment is not without significant challenges, and it is not always best practice. In fact, going paper free poses a significant challenge to every day working life.

Imagine having to open a word document every time you wanted to jot down a note, or not being able to print off a report to proof read away from the hubbub of your desk or computer. If a client calls in and needs to be transferred to a colleague, a paper sheet of extension numbers can feel far more accessible than having to search through folders for the required information. And then there is the potential issue with suppliers and clients – just because you are paper free, doesn’t mean they are.

The reality is that we still rely on paper for a high proportion of our information sharing. Much of our paper use is simply ingrained in our culture – we are used to receiving some documents by post, for example. Paper habits are hard to shake.

For many, the paper free office may well remain a pipe dream. Yet, there are benefits to working smarter with paper – think less paper rather than paperless. We call this approach ‘paper light’ and it is all about prioritising paper usage.

Paper light is not about perfection, it’s about progress. So where can organisations begin? The journey to paper light is not a linear one and 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 employees are on-board. If your staff do not understand the direction or refuse to 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.

There is a temptation to tear up the past or make everything digital. However, the everyday reality of the workplace, where printers and photocopiers hum away in every corner and desk drawers overflow with long-forgotten print-outs, suggests paper will remain with us for some time. The most important thing is to do something to take control, and the place to begin is where you are right now.

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