Productivity: Yes, we can [go paperless]!

2009_03_31It would have been a ridiculous job posting: “Security firm seeks person to keep track of paper.” But three years ago, such a hiring seemed inevitable for Michael Jagger, CEO of Vancouver-based Provident Security. That’s because in the 10 years since starting his one-man security guard operation in 1996, the firm had exploded into a full-service security provider with more than 200 employees and 4,500 customers. In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Jagger was drowning in paper and administrivia when he should have been focusing on business strategies.

“If you don’t have control over every aspect of your business when you have a few thousand clients, what will happen when you are 10-or a hundred-times bigger?” asks Jagger. “To replicate the client experience we offered when we started out, we knew we’d need to spend our time and money on customer service, not administration.” So, in 2006, he began pulling the plug on his photocopiers, fax machines and printers.

When the “paperless office” buzz first sounded in the mid-1970s, office computers were clunky and the law didn’t recognize digitally signed documents. But today, it is possible to run a business sans paper: most offices thrum with network-linked computers loaded with software that lets users create, read, duplicate and distribute digital documents, the latest scanners are modern miracles and the digital signature is ratified. Yet, more than ever, we live in a world that encourages hard-copy proof, proliferated by the rock-bottom prices of printers. In the eyes of most businesses, operating without paper is impossible; but a handful of entrepreneurs are discovering that such a corporate change in today’s economic climate is not only possible, it’s preferable.

An ever-increasing number of files, reports and invoices meant client services at Provident were suffering because it lacked the resources to perform anything in a timely manner. For example, the company holds thousands of house keys for its clients; every time a security call came in, the key had to be signed out and back in manually.

“The way we were operating,” says Jagger, “it was costing us way too much to grow.” When he began looking for advice to eliminate paper-based processes, he came up short. He isn’t alone. According to a recent study by IDC Canada, a Toronto-based market-intelligence firm, lack of information is the No. 1 barrier for companies on this front.

Still, going paperless isn’t rocket science; but old habits die hard. According to a survey by Montreal-based Léger Marketing, Canadian workers print an average of 30 pages of work-related documents a day. What’s more, says David Senf, director of infrastructure solutions at IDC Canada, his firm’s research has revealed a business culture that’s painfully lacking in the incentive and awareness necessary to see the paperless dream through. Despite the fact that 61% of the 844 senior executives surveyed reported they believe “being green is good for business,” two out of five concede they’re printing a lot more than they were five years ago. While the results reveal an acknowledgement among corporate Canadians of pressing environmental issues, “[most] firms think that the negative impact of environmental changes on their business will be 10 years from now and beyond,” Senf says. Before change can be enacted, he adds, businesses need to understand better the fallout from printing all that paper: loss of money and efficiency.

Despite the lack of information, Jagger was determined to turn the paperless concept into a reality, so he hired a consultant to help guide his company through its optimization and waste-reduction processes. Today, Provident’s key system is Web-based, with a numerical code assigned to each key on file. Guards’ key requests are tracked, and a real-time electronic log accounts for all of the keys’ whereabouts. Provident now sends and receives electronic invoices and monthly statements (those few that don’t arrive digitally get digitized upon receipt), which allows the firm to track expenses easily. Scanners have taken up residence on employees’ desks, the office’s filing cabinets have been emptied and the contents carted off by a shredding company, and the photocopier has disappeared. As for marketing and communications? Jagger blogs, Tweets and posts YouTube videos on a remarkably constant basis. And, in a move to establish an “I mean business” tone, he refuses to accept anything on paper unless it absolutely cannot be scanned or e-mailed.

Like Jagger, Michel Jullian, CEO of OCM Manufacturing, an Ottawa-based electronics manufacturer, had aspirations to create a paperless work environment. But it was the pursuit of an ISO 9000 rating in 2000 that motivated him to do so. The registrar reviewed the application and requested changes that required a do-over of half of it. But the information needed was crammed into more than 100 binders, and a do-over was no simple task. “I remember thinking it was a big waste,” says Jullian. “I was disgusted.”

Jullian encountered a similar dearth of information initially. But the technical requirements, he says, mostly boil down to scanning and storing documents in PDF format. OCM secured Adobe Acrobat software, some projection systems for meeting rooms, a couple of high-end, multi-function scanners and more storage space on its servers to accommodate the digitized documents. “We developed our system internally using one IT person,” he says.

Jullian urges CEOs to introduce a paperless revolution in conjunction with other new corporate processes. Piggybacking paperless initiatives on a more comprehensive change, such as an ISO designation, he says, helps minimize resistance. He also suggests identifying a champion to act as the paperless evangelist for the company. “But be prepared to have to remind employees continuously that anything they do with paper, they can do electronically instead,” he says.

Today, 90% of OCM is paperless, including its HR, finance, manufacturing, purchasing and marketing departments. But you can’t eliminate it all, says Jullian. In manufacturing, work orders are often still paper-based, a condition of the multi-person access required of these documents and the lack of computer stations on the shop floor. And then there are business contacts who insist on sending paper accounting, and who want paper accounting in return.

Indeed, human resistance to eliminating paper is a big hurdle to hop. At OCM, younger employees eased into the new world relatively easily, but baby boomers dug in their heels. “Only people’s habits are hindering the world from going paperless,” says Jullian. “It’s a matter of people accepting the changes, not resisting, as they have in the past. There’s plenty of technology to make this happen.”

Jullian believes giving staff, suppliers and customers the tools to transform this technology into reality is key. All of OCM’s meeting rooms have projection systems with access to the mainframe’s databanks, so meeting attendees need not bother with paper, pens or a bottleneck at the photocopier in preparation for a gathering. And most employees have two computer monitors, a move undertaken, says Jullian, in acknowledgement of people’s need to compare documents.

Critical, too, is persistence. It’s easy to revert to old habits, says Jullian. OCM recruits are indoctrinated aggressively, learning that the filing cabinets they ordered just aren’t coming. Jullian has chosen not to exact penalties on slow converts, but never misses an opportunity to remind an employee of his expectations.

The ROI OCM now enjoys since making the change is measured in productivity, which has increased by about 10%. What’s more, says Jullian, although the company continues to grow its revenue and customer base, it hasn’t had to bring on any additional administrative staff because paper-wrangling is now a thing of the past. “It equates to saving on three full-time equivalents across the company, which is about $100,000 a year.”

As for Provident’s ROI, Jagger estimates he spent $700 each on a dozen new Fujitsu desktop scanners, $8,000 on servers to host the firm’s files and much more than that on consulting and the IT staff necessary to make it happen. But the returns on such an investment, he says, are priceless. The company saves $1,500 a month in postage alone.

“But the most important return by far,” he says, “is that it has allowed us to become scaleable. It’s forced us to become infinitely better organized, and has given us much tighter control over our information. Now, we can get back to focusing our time and efforts on servicing clients, not chasing down missing files.”

Published May 1, 2009 · PROFIT Magazine · Written by By Laura Pratt

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