It’s taking a bit longer than predicted but the transition to a truly paperless office is gathering pace


First the good news… SA has excellent paper recycling rates. According to the Paper Recycling Association of South Africa (PRASA), the country’s annual paper recovery rate has increased by 2% year-on-year since 2012, and now sits at 70% – well above the global average of 58%.

‘Everyone uses paper products, so we should all be recyclers,’ says PRASA operations director Ursula Henneberry. ‘It’s just the right thing to do.’ She has a point, of course. Recycling paper saves landfill space, reduces unnecessary emissions and encourages a waste-conscious lifestyle. (And, as PRASA points out, paper recycling is also good for the economy, creating meaningful employment across the value chain for around 37 000 people.)

More good news is that South Africans successfully diverted 1.3 million tons of recyclable paper and paper packaging from landfill in 2017. That, as PRASA paints it, is equivalent to the weight of 256 400 adult African elephants, and is enough to cover 233 soccer fields.

The bad news is that we’re still using so much paper in the first place. It’s now been more than 20 years since Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote in the Road Ahead, that ‘by the end of the decade’ – he was talking about the 1990s – ‘a significant percentage of documents, even in offices, won’t even be fully printable on paper’. By 2006, Gates – still dreaming of that paper-free office – was writing in an editorial for CNN Money that, ‘paper is no longer a big part of my day. When I go to a meeting and want to jot things down, I bring my tablet PC. It has a note-taking piece of software so all my notes are in digital form’.

Today, several private and public sector organisations are buying into that idea. There are, for example, no more paper jets floating around the offices of the Ethiopian Airlines Group. Since last October, the company has been declared paper-free, with all its internal work processes now fully digitalised and completely paperless. Like many global carriers, Ethiopian Airlines already has a well-developed system for paperless ticketing, boarding and sales services.

This is different. After a seven-year process that involved a reported investment of $50 million – and with help from enterprise management firms Oracle, Sebir, SAP, Microsoft and IBM – the group now only uses paper printouts to communicate with external stakeholders such as the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Airports Enterprise. ‘Although we started the digitalisation project in the last few years, today marks an important milestone in our history as we are removing paper from our entire business processes,’ CEO Tewolde GebreMariam announced at a special paper-burning ceremony in Addis Ababa. ‘Now, by avoiding paper, we ensure that we operate a green airline.’

A similar revolution is under way in Dubai, where in February, Crown Prince Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the Dubai Paperless Strategy during a visit to the Smart Dubai Office headquarters in the emirate’s Dubai Design District. ‘What we are witnessing today is another milestone in Dubai’s journey towards fully embracing smart technology,’ Shaikh Hamdan said.

‘The Dubai Paperless Strategy embodies our leadership’s vision for a smart government that embraces advanced technologies to build a perfectly integrated paperless government framework, and an administration that sets solid plans and strategies to … meet the requirements of the cities of the future.’ The bottom line? After 2021, no government employee or customer will need to print any paper document – eliminating the more than 1 billion papers currently used in government transactions every year.

It’s a noble goal, but is it achievable? Epson doesn’t think so. A recent study commissioned by the global printing giant found that 76% of South Africans surveyed believed that the concept of the paperless office is unrealistic. In Epson Europe’s independent survey of more than 2 400 employees across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, 81% of SA respondents considered printing to be ‘vital’ in terms of helping them work effectively, while 88% considered printing critical to the way their particular industry operates.

Indeed, some 44% of the South African respondents indicated that they print an average of more than 10 documents every day, with the most popular printed items being invoices, letters, reports and brochures, and email attachments.

The South Africans interviewed said that they tend to keep and use the documents they print out, with just 16% saying that they waste or do not use more than 30% of the documents they print out. Some 33% insisted that their productivity would decrease if they were no longer able to print. ‘It is clear from our research that – despite digital advances and over 41% of businesses now digitising documents in favour of keeping hard copy records – people still like to work with paper, preferring print rather than working on-screen for certain tasks,’ according to Jeroen van Beem, Epson’s director of sales (Middle East and Africa).

Epson’s media release at the time quoted futurist Jack Uldrich: ‘The paperless office hasn’t materialised for the same reason that microwave ovens didn’t replace all traditional ovens. Every technology has unique and tangible benefits, and paper is no different. Arguably, paper is the greatest instrument ever invented for conveying, sharing and disseminating information.’

In fact, he went on, ‘recent scientific studies have demonstrated that people understand and retain information presented on paper at a far higher level than information presented electronically’. This, the company suggested, may explain why 61% of those surveyed responded that they believe ‘there is more chance of making errors when editing an electronic document than editing a printout’.

The results of Epson Europe’s survey are compelling, and it’s clear that office workers across the world are still wedded to paper printouts. A cursory look through the typical office will find piles of papers on most desks, with yellow sticky notes attached to computer monitors and manila folders stacked up high at most workstations. Still, the productivity argument starts to fall apart when you read Epson’s own claims that European office workers spend nearly 19 hours (or 110 km) every year walking to and from their office printers.

The transition from paper to electronic document management makes sense on many levels: it enhances business processes, improves operational efficiency, reduces physical storage space, and lowers overall costs. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. In a separate survey commissioned by document management firm M-Files, 63% of respondents said they’d needed to recreate documents that already existed because they were unable to find them. Some 95% indicated that they faced some sort of difficulty accessing and managing information.

‘Organisations of all sizes are struggling to manage ever-increasing amounts of content,’ according to M-Files director of business Julian Cook. ‘[This] is not only leading to a frustrating and time-consuming experience for employees, but it also affects the ability to serve customers effectively.’ Cook adds that the transition from paper to electronic document management has not solved the issue of employees being able to quickly find the documents they need. The problem, as he sees it, is that too many companies have simply migrated their existing paper filing systems into digital form – bringing the same old inefficiencies into the new way of working.

Yet customers in all industries are increasingly attracted by the promise of an ‘easy, paperless process’ – as offered by investment firms including Satrix, or by banks such as FNB, with its new paper-free #Selfie innovation, which allows individuals and businesses to open bank accounts by taking a selfie and uploading it to the bank’s mobile app.

Speaking at the #Selfie media launch recently, FNB CEO Jacques Celliers hailed the service as the bank’s latest step towards paperless banking. The real message, he proclaimed, ‘is that we are on this exponential helpfulness journey. And now, with the help of technology, we can do so much more than we used to do. That’s our purpose’.

One can’t help but wonder, given the results of Epson’s survey, whether there won’t be someone in the bank’s back office who dutifully makes printouts of the paperwork behind that paper-free process, undoing all the efficiencies of the digitisation.

Perhaps that’s cynical. The reality – as Nashua CEO Mark Taylor highlighted recently – is that more and more businesses are evolving from physical document storage to digital document management systems. ‘In the United Kingdom, citizens still receive invoices, bills and documentation via the postal service,’ he wrote.

‘South Africans rarely receive physical invoices. The Johannesburg municipality is already delivering invoices online without a single sheet of paper changing hands. Even courier companies are making deliveries and confirming receipt digitally. It all adds up to quicker transactions and accurate information transferral.’

Taylor emphasised how storing documents digitally can streamline processes through faster, accurate and global access to documentation, without couriers and filing. ‘It will also reduce the downtime on printing and delivering paper, as well as the related staff frustrations.’

He named another benefit related to the paperless office – one that goes beyond improved recycling rates and empty landfills, and into the heart of a smarter, better and more productive economy. In a truly paperless office, he wrote, ‘employees across the business find they have more time to add value in other areas, such as innovation, rather than wasting time sifting through outdated filing archives and pushing paper around’.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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