One of the largest drains on corporate funds and productivity still haunting most organizations today is the seeming endless reliance on paper documents. Thirty years after the PC revolution put computing power in the hands of virtually every employe, almost all documents are created electronically. Typewriters, once a universal office tool, are regulated to museums. Yet paper documents are everywhere in offices today, and executives are even known to print their e-mail.
The direct cost of this is huge. A 2008 white paper by GreenPrint Technologies, for instance, estimated that the average employee prints 10,000 sheets of paper a year at a cost of $.06 to $.13 per sheet, for a total cost of $600 to $1,300 per employee. Multiply that by the number of office workers in a corporation and it becomes a staggering, and mostly unnecessary, sum.
But eliminating paper isn't just about cutting operating costs. Electronic publishing has numerous advantages and is an important part of any business strategy to support mobile business computing. Among the most important are:
- Electronic documents can contain live links: This is one of the primary advantages of electronic publishing beyond the cost savings, allowing readers to drill down to more detailed information on important topics.
- Electronic documents can be available to everyone who needs them instantly, regardless of the users' physical locations worldwide. Not only are electronic documents available at all corporate offices as soon as they are published, they are also available to authorized readers who are out of the office, including outside sales and support personnel and traveling executives.
- Electronic publishing ensures that everybody is using the most up-to-date copy. Documents change, and keeping paper copies up-to-date can be very demanding and simultaneously very important. This is particularly true of large “living” documents such as repair manuals. But it is also important for small, vital documents such as price lists and other sales collateral. An outside salesperson who hasn't received the latest price sheet might quote an incorrect price to a customer, creating an embarrassing situation. Because electronic publishing only maintains one, master document that all users access, updating is assured.
- Documents are more secure. Paper documents can be mishandled, lost, stolen, or purposely copied and shared with unauthorized individuals. Perhaps the most dramatic such case was a Sunday IRA bombing of a London bank office building. No one was injured, but hundreds of pages of confidential information were blown out the shattered windows to fall onto the street below. In another case that became famous during the HIPAA debates of the 1990s, the medical records of a then famous female figure skating champion involved in a one-car accident became public when an overworked nurse left the paper file on the nursing station counter, where a reporter read the skater's blood alcohol level. The personal data was front-page news the next morning.
- Electronic documents are parallel; paper is serial: An electronic document is available to all authorized users simultaneously. A paper copy can only be read by one person at a time. This is particularly important for documents that only have one copy, such as medical records. The location of a patient file that is on a cart somewhere in the hospital can literally be a life-and-death matter in a medical emergency.
- Electronic documents are never misfiled or lost: Because master documents never leave the database and are only viewed by or shared with users over the network, they cannot be misfiled. And strong DR can ensure that, if the system itself malfunctions, the documents can be restored quickly without loss.
And a move to electronic also has major positive environmental results. Every step in the paper lifecycle – from harvesting trees through the manufacture of paper, inks, printers and copiers, to shipping those machines and supplies to users, to the recycling or other inevitable disposal of the documents and the printers and copiers themselves – has various environment costs.
Of course the manufacture of tablet computers and other end-user devices used to read electronic documents also has environmental impacts. But in most cases these devices are used for multiple work and personal tasks starting with electronic communications, at least some of which replace physical mail, business trips, and other activities with their own environmental impacts. And even if the devices are only used to read electronic documents, if they are used frequently the environmental savings from eliminating paper more than makes up for the impact of the tablets' manufacture over the device's lifetime.
Action Item: Overall, electronic publishing has so many advantages over paper printing that companies cannot afford to ignore them. And the largest may be the opportunity to develop a comprehensive program to support tablets, which offer many other potential business benefits, across the organization, transforming the organization into a 21st century mobile enterprise.