From the March 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Imagine a business world completely devoid of paper. No stacks of the stuff cluttering desks. No filing cabinets brimming with invoices dating back several years--or more. No yellow stickies clinging to computer screens. This was the promise of the paperless office, which would rely solely on electronic means to generate, organize and retrieve business materials previously bound to paper. Most of us have given up this dream, realizing it's not realistic to wean our employees--let alone ourselves--off paper. And, let's face it, some processes just work better with a good old pad and pen.

There is a continuing movement, however, toward implementing more paperless activities around the office. By creating what's known as an electronic document management system, companies convert many paper materials, such as business documents and faxes, into electronic versions. In its new electronic document or database format, the information is easily accessible to employees across a network.

An obvious benefit of implementing such a system is a hefty reduction in paper costs. Although the evolution of computers was supposed to reduce our reliance on paper, in most businesses, it's actually increased paper usage. According to information technology research firm IDC/Link, printing and copying expenses typically account for 6 percent to 12 percent of a company's annual revenue.

Yet the main benefit of adopting a more paper-free environment is increased productivity. A highly organized system that pools your business's resources drastically reduces the time spent finding information. Rather than having to hunt down a misplaced fax or search for a filed document, the data is readily accessible from your desktop. Document management systems also foster collaboration on projects because people can easily create, share and review electronic documents. What's more, employees can take better advantage of the wealth of knowledge that already exists in your company. "An electronic document management system allows businesses to reuse and repurpose information and work other people have already done," says Ian Campbell, director of collaborative and Intranet computing with International Data Corp., a Framingham, Massachusetts-based provider of information technology data, analysis and consulting.

Keith Parsons, 37, and Ed Krach, 35, have learned firsthand the time-saving benefits of a paperless office. The partners own a small technical training and marketing firm, Ryan, Parsons & Krach, in Orem, Utah. During the past two years, they've acquired four scanners, all connected to their network, which they use to quickly scan client data, magazine articles and technical journals into text for quicker input and sharing.

And that's not all. Electronic document management systems typically lead to improved customer service because they provide better access to information needed to serve clients.

Pulp Friction

Originally, the idea was to use electronic imaging devices like scanners to turn paper documents into electronic versions. But now, companies are finding it more useful to create entire systems to collect, organize and retrieve all their electronic documents. Because of the significant expense and maintenance that's often involved, these systems are best for small businesses with large data needs or those wanting to upgrade certain departments, such as accounting.

The backbone of an electronic document management system is the software, which regulates the different versions of your documents, integrates documents from various sources--including e-mail, faxes and Internet downloads--and organizes them for easy access. One highly advanced program is IBM's Lotus Notes, a client-server solution that integrates most desktop applications, databases and mail programs into one system. Users can easily view folders and the documents they contain, create links to various document types--including Web pages--and even employ Notes Agents to automatically organize their information.

There are also electronic document management programs designed specifically for small businesses. The Paperless Office from Computhink is one of the most advanced, feature-rich programs on the market. The Paperless Office Network Edition 2.0 (starting at $3,000) is available in 5-, 10- and 25-user configurations and is compatible with Windows 95/NT environments. This user-friendly program allows you to organize, store and retrieve more than 100,000 electronic multipage documents.

The best reason to use a program like this is the powerful search capabilities it offers. The Paperless Office Network Edition employs a 32-bit relational document database system for finding and retrieving documents on the network. Users can search for information by keywords, dates and document types, to name just a few ways. Additional features include Xerox Textbridge Classic OCR software to turn scanned images into text; the software also stores and compresses files, and imports documents from any Windows application.

I found the annotation function for adding electronic sticky notes, text and drawn objects to electronic documents extremely handy. It eliminates errors that often occur when hand-writing notes on paper and makes additional communication between employees unnecessary because relevant instructions and comments are included on a single document.

In addition to software, another key component to an effective document management system is the scanning device used to turn your mountains of paper into electronic documents. One scanner to consider: the PaperPort Strobe from Visioneer. This sheet-fed scanner, available in Windows 95/NT ($249) and Macintosh ($299) versions, can handle all kinds of media, from color photos and faxes to receipts, business cards and memos. Even better, because of its small design (11 by 2 by 21/2 inches), it fits between the keyboard and monitor, so it's perfect for crowded working spaces. It scans 24-bit color in up to 300 dpi and up to 2,400 dpi in black and white.

The software included with the PaperPort Strobe is impressive. It allows you to manipulate photos and easily organize files by dragging scanned documents into any folder. Ed Krach finds the Share feature, which allows users on a network to make notations, particularly useful. Additional programs like Xerox TextBridge OCR and Quicken ExpensAble SE for managing expense reports are also included.

Visioneer also has two new flatbed scanners, the PaperPort 3000 ($179) and PaperPort 6000 ($299), which work well for scanning oversized documents and books. If you have a Web site (or want one), the new PaperPort WebSuite ($49.99) includes Web creation software, links to quickly drag scanned images and documents into an HTML editor, and advanced Web publishing features.

Remote Possibilities

Employees need quick and easy access to the document management system from their desktops. Typically, this requires a network with the software residing on a server so employees can access and share electronic documents. Another option, however, is to build the infrastructure remotely via the Internet, Campbell says. Rather than running on your server, for a monthly fee, some ISPs are beginning to offer access to groupware and messaging products like Lotus Notes residing on their servers. The ISP manages the entire document management system, making it less costly to start up and support, and employees access the software with their Web browsers.

Finally, with all these important documents stored in an electronic format, you'll need a backup system to protect your information. You can back up to tape, disk, or an optical disk drive for more advanced backup needs. Krach, for instance, uses the archival features included with the PaperPortStrobe to back up documents to an Iomega Jaz drive.

Details, Details

Although getting the right kind of technology in place is crucial, it's also important to think about the types of information you want to include in your electronic document management system. Establish procedures to ensure it's being used properly, so employees don't shun the system and revert to using paper.

Chief among these concerns is determining how electronic documents will be created, says Campbell. If your key documents are on paper and you want to transform them into electronic documents, keep in mind you'll probably have to make some size and font adjustments to make the electronic versions more readable. Because portions of the documents may be difficult to read on a computer screen, carefully evaluate your documents and rework them as needed.

Determine the kinds of information you'd like to include in your document management system, realizing that some items may actually be best left in paper format. Don't just add newly created documents to the system; include older documents as well. And don't forget to include standard documents such as invoices, receipts and purchase orders.

Your long-term goal shouldn't stop at creating a system that merely organizes your business data efficiently and fosters collaboration around the office. Don't get me wrong: Accomplishing this is a big step. However, your goal is to have employees recognize the real value these documents contain and to leverage the actual knowledge that exists in your company so everyone can find the best ways to use it.

Contact Sources

Computhink, (630) 705-9050, http://www.computhink.com

International Data Corp., (508) 872-8200, ext. 4010, http://www.idc.com

Ryan, Parsons & Krach, e-mail: info@rpk.com, http://www.rpk.com

Visioneer, (800) 787-7007, http://www.visioneer.com