Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Cisco's Paperless Office
By Claudia Girrbach
Special to the Mercury News
Publication: San Jose Mercury News (California)
Date: Tuesday, May 26 2009
Back in the last millennium, the paperless office was heralded a number of times with great fanfare. After each such pronouncement, paper use increased. The irony of the digital age is that it fueled an unrelenting demand for paper. As a consequence, paper consumption tripled in the last 30 years.
But there is some good news of late. U.S. paper consumption has started to slowly decline after peaking in 2001. Despite the reduction, every year business continues to use 2 trillion sheets of paper. At its current rate of decline, it will require another 40 years to achieve pre-digital paper use. The environmental impact of paper is significant and worth the effort to accelerate the shift to digital. Of U.S. manufacturing, pulp and paper production is the second largest user of energy and water and third largest contributor to pollution.
As CIO for a $3B division in the early nineties, my plea for paperless office went unheeded. The President had his admin assistant print his email for him to make hand-written notes that the admin then entered into the email system. My old boss did finally retire and Luddite behavior is on the wane, but many knowledge workers still have a foot in both the paper and digital worlds. Over 50% of baby boomers print for archiving while less than 30% of young workers print.
Rather than wait for them all to retire, there are other ways to achieve a paperless Nirvana. For example, Cisco provides a good case study. Laptops with wireless connections are used throughout its buildings. Remote access to electronic documents is also available when travelling or working at home. At its hoteling office space there are no assigned spaces and most importantly no filing cabinets. At the end of each day, the knowledge worker is expected to clear out of the workspace. This strategy results in a huge reduction in paper. With no place to store paper coupled with easy access to electronic documents, there is little incentive to print.
The key to implementing a paperless office is to first provide convenient electronic access to documents from anywhere at any time and then make paper use inconvenient. It is critical to do both. If paper use is made inconvenient without offering a great alternative, there will be loud complaints. Likewise, if a firm just provides electronic access, but paper is still convenient to use, the migration away from paper is limited.
The basic formula applies to a variety of businesses. Most businesses have already deployed the majority of the infrastructure required to enable convenient electronic access and a small investment will provide wireless and remote access. For those businesses in traditional offices with lots of physical storage, an alternative approach would be to remove some of the printers. Tracking and reporting on individual printing is also viable. Most people print at work without regard to cost, but these same printer-fiends when CFO of Home, Inc are likely to cut-back on printing since costs are visible and direct.
After 40 years, the paperless office is within reach. It merely requires some encouragement from management to achieve benefits for both business and the environment. Reducing paper by 60%, results in an average savings for each employee of $360 and 200 pounds of greenhouse gas annually. Now that deserves a celebration!
CLAUDIA GIRRBACH is vice president at Integnology, an IT consulting firm, and has held IT leadership roles at Gap and Rite Aid. She was a Sloan Fellow at Stanford University. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.
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