Reducing Physical Records: How to Go Paperlite

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Almost forty years ago, BusinessWeek magazine published a story predicting a sharp decline in the use of paper by business. At the time, many experts believed that emerging digital technologies would allow companies to save on “soaring” paper costs and save a few trees in the process. One forecaster suggested that the use of paper would start decreasing in the 1980s, and that by the 1990s, most record-handling would have shifted to electronic formats.

This is a great example of the old saying that is it difficult to make predictions… especially about the future! Not only were these predictions wrong about the timing of the decline, they were wrong about the decline in paper use altogether. Fast forward to 2014 and the blogosphere is rife with articles declaring that paper’s not dead, talking about the paperless society myth and asking why aren’t we rid of paper yet. The statistics quoted in these stories show that paper use is far from declining, it is actually rising. Significantly.

Paperlite is the way forward

Many records managers won’t need blogs and statistics to tell them about the rise of paper records. The reminders are everywhere, from overstocked file rooms to increased use of offsite storage facilities. And this comes at a cost. More paper means higher storage costs, operational inefficiencies, and increased risk during litigation.

While a paperless office is accepted by most to be an impossible dream, there is a sensible middle ground – called paperlite – which was recently endorsed in a great blog post on Wired. Instead of elimination, the goal of paperlite is active reduction of paper volumes.

The magic question however, is how to get there. In our work with countless organizations trying to address paper overload, we have identified six successful strategies to go paperlite.

  1. Apply a functional classification and retention schedule. The functional classification paves the way for the timely elimination of records by placing them in categories based on their business use. Each category of record is marked with a standard retention period that is used to identify when various document types can be destroyed. This is a simple and effective way to prevent paper documents from piling up.
  2. Create a document disposal policy. This authorizes the timely and secure destruction of non-records which aren’t covered by the classification and retention schedule. This policy also helps staff clearly identify which documents are records and which are not. This reduces the tendency to keep documents around “just in case”.
  3. Regularly purge existing collections. While a retention schedule and disposal policy help reduce paper volumes going forward, existing collections need to be addressed as well. There are many ways to do this, including one-time purges overseen by records management staff, as well as regularly scheduled clear-outs of transitory and convenience copies within each company department.
  4. Centralize and standardize the filing of your active records. One of the main reasons staff create duplicate copies of documents is that they have difficulty locating or accessing official records. By centralizing your physical records and standardizing the filing system, staff are more likely to find what they need in a timely fashion.
  5. Use software to track files and manage retention periods. Alongside an improved and centralized filing system, file tracking software also helps reduce duplicate copies. File tracking software ensures that you always know the whereabouts of any given record, making it easier and faster for staff to locate what they need. Records management software (which includes file tracking features) is also helpful in the effort to reduce paper build-up. The automatic tracking of retention periods makes the process of records disposal much more timely and efficient. As records reach the end of their lifecycle they are instantly flagged for destruction.
  6. Convert documents into digital formats. Converting paper records into digital images makes them available to all authorized staff, anywhere in the organization, whenever needed. Usually an imaging program is accompanied by an electronic document management system to facilitate sharing and collaboration. When electronic formats are readily accessible and sharable, staff have fewer reasons to create duplicate copies.

As with any organizational change, going paperlite takes effort, but the rewards are well worth it. Are there any other strategies that you are using to reduce paper volumes? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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