The paper tiger who won’t be tamed

A former colleague told me that a professor from Queen’s University School of Business would be presenting a research study about document management on Monday. He was kind enough to forward the event location and attached a copy of the study.

This was on Friday, so I decided to print out

the study and take it home for the weekend. It started printing . . . and printing . . . and I realized I should have checked the number of pages before I started.

“”Is that still all yours?”” someone asked, clearly impatient for their own print job.

“”Sorry, I’m just printing out my novel,”” I said. “”I hope no one minds.””

While I was waiting I decided to have a quick conference with one of my staff. After we left the boardroom I forgot all about the research study — the 30-plus pages sat there all weekend, and I ended up getting another copy of it in person Monday morning.

This is the kind of inefficiency that the study’s author, Peter Richardson, would appreciate only too well. Richardson, whose work was sponsored by Xerox Canada, is discussing the results of his paper in a series of CEO/CIO breakfast meetings across the country. He says document management headaches may be causing Canadian businesses and government more than $50 billion a year in lost productivity and calls it a “”crisis in the office”” (helpfully, the words “”crisis in the office”” are italicized throughout the report, just in case we don’t appreciate the severity of the problem).

If that sounds like a big number, Richardson believes he can justify it. He takes the example of a senior partner in a legal firm who, because he’s spending so much time juggling e-mail, surface mail and other documents, can’t be with his clients, charging billable hours. In economics theory, this is known as opportunity cost. Richardson said that when he was contacted by Xerox, the Document Company was interested in the direct costs like channel duplication, IT support and wages/materials. He told Xerox they should be thinking about the hard-to-meaure costs like asset utilization, technological obsolescence and customer dissatisfaction. In large companies, the report says, millions of dollars can be tied up by these costs. As Richardson says, this problem is only going to get worse as we have more devices to deal with and an ever-growing volume of paper in the office. “”Frankly, I’m surprised you had the time for breakfast,”” he told the audience.

Richardson’s study is worth a look, if only because it offers a series of worthwhile questions that can help an organization assess its document management pressures. On the other hand, he and Xerox face a difficult challenge in getting corporate enterprises to take the first step in solving the so-called crisis: admitting they have a problem. Xerox offers a Document Cost Index and consulting expertise to help organizations make efficient handling policies, but to most people document management happens at an individual level. Some people print out everything. Others work as electronically as possible (including Xerox’s Cam Hyde, who confessed to using a RIM BlackBerry when he and his wife watch television in bed. “”She said, ‘That’s it. You might as well be bringing in a computer to bed!'””). Though both Hyde and Richardson said a proper balance must be struck, it could be difficult for some of these policies to respect a variety of work styles, some of which may involve a lot of documents but which are nonetheless effective.

One of Richardson’s recommendations — that large enterprises appoint a chief document officer to set up and implement smart policies — points to the real reason this isn’t acknowledged as a crisis. To confess that you are overwhelmed by your mail has become so common that it has lost meaning. After a certain point, it just looks like poor time management. As knowledge workers, part of our job is to weed out what’s important, to isolate the sales lead amidst the many red herrings. Policies and a mix of hardware and software can assist these efforts, but we will never avoid these chores entirely.

“”There was a time when we would have assistants or a mailroom that would handle this stuff for us,”” Richardson says. “”But after all the downsizing, a lot of those people are gone. Sales people are becoming service people.”” That’s right: and that’s exactly what everyone wanted when they realized the services business was more lucrative than selling commodities like, say, personal computers. Document management comes with the territory. If you can’t take the paper, get out of the mailroom.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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