By Jeff Kress
Illustration : John Sapsford
The promise of a paperless office has been around for years and finally the technology to fully support it is here
Computer use in the workplace has never been greater, and monitors are larger and easier on the eyes than ever before. Most documents are created in electronic format and life without e-mail
would be hard to imagine. Yet the paper on office desks has not gone away. Filing cabinets are full; central storage rooms hold paper documents and outside storage is used to archive paper files. Paper clutter is still a problem.
There are tangible benefits that organizations can achieve by using technology to help reduce reliance on paper documents. One benefit is reduced operational costs. It is cheaper and faster to send electronic documents than to courier paper files, and storing files electronically is much cheaper than maintaining a storage facility for paper data. Electronic data is also easier to archive: simply make a backup copy and store in a secure off-site location. The same cannot be said for paper files. All it takes is one fire, a major storm or a flood to permanently destroy paper documents.
Using electronic working papers can also increase productivity. It is more efficient and effective to search electronic documents based on a key word than to scan paper files. Electronic working paper software saves time for both preparers and reviewers and makes it easier to find documents. Use of electronic forms and standardized documents can increase compliance with policies and procedures and improve quality control. For example, the implementation of a working paper software package such as CaseWare, combined with an audit package such as the Professional Engagement Manual, can significantly improve quality control compliance for any audit organization.
Digitize that piece of paper
Organizations receive and generate paper documents daily. So how can an organization reduce its reliance on paper?
Provide staff with the capability to scan paper documents. The scanning systems need to be fast, provide high-quality images and must be available to staff when needed. If scanning is too slow or if the quality is not adequate, staff will stick with paper.
Provide the tools to effectively use electronic documents. There is nothing worse than trying to read electronic documents on a computer monitor that is too small. Larger or multiple computer monitors can help. Staff also needs to be able to effectively modify, search and review electronic documents.
Organizations also need to store documents so that retrieval, backups and archiving can occur. Document management systems and working paper programs can achieve operational and productivity increases while addressing backup, archiving and disaster recovery issues.
Turn paper into a digital document by using a scanner
Scanning technology has come a long way in the past few years. Gone are the bulky and slow flatbed scanners that produced poor image quality. Good-quality scanners are now available for all at reasonable prices in a wide range of sizes and performances. There are two broad categories of scanners: those that are needed to support high-volume scanning in the office and portable scanners for people who work outside the office.
Most new network printer/photocopiers can also function as a high-speed scanner. This allows scanned images to be e-mailed to any user on the network. As most organizations already use a network photocopier/printer, the cost to implement this solution is typically low. If your current network photocopier doesn’t support this feature, consider an upgrade on a future purchase or lease.
For smaller firms or sole practitioners, a wide variety of home and small business scanners/photocopiers/printers are available. Such equipment can provide good-quality images and decent scanning speed at a reasonable price.
For those who spend a lot of time outside of the office, a portable scanner might help reduce paper. While most working papers are in electronic format, some documents are only available in paper format. Portable scanners have improved significantly over the past few years and can be very small. A company called Planon makes what it claims to be the world’s smallest colour scanner. Measuring only nine inches in length and weighing a mere two ounces, it can scan an 8.5- by 11-in. sheet of paper in five seconds. Scanning technology has never been so portable.
Speed, image quality and price are the biggest factors to consider when selecting a portable scanner. The smallest scanners are typically slower, more expensive and produce lower-quality scans, so be wary of purchasing the smallest scanner unless size is the most important factor. Many portable scanners are available, so determine what is most important to you before purchasing.
Scanners work well for imaging paper documents, but the question is what file format to use when scanning. The first option is to create an image file such as a Tagged Image File Format. TIFF format is widely supported by image-manipulation applications, publishing and page-layout applications. The second option is to create a Portable Document Format (PDF) file. Most scanners also come with optical character recognition (OCR) software, which converts graphical images of text into standard text that can be edited using word processing software. OCR software also can be used on TIFF or PDF files. The quality of OCR software has improved significantly. However, the quality of the source paper and the scanner still impact the usability of electronic documents created using OCR.
PDF is the de facto standard for printable documents on the Internet and the PDF reader is free. This makes it easy to share PDF files. PDF files can be made word searchable, which makes it much easier and faster to find key sections in large documents, thereby providing a major benefit over paper. A wide variety of editing tools allow users to add comments, highlight sections or leave verification marks in PDF files.
What computer changes would help support the use of electronic documents instead of paper?
Working on a computer all day requires a good computer monitor. Trying to review a number of documents at once on a small screen simply does not work.
Computer monitors are larger, clearer, easier on the eyes and more affordable than ever before. But what if one monitor is not enough? Most desktop and laptop computers can support at least two computer monitors at once. Additional monitors can be supported by upgrading a computer’s video card. For those practitioners who spend a lot of time checking references and referring to multiple documents at once, an additional monitor can increase productivity.
One argument for paper is that it is easier and faster to draw a chart or diagram on paper than to use a computer program. Typing notes while at a meeting may not be a preferred option. Or maybe typing speed is a concern. In those cases people often feel paper is the way to go. While this was true in the past, tablet PCs are helping to bridge that gap. A tablet PC is a laptop with a monitor that serves as a touch screen and a writing tablet. They make drawing diagrams or taking notes as easy as writing on paper (without having to later scan in the image or retype notes in a word processor). For those who have recently purchased a laptop or desktop computer and would like the functionality of a tablet PC, external tablets can be connected to a computer using a USB connection. Windows XP Tablet Edition and Windows Vista provide tablet functionality. Sorry, Mac users. Apple currently does not market a tablet PC.
Electronic documents increase data storage space requirements. Luckily, storage capacities keep increasing while costs decrease. For most small practitioners, the additional storage requirements of electronic data would be minor compared to storing an equivalent amount of paper. Just back up the data and store off site in a secure location. Off-site backups support the restoration of systems and data in the event of a disaster.
Organizing and managing electronic documents
File management systems help organize and manage electronic data, allowing staff to find the information in a timely and cost-effective manner. These systems could be as simple as setting up a network file structure to make accessing the documents easier. Larger organizations might consider a document management system, or an enterprise content management system. Both types are similar, with the goal being improved management, tracking and storage of electronic documents. These systems can provide additional advantages related to backups and help organizations meet professional, legislative or business process archiving requirements.
Public practice practitioners can save time and money by using electronic working paper software such as CaseWare. While all the large CA firms use a working paper software program, many smaller practitioners maintain manual files. The document management, trail balance, lead sheet and financial statement preparation capabilities of working paper software programs can provide significant benefits without the need to prepare paper working papers. Benefits include reduced engagement time, increased consistency, better quality control and increased productivity.
Reviewing business processes can help identify ways to reduce paper. For example, reconsidering why an organization is generating, distributing or storing certain data may identify process improvements that will save time and money.
Government organizations should consider whether there are any legislative implications to going paperless. For example, electronic land titles were not legally valid in Saskatchewan until land titles legislation was changed.
There may be some tasks that are easier to perform with paper. But there are substantial benefits that can be achieved by reducing paper in the workplace. The technology has arrived to support the move to reducing paper in your workplace, so start today.
Jeff Kress, CA•IT, CISA, CISSP, is a principal with the Provincial Auditor Saskatchewan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Technical editor: Yves Godbout, CA•IT, CA•CISA, Office of the Auditor General of Canada