The Paperless Office

June 1, 1999
Is the "paperless" office simply a myth? It always seems like we are almost there, just one more minor innovation away from reducing the mounds of paper

Is the "paperless" office simply a myth? It always seems like we are almost there, just one more minor innovation away from reducing the mounds of paper that move through the typical school into easily manageable electronic bits of information, which would be at our fingertips in the blink of an eye. Unfulfilled promise?

Stack and file, sort and toss. Coping with the paper flood is a chore everyone knows well. Except now, the deluge is ever-increasing due to the information age and the ready availability of printers, faxes and copiers.

Drowning in paper, people lose the ability to decide what to do with the next piece they receive. Can all paper be eliminated from the office environment? Maybe not, yet it is conceivable that up to 90 percent of all office paper can be captured as text, scanned images or groupware documents that can be retrieved by anyone in your office, at anytime.

In many ways, a school office is like any other business. It has staff, and it has paperwork. Many of the problems of excessive paperwork apply to schools in the same way they do to ordinary businesses. It seems that a massive number of documents are required to successfully run a school office.

In particular, paper forms are the primary means for gathering routine administrative approvals. Thousands of times each day, secretaries in education roll paper forms into manual typewriters to record the basis of an administrative approval. After typing, the forms are reviewed, checked, signed, transported, entered in computer databases, filed, retrieved, archived, shredded, dumped and burned. The workload of paper forms is considerable.

While there have been significant strides toward "paperless" offices in recent years (class and bus schedules, registration, etc.), the problem of how to successfully manage the practice given the continuing deluge of forms, letters, faxes, e-mails and various other documents still exists.

Paper is the pony express; in fact, it may be worse than the pony express. It can take an eternity to communicate or make a decision via paper. However, communicating almost entirely electronically speeds decisionmaking, boosting productivity by faculty, staff and administration.

We have become packrats. Consider that $9.5 billion is spent annually on the forms alone; $60 billion is spent on processing them. Worldwide business consumption of paper is currently 245 million tons per year and will exceed 300 million tons per year by the year 2000. Studies show staff typically lose 15 percent of documents they handle and spend up to 30 percent of their time looking for documents.

Document management Document management is the management of unstructured information, typically found in letters, faxes, computer printouts, etc. In this context, a document can be any source of information. Document management's purpose is to make available the relevant information to the right people in a timely fashion.

Given just how critical such information is to any school, it is perhaps surprising that information often is stored in a disorganized, insecure and inaccessible manner. So, why use document management techniques? These techniques can:

-Reduce cost and increase productivity.

-Reduce repetitive, time-consuming data entry.

-Reduce the physical space required to store paper records.

-Reduce the risk of misfiling and find vital information much more quickly.

-Make the flow of key documents more efficient and secure.

-Increase the capacity of staff to deal with more work on a daily basis.

Electronic forms Following are some important benefits of electronic processing:

-Electronic forms are preloaded, with many relevant items of data, which saves retyping or re-entering that data.

-Electronic forms save the cost of filing because they are automatically filed. One image of a form can be retrieved in multiple file folders at the same time.

-Electronic forms eliminate the considerable expense of paper forms.

-Electronic forms save the cost of office space, file cabinets and file folders.

-Electronic forms are self-distributing. They do not have to be stapled, folded or addressed to get to the proper individual.

-Since electronic forms are transported electronically, they do not require mail carriers.

In each of these important ways, electronic processing can streamline the workflow and reduce cost in most educational offices.

Keeping it secure Administrators and counselors always have been concerned with the security of electronic forms and information. With paper forms and manual signatures, it is infinitely easier to commit fraud than with electronic forms. Anyone can type a letter or form; anyone can forge signatures.

The interesting thing is that people do not often forge signatures because they know that it is against the law. With electronic approval, the legal implications are compounded. There is a set of computer laws, which cover fraud. People are not encouraged to commit crimes electronically any more than they are with paper. It is easy to establish a "security matrix," which combines access control, functional authorization and document processing into a security shield that discourages unauthorized access.

In the information age, paper is out of fashion. It is no longer a reasonable medium for storing and distributing information. It has been stated that 70 percent of school's waste is paper. Our current office and teaching practices are alarmingly outdated in a world of technological wonders. Technologically, American education is wobbling down Electric Avenue in a horse-drawn cart. The reality is that no nation wishing to survive in the 21st century can neglect coming to grips with making technology part of its development package.

As administrators in today's educational system, we are responsible for educational reform that will bring to offices the potential of the technological advances of recent years. But someday, school paper mills will be as antiquated as rusting factories.

Does your school office have a plan for going paperless, or even for less paper?

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