Going Paperless On A Small Scale

Earlier this week, I linked to the Paperless 2013 website, a vendor-sponsored initiative that encourages businesses to cut paper, ostensibly for environmental reasons. The products featured by the sponsor vendors – Google Drive, HelloFax, Manilla, HelloSign, Expensify, Xero and Fujitsu ScanSnap – can certainly assist with this, although I run a completely paperless office using only one of those (Google Drive), and that one only in a secondary role. The interesting part was a conversation that ensued with another small business owner, although she was primarily interested in going paperless with personal documents (which I have also done), which made me realize that most small businesses are a bit clueless about how to go about this in a secure and legal fashion. I’ve been involved in large-scale document scanning projects since the 1980s, and I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about how to do this on a scale suitable for organizations of any size, so I thought that I’d lay out a plan suitable for small businesses.

Keep in mind that although I run a single person business, it’s incorporated, so I have the same paperwork requirements as any other private company: invoicing, payroll, government filings, income tax and all. I also do some amount of document collaboration with other small businesses, as well as for some non-profits with which I’m involved.

Here’s how I keep paperless:

  1. If I receive a document in electronic form, I leave it in electronic form unless I absolutely need to print it.
  2. If I generate a document, I leave it in electronic form unless I need to physically sign it (such as a contract) or take it to a client meeting (since many of my clients have not embraced the paperless way). This is not just Microsoft Office documents, but any document including things such as invoices, which I generate from my accounting software (QuickBooks) directly as a PDF and email to clients: I keep a copy of the PDF invoice, but it is never in paper form in my office. Services such as Freshbooks pride themselves on offering electronic invoicing, but you don’t need to switch if you’re happy with what you have, just install a good PDF generator and send it via email.
  3. If something is in paper form but I can get the electronic version instead, I do. Although my bank doesn’t provide electronic bank statements for commercial accounts, many other banks and service providers do. Most of my monthly expenses receipts, including travel and telecommunications, arrive in PDF, since most airlines, hotels and car rentals will email a receipt to you if you ask. My most common question at a client site when they hand me a huge printed document or presentation is “can I get that in electronic form”?”
  4. As a last resort, if I receive something in paper form (or have to print it in order to sign it), I scan it and shred the paper as soon as possible. This is the crux of most document imaging projects, but in reality is a fairly minor part these days if you do most of your communication electronically and can keep paper out of the mix altogether. Yes, it’s legal (more on that below). Since my volume is very low, I use an inexpensive Epson scanner that I picked up at Costco, and the software that came with it. That’s fine for a few pages a day, but anything more than 10 pages at a time gets tedious because it doesn’t have a sheet feeder. I would highly recommend a sheet feeder if you have a backlog of paper to convert, or if you regularly receive large paper documents. For smaller receipts when I’m travelling, I snap a photo with my iPhone, back it up to the cloud, then destroy the paper document.
  5. I use automated backup to replicate everything offsite. This eliminates the risk of losing documents, and allows me to access documents from my netbook when I’m travelling.
  6. I use online backup/sync services for shared content management when I collaborate on a project with other small firms and independents. Even if I were working with people in the same office, I would use the same methods since there’s no need to own your own servers.
  7. I manually maintain retention policies on the electronic documents, and delete them appropriately. In Canada, that means I need to keep all corporate and tax-related documents for six years past the end of the fiscal year: I just deleted my 2006 files and shredded the paper files, since that was the last year that I kept any paper records. For any files with a retention policy, I keep them in dated folders so that I can quickly purge them without having to search through files; this means a bit of electronic reorganization at the year end, but it takes only a few minutes.

The result: I have no paper files in my office, except for a small pile in my in-tray waiting to be scanned. No filing cabinets, no boxes of documents in storage. As an added bonus, I have offsite backup, which most people with paper files don’t.

Quelling the nay-sayers:

  • “I don’t like to read on a screen”. Get a bigger/better screen, or dual monitors, and a tablet for taking it with you. Cheaper in the long run.
  • “It’s not secure”. Back everything up offsite, not just locally, in case of a physical disaster (fire/flood/theft). I use Jungle Disk (a division of RackSpace), which encrypts my data on the desktop, then uploads it to an encrypted Amazon S3 bucket. I hold the key, not them, so they can’t decrypt my data. My backup runs automatically, so I don’t need to do anything to make this happen.
  • “It’s too hard to create electronic documents”. Get a good PDF printer/document assembly application. I use CutePDF Pro, which allows me not only to generate PDFs from any application that can print, but also to assemble multiple PDFs into a single document, rearrange pages and other functions. This is useful when I need to append a timesheet to an invoice before sending to a client, or to concatenate all of my expense receipts to attach to a monthly expense report.
  • “I can find things easier in my filing system”. Easier than searching through full-text documents? I don’t think so, unless you have a really trivial number of files. Learn how to use search capabilities of your desktop environment (built into Windows, for example), install a third-party search utility, or (if your company is large enough) use a shared content management system.
  • “I need to keep these paper documents for legal/regulatory reasons”. Probably not. Most government taxation bodies have long accepted digital copies (scans of paper, or original digital documentation such as an invoice received as a PDF) in place of paper – what they refer to as “electronic record keeping”. You can see the Canada Revenue Agency’s take on this at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/bsnss/tpcs/kprc/menu-eng.html, and similar policies exist for the IRS and other agencies. The Canada Labour Code has similar requirements for human resources records. You may need to research for your type of documents in your jurisdiction, but electronic record-keeping is most likely allowed.

If you’re starting from ground zero of a paper explosion, this might seem a bit daunting. Keep in mind that you can do this on a day-forward basis, since many of your old paper files can be shredded as they pass their 6th birthday: just go paperless starting today (or from the beginning of your fiscal year) and let the old paper cycle out over time. If you really love it and want to get ambitious, you can start doing some back scanning, but it may not be worth it. When I started in 2007, I was already keeping everything electronically that originated that way, but added in scanning of expense receipts (my biggest single paper volume) and government documents, which was not a big change. I still didn’t start scanning contracts for another few years, since they’re big and I don’t have a sheet feeder, but eventually went back and scanned all of the old ones just to clean out the last of the paper files.

A lot of these ideas, of course, are not limited to small business, but form the core of any ECM initiative. Things get more complex when you add in automated business processes to move those documents around between people, but the basic concepts, motivations and nay-saying are the same.

9 thoughts on “Going Paperless On A Small Scale”

  1. Hi Sandy
    Thanks for the tips.
    Any suggestions on classifying and organizing the documents (e.g. folder structures, keywords, tagging etc.?). One of the easier things with physical docs is tagging with post its etc – to add information without modifying the doc.
    For example – tagging with a follow up note.
    Any ideas how to do something similar electronically?

  2. Hi Divya, great questions.

    When I made the move from Outlook to Google Mail several years ago, I started to rethink the idea of folder structures, and tend to use search instead. Since search is so fast now, I don’t really think about where an email is stored, but just search for some keywords or sender/recipient. The same thinking has evolved in how I deal with documents, too. Although I have to organize documents into folders within Windows, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the structure since I typically find documents using Windows search on the desktop. For documents that originate electronically and are therefore searchable by the full text contents (including PDFs), this is much better than coming up with a taxonomy and applying keywords as metadata to each of the files. For scanned documents, which are less and less these days, and often just backup documentation such as expense receipts, I use file naming as a first level of “keywording” since that will be found in the Windows search. For folders, I create a folder for each project but don’t tend to break it down much beyond that since I can just search in the folder if required. When a project is finished, I move the folder to an archive so that it doesn’t clutter up my active projects folder. For corporate finances, I have a top-level folder for each year, then a small number of subfolders for payroll, expenses, invoices and contracts. That lets me take the entire year folder and move it to an archive at the end of the year, and delete it six years later. This idea of using search rather than obsessing over folder structures works even better in an ECM system: when I use SharePoint at client sites, I almost never navigate the folder structures unless I’m just browsing to see what’s there; instead, I search for the specific document that I’m looking for.

    I agree, making notes on paper documents is a big advantage. However, I like my notes to be searchable, so my habit now is to create a “notes” document (in Word, although this could be in anything you like) for each project, and write all my notes in there. If I refer to a specific document, then I name it in my notes, but if I have gone to the trouble to annotate a paper document, that usually means that it’s going to be revised to take account of those annotations, so the next version of the document will supersede my annotated version anyway. If I really need annotations for some reason, then I scan the paper document with the annotations.

    For action items, I keep a to-do list. I rarely have to-do items that are about a specific document, so likely would not have used a follow up note on a paper document anyway. Instead, I have a simple to-do list that is organized by project (including internal projects such as corporate finances) and sorted by date of next action required. There are many more sophisticated ways to do this, and I hope that other readers chime in with their ideas (I’m always looking for improvements to my own methods). As you move to multi-person teams in small businesses, rather than just the single-person operation that I run, then you can start to benefit from some of the capabilities of the lower-end BPM systems or the new ad hoc task management systems to help organize and assign tasks.

  3. Amazing parallels as I was reading this. I’ve been doing the same with almost the exact software and hardware for the same time. Even your interaction with clients is the same – “please don’t give me paper”. Most governments and the United Nations have spent years publishing guidance, laws and regulations on admissability and the use of electronic media for documents and transactions. It’s the information on the paper that’s important, not the paper itself. In most cases, it’s far easier to prove the origin, intent, and chain of custody of the electronic version over any paper version.

  4. Rob – thanks. Would love to hear any particular things that you’re doing for a law office versus any other type of business.

  5. Thanks Sandra. Great ideas. Could you edit and put these into your article – since they gave (me atleast 🙂 a lot more information.

  6. Hi Sandy, very good real world experiences and observations.

    I do however feel that the statement that these are the basis of any corporate ECM effort is pushing ECM into the basic archiving corner. Yes, any mediocre programmer can write an ECM tool for that in a few weeks. That I do not agree with. Cointent extraction and creation using business data and managing the content while moving through business transactions is the real ECM effort for a business. And the point is that since 25 years these are the real problems of ECM as these were always utterly electronic whether you produce or keep a piece of paper in the end. You handle documents for one person, but a business might need to manage content for millions of customers. And it is not just about finding it again in the archive but managing the CONTEXT of the content while it is being processed by the business.

    It is unfortunate that when we talk to executives and business managers they still do not recognize that essential link between inbound and outbound content and its process context. Content actually IS THE PROCESS: Without it process flows do nothing. As was commented before it is not about the piece of paper or the scan file but the content and the business data in the document. IT ‘experts still spend substantial time to create and application or a process and just before they are done they realize that they have no content … and in fact no function. Then they scramble with all soorts of tools and coding to get the project completed. The maintenance cost of that is immense because the one thing that changes the most in a business is the business content!

    The following post elaborates on that in more detail:

  7. Hi Max, thanks for your comments – insightful as always. Obviously, capture, filing and retention management are not the only things involved in an ECM initiative, especially in a larger company: as you point out, managing the entire content-rich customer lifecycle is key. However, so many businesses of all sizes are still so paper-bound, and sometimes just getting the capture, filing and retention in place is a significant start for them.

    Content and process are always tightly in my mind, since I started my journey in the 1980s with document imaging and workflow, long before the days of BPM, ACM and even ECM.

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