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Businesses need to deal with paper’s invisible footprint

December 2013,  just as everyone was preparing to head home for the festive break, a worrying story hit the scientific research press. A team at the University of British Columbia had been attempting to collect original

Phil Greenwood explains why paper poses a real threat to business efficiency.
Phil Greenwood explains why paper poses a real threat to business efficiency.

research data from a random set of 516 studies published between 1991 and 2011. They discovered that 80% of the scientific data that informed the studies had been lost. They noticed that for the first two years after publication, data was properly filed, protected and stored. Then it started to disappear at a rate of 17% a year. Never to be found again.

It is easy to convince ourselves that this couldn’t happen today in our connected, backed-up, data-driven universe, but the fact is that the majority of business information still spends much, if not all, of its lifespan on paper.

Every January, the information management sector stops to take stock of whether and how firms are reducing their dependence on paper; and every year it discovers that once again progress is slow.

A 2013 study by the American Institute of Information Management (AIIM) showed that just one in four organisations has a specific goal to drive paper out of its business.

Somehow we just can’t seem to wean ourselves off the hard copy. According to Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the average office employee still uses around 45 sheets of paper a day, with around half of that discarded almost immediately.

The truth is that, left unmanaged, paper can pose a very real threat to your business. Firms questioned by Iron Mountain and PwC for the latest iteration of the Information Risk Maturity Benchmarkstudy, highlighted employee management of paper records as the single greatest threat to information safety. It topped the list for 66% of UK firms, more than double the number that are concerned with external threats such as hacking and malware

Bigger challenge

We also found that the challenge presented by paper is becoming greater, not smaller, as firms move towards integrated and automated processes.

For example, two-thirds of firms in the UK are struggling to integrate paper into their digital customer management processes and 63% say someone has to enter the details manually into the automated system, a process vulnerable to error and inaccuracy. Four in ten (39%) office workers admit that they don’t really know what to do with paper when it comes in and it just gets filed somewhere.

Paper can be photocopied, shared and removed – not just once, but many times. It can be left lying around on desks and printers, filed randomly in unlocked drawers and cabinets or thrown in a public bin. It can be lost, damaged or destroyed in a way that is near-impossible to track. We found that very few companies are addressing their concerns with concerted action. Just 31% of the UK organisations we spoke to have introduced guidance for employees on how to store and dispose of paper documents and then monitored the effectiveness of these measures. In contrast, 39% have done so for digital data.

Taking paper out of the equation can remove many of the risks, but it’s hard to achieve. If a paper-free environment feels beyond reach, try starting with a paper-light approach. Decide what information is businesscritical, sensitive, confidential, most frequently used or just new – and scan that into a digital format so it can be injected seamlessly into automated processes and systems.

Ensure the journey of each digital document can be tracked end-to-end and that someone is accountable for its integrity. Then you can securely archive the rest of your paper off-site, where it can be indexed, managed and protected.

Alongside this, you need to ensure your employees understand the risk and vulnerability of information; educate and support them and provide them with the tools they need to get it right.

The enduring use of paper by employees is often a product of its convenience. It’s easy to scribble on, read on a train and useful to have to hand when the Wi-Fi connection to the office gets a bit shaky. If employees can access and use information just as easily in digital format, they will do so.

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