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Paperless or less paper?

The paperless office is a myth. But will it soon be a reality? GEETA PADMANABHAN reports


SO, YOU SMS-ed "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" this season. Fine. It's just an extension of customising an e-greeting with jingle bells and fireworks and letting it loose in the virtual world. You already e-mail our office memos, store our blueprints, inventory, project reports and personnel info in a giant database, check your organiser for numbers and appointments and google for information. So your desk is clutter-free and you've reached the El Dorado of e-administration, a paperless office.

Ha! Visit the nearest law firm. Even if you discount the volumes languishing in the cupboards, the files will take years to key in, during which time, the backlog of pending cases will quadruple. It might take several PILs and reams of court paper before the legal system will even consider reducing paper use. "Think teleconferencing court proceedings, legalising e-mailed court documents and permitting multi-media presentations in courtrooms, before whining about excess paper-weight," says an environment lawyer. "Paper-free office? That's a civil case!" he laughs.

"Paper will continue to be in use because it is backup, evidence, physical and tangible," says Dr. Chinny Krishna of the Blue Cross. "I don't see the mindset changing in the foreseeable future. Until e-mails and such electronic documents are seen as factual, paper will be used simply for the fact of proof that something happened, an agreement has been made, or an event has taken place. We find it much easier to refer to a hard copy of a critical document than scramble to access it in the computer. Most of us can't let go of our precious wood pulp security blankets." He admits we have come some way in shedding our paper culture. "Whether it's an engineering drawing from an overseas client or the British Act on animal welfare, in JPG or Acrobat, I can access it in a few seconds."



Paperless office is certainly a reality and it is going to transform the world soon — Krishnan,LL2B.com

"Material invoice slips of both suppliers and customers can just be keyed in," agrees Muthukaruppan, director, Subah Engineering Pvt. Ltd. at the Ambattur Industrial Estate. "Quality assurance, purchase and sales can be networked and inter-office communication e-mailed, doing away with a lot of paper. But on the shop floor, process drawings have to be displayed on all machines. We can't expect the machinist to scroll down to check on settings, tools and blueprints. Every time the drawings change, old ones are destroyed and new ones circulated." He believes the government can do a lot to reduce paper. "Tenders, replies and clarifications can be e-mailed. Why do we attach an inspection report to every bit of material we submit to the government?"

"Partially possible," says Vasantha Rajagopalan, branch manager, SBI giving it an 80-20 chance. "People are getting used to dematerialised (hey, that's a new word!) forms of transaction. Security depositories have gone digital. Centralised end-of-the-day data computing saves us both paper and headache. Most front-end functions are now done electronically, making housekeeping easier. There is no peon carrying ledgers from table to table. For credits and loans, increasingly ECS (Electronic Clearing Service) is used."

Passbooks do matter

Are we close to Internet banking? "For that ATMs should accept deposits. We should outsource cash transactions. Credit cards make it possible to borrow without the banker ever seeing the client. We should opt for back up on tapes and CDs." But what will not be gleefully surrendered is the passbook. "Most people want to see their accounts in black and white. It maintains their comfort level. Also documents like title deeds cannot be digitalised."

"A `paperless' office will give rise to equally paperless backup strategies," argues an ex-government official. "Do you realise that to keep information current, you must actually discourage paper backup? Just key in government orders date-wise as soon as they arrive. Retrieval depends on how best you streamline the storing."

Krishnan of LL2B.com, a digital age thinker, has set about burying paper. His crusade against paper chase in government offices has happily been endorsed by the Electronic Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT), which uses his web enabled, platform independent, paperless solution developed totally using open source technology. If that has made ELCOT procedures transparent, we haven't heard any complaints. ELCOT officials now sanction purchases, approve official activities and transfer files flawlessly in completely electronic format.



People are getting used to paperless forms of transaction -- Vasantha Rajagopalan, branch manager, SBI

All the files processed in the organisation are made available on a central server, while the status of pending files can be obtained at any stage. Only the final order copies are printed and stored as physical record. Said Sudeep Jain, MD, ELCOT: "The average cycle time was earlier 15 to 21 days, whereas, after the implementation of the electronic system, it was only 5 to 7 days," implying that the use of paper is proportional to the time taken for transaction. "Tell your environment lawyer that paperless office is certainly a reality, anywhere, and it is going to transform the world in the next few years," says Krishnan, and adds rather paradoxically, "It would reduce the consumption of paper and stationery by over 50 per cent and would save our valuable forest resources."

Fear of glitches

But e-mails, spreadsheets, databases and documents are still seen largely as editable — meaning anyone can make changes in their text. Also, increasing virus attacks, computer glitches and crashes, erratic power supply and a growing fear in the lack of safety and security keep people from going completely paperless. A piece of paper in a locked filing cabinet is pretty safe barring extreme cases of vandalism and thievery. A "signature-free campaign" is certainly on, but its supporters would leave plenty of standing room in a telephone booth. Office bosses go digital by default rather than due to a conscious effort to save the earth's green cover. The more digital information spread around the world, the more people wanted to print it out. From 1992 to 2002, world consumption of paper and board products grew from 250million tonnes to 325million tonnes.

Authors Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper in "The Myth of the Paperless Office", quote the case of a Danish company that was able to move to a less paper-centric environment by not adopting an all-or-nothing approach. They just encouraged reducing paper use to facilitate the company's new work process, and change employee attitudes. Conclude the authors: "Paper will continue to occupy an important place in office life but will increasingly be used in conjunction with an array of electronic tools. The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper."

* * *

POINTS TO PONDER

* Paper has been around for 6,000 years

* Many bills and receipts still have to be on paper

* Journalists still key in from notes taken on paper

* Newsletters and publications are all in paper

* Several prints are taken for proofreading

* What are your degrees printed on?

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