A few years ago, Vandelay Industries had a contract with a state agency in downtown Sacramento to setup and maintain a large XSAN (now defunct Apple storage platform) installation for a video production department.  As we were introduced to staff and facilities, we were given the requisite tour of the on-site data center, housed in a dedicated room on the 14th floor of the building.  The majority of the rack space was occupied by an EMC data warehousing platform that was to be the basis of the agency’s paperless initiative.  It was easily several million dollars worth of equipment.

I later found out that the paperless project had in fact incurred millions in cost, but had not yet been implemented.  The agency engaged a third party consultant to determine why.  At a cost nearly equal to the original project, the consultant determined that the infrastructure that had been installed was the wrong product, and worse, now that it was 3+ years old, it was not a viable base from which to correct the problem.  Everything should be scrapped and the project should be started fresh.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that nobody really cared about the millions in wasted dollars.  The agency employees were used to it, and the contractors, both the initial and the third party consultant brought in later, benefited hugely from the problems.  You can rest assured that the original vendor was not held at all responsible for the errors, and that in all likelihood, they were asked to write the NEW RFP!

Aside from the disgusting waste of taxpayer money, the real issue is that the project was, and shall forever be, doomed to failure.  There was no clear reason for the project.  There were no concrete benefits, there were no business deliverables that the agency could point to as clear improvements.

This is also the case for most small firms we engage with today.

A quick example:  A firm we work with regularly has discovery documents physically delivered to their office, often thousands or even ten’s of thousands of pages.  They scan some or all of those documents into a holding folder, and from there they open, edit, highlight, redact, bates stamp, etc via Adobe Acrobat.  The documents are then saved in multiple locations, emailed, and printed out again, often multiple times.  Hundreds of thousands of pages per year.  Millions even.

Paperless was meant to reduce or eliminate the original physical delivery, which could be done electronically.  It was meant to eliminate subsequent sharing via printing, which should instead be done electronically.  Clearly “paperless” is a misnomer.  It should be thought of as an addition to paper, a possible reduction in paper, but not a replacement for paper.

There are some very compelling scenarios for a “paperless” workflow. Certainly the example above of the firm that captures hundreds of thousands of pages annually, can use paperless tools to catalog, organize, and take notes on the electronic versions of documents.  With the old workflow, providing copies of documents, with markup, notes, etc to multiple external entities meant making multiple copies, often at significant cost.  If the job was too big to be handled internally on firm copiers, that meant outsourcing, and time and expense was compounded.  Now, taking electronic notes, making trackable changes, using electronic bates stamping, and using web accessible file sharing platforms make sharing even massive documents or libraries nearly instant, and with very little cost.

Faxing work flows can be equally improved.  Where historically practices had physical fax machines for multiple departments, now they can all be consolidated into one server, routed based on inbound line or external caller id, and sorted accordingly.  Outbound faxing can be done, just like printing a page, but faxing instead, and using the same contact lists that users have in their email platform.  We work with a small healthcare practice that regularly has faxing volume that exceeds 1000 pages DAILY, 100% of which has been reduced to electronic.  Lesser used numbers, like the “billing” fax have been pooled to accept overflow for the busiest numbers, expanding their effective capacity.  We could spend a whole article on using electronic faxing…

Let me bring this back full circle.  The State of California, in their infinite wisdom, believed in the fairytale of a paperless workflow.  The biggest failure was the expectation that paper could be eliminated.  The vendor responsible should have set realistic expectations, and knowing the industry, should have helped the agency design processes to take advantage of the capabilities before a single hard drive was installed.

What has your experience been?  Have you had a successful implementation?  A failed one?  Are you looking to implement a paperless office?  Why?  What problem do you hope to solve?