Published in TDAN.com October 2001
Forward-looking organizations must tackle the co-existence of digital and paper documents if for no other reason than the current exponential growth of information. More information has been
produced in the last thirty years than in the previous five thousand – the entire history of civilization. What’s more, that body of information is expected to double in less than five years. With
over 90 percent of corporate information contained in documents, it is clear that whatever the medium – pixels or paper – documents are the currency of the post-20th century Information Age.
Information: You’ve got to be able to find it, you’ve got to be able to use it, and you’ve got to be able to keep it. Documents allow us to do all these things.
For most organizations in the Information Age, documents compose much, if not all, of the product they sell or the service they provide. A health insurance company, for example, does not provide
diagnosis or treatment, only information about what doctor is available, what coverage is provided and what claims have been paid. For companies such as this, documents are the product – the only
tangible evidence of the service provided.
Documents are also the keeper of corporate knowledge and the repository of corporate history. Whether printed on paper or displayed on a computer screen, documents are the tools that run a business
everyday. They prompt customers to buy and workers to work, and are the beginning and end of corporate workflow.
Using Documents Strategically means using Information Strategically
If firms are not effective in managing both digital and paper documents they will be less able to face competitive pressures and changing markets. Companies must have information agility in order
to effectively react to dynamic change in their marketplace. Traditionally, change in the marketplace was somewhat predictable; business increased or decreased in a reasonably linear pattern and
competitors entered or exited the market in a relatively logical and predictable fashion. Today, however, the economic, technological and societal factors that influence change are moving
simultaneously and unpredictably. A document strategy ensures that an organization can find, use and keep information with agility and effectiveness.
Information is now the most valuable component of the entire economic chain, according to Peter Drucker, the prominent management consultant. Organizations that are able to harness the power of
information and manage, share and use information effectively are well positioned to create value for everyone involved, says Drucker.
But the cost of harnessing that value is high. Investment in information technology now accounts for over one-half of the United States’ gross investment in equipment. It has been estimated that
U.S. businesses spend more than $100 billion on hardware alone. Documents are a vehicle that can turn the expense of gathering information into an asset – they are one aspect of information
processing that can be quantifiably measured and improved. A document strategy is vital because it monitors, directs and improves document systems and can ultimately determine the real value of the
information you have gathered and the technology used to collect it.
Are Documents Paper or Digital?
The traditional view of documents as strictly paper no longer applies in today’s wired world. The notion of what documents are has expanded to include an ever-widening scope – Web pages, e-mail,
electronic file transfer, e-commerce, and the rest. The very definition of a document can be troublesome when defining the reach of a meaningful document strategy. Is a document defined in terms of
the media that carries the information – paper vs. digital? Should voice mails, e-mails, Web pages and video clips be considered documents? What separates a document from the multitude of
information-carrying files stored within the digital vaults of an organization?
Despite the popular notion of the “paperless office,” the Information Age is actually powering a boom in paper. Since 1984 – the dawn of the personal computer – the number of pages printed by
American companies has grown by 500 percent to about 1.5 trillion pages per year. This equates to a mountain of paper 6,500 times taller than Mount Everest.
In 1995, only about 10 percent of documents were presented in digital form. Predictions point to an eventual decline in paper documents, however, to about 30 percent of total by 2005. But the
predicted growth of information rises considerably over the same time period. As a result, the number of printed pages will actually double by 2005.
Paper has staying power because people find it reassuring. Paper is tangible; something you can put your hands on as opposed to a virtual document somewhere. It is really a matter of comfort and
confidence. Other than devoted technophiles, most people are less likely to soak in the bathtub with a PC than they are with a magazine or newspaper. And people often lack the confidence in
technology to access documents when they need them. If it is something important, chances are you are going to print it. There are few Ph.D. candidates, for instance, that don’t have several
copies of their dissertation printed on paper and safely tucked away.
In the corporate world, many people still need to work with physical rather than virtual documents. One reason for this is that more than 60 percent of organizations still process, store and
retrieve documents manually. While many organizations will eventually adopt digital documents, many have elected to hold back in order to learn from the efforts of early pioneers and wait until the
risks of conversion are negligible.
The Co-Existence of Digital and Paper Documents
The tenacity of paper does not displace the evidence that digital documents are quickly overtaking paper documents as the preferred method of business communication. For instance, the Internet
provides nearly boundless access to customers, and companies are jumping on the e-bandwagon. A recent poll of 371 chief financial officers conducted by Duke University reports that 56 percent of
the executives surveyed plan to sell their products over the Internet. This sentiment is growing, up from 24 percent in 1998.
A 1999 study commissioned by Xplor International, the leading printing industry association, clearly indicates that digital documents have infiltrated the formerly ink and paper intensive world of
corporate communications. Xplor reports that 77% of member companies archive documents in digital form. 68% of companies use digital documents as an alternative to printing – up from 47% in 1995.
And 40% of companies use electronic forms that never get printed on paper – up from 27% in 1997.
Corporations must confront the co-existence of digital and paper documents for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the timing, the transition into the digital world of documents will not be made
without building upon the legacy of paper documents. Information-savvy corporations will look for ways to better understand and manage documents that populate new digital systems, and continue to
seek improvements in the handling of documents using P.O.P. – plain old paper.