The myth of the paperless office

  • March 01, 2013
  • Kerry Mogg and Elisabeth Davies

We’ve all had the experience of wading through reams of paper and bottomless filing cabinets --and still not being able to locate an urgently needed document. Visions of a clutter-free office begin to dance in our heads. The irony? For years, the media has tempted us with prognostications of a paper-free world … but here we are in 2013 still talking about paper! Is the paperless office a myth?

Surely not, as lawyer Donna Neff has demonstrated. Neff — a Stittsville, Ont., lawyer whose decision to go paper-free has been profiled in several articles – has clearly mastered the art, and has created a paper-free environment for her small practice.

But is Neff the exception? If you are interested in discovering how many trees the average Canadian is responsible for killing per year in our quest for paper, a 2012 blog article at The Economist website graphically displays the facts: 4.89 40-foot trees a year is the tally, and, undoubtedly, a large portion of that is office paper. However, as information management professionals know, there are several reasons for the stubborn continuity of paper. For instance, while there are worthy electronic records management systems on the market that will capture, systematize and automatically retain/delete your email and other computer generated records via a desktop application, they are expensive and laborious to customize and install.

Much like your smartphone, which doesn’t come pre-loaded with your information, an Electronic Records Management System (ERMS), (or in the case of systems that manage both documents and records, EDMRS), isn’t delivered to your office fully customized with disposition and retention triggers specific to your organization. Someone has to do that work (ideally after a records management program has already been established). Remember, too, that for the system to be truly integrated and intuitive, you will need to know exactly when your record becomes a “record” as opposed to just a document, and exactly when that record needs to be destroyed. This means that all “triggers” –as in triggering an action to be undertaken by the system for each and every type of record – will need to be thought out in advance.

Additionally, there is the matter of the federal (and provincial) Evidence Act(s). If you plan to use records generated and stored in your ERMS system as official records and evidence, these Acts require you to prove that those same records are authoritative and have integrity (that they have not been altered or tampered with while in the system) in order to be accepted as such.

So, before you commit to going paperless, ask yourself about the motivations, needs, costs and gains involved in going paperless. Consider the following:

1. There are occasionally legal requirements or very sound business needs for paper documents. To use just one example, trust documents are accompanied by several requirements regarding the retention of paper copies of electronic transactions; transactions that have been signed – such as Teranet withdrawals – will similarly need to be kept in paper. And keep this in mind: if you have a paper copy of a record as well as an electronic version, but have been using and acting on the paper copy in the course of business, best practice says it’s the paper copy that is considered to be the real “record” for evidentiary purposes.

2. Secondly, for any organization, the shift from paper to electronic records will necessitate workflow and process reviews. It will also require time, planning and some financial outlay – whether you are acquiring an EDMRS or just digitizing the existing paper flow. For instance, just to use the example of beginning a digitization (scanning) program:

    1. Do you intend to digitize your office on a go-forward basis, or use a retrospective approach? If the latter, do you know (accurately) the volume of records that require digitization?
    2. Have you investigated the cost, benefits and limitations of purchasing a high-quality scanner? Have you decided upon image resolution and scanning procedures? Is a specific image resolution required under legislation? What is the largest file format you can utilize? Is this file dependent on a proprietary software program –and what will you do in the future if you switch to a different software program? What is your method of quality control—how will you monitor image quality during the digitization process?
    3. Where are you storing your electronic files? How large is your server space? What about security?
    4. What about a system of file-naming conventions? How are you organizing your files—are you replicating paper systems? To reduce work later, it’s best to make these decisions in advance of beginning the scanning process.
    5. If you are destroying large amounts of your old (confidential) paper records en masse, have you arranged for secure file destruction?

If you find this list somewhat daunting, consider using less paper as opposed to going paper-less:

  • Assess the paper records you currently have: look at what needs to be retained and what can be destroyed. Discard older unused records and keep the volume down afterward by having regular records management clean-up days in your office.
  • Liability: what do you have to keep in paper? How much of this type of documentation do you create in a year?
  • Examine your workflow: why do some documents end up in paper form, since they likely don’t originate in paper? Is this due to collaboration needs such as meetings? Look for solutions for these issues. Consider implementing “paper-free” policies and procedures – as long as you aren’t restricting the creation of mandatory records. Encourage the use of secure Cloud technologies: if used properly, these can be a good answer to this conundrum.


The desired information management solution will be unique to the needs of your office: going paperless may be worthwhile, but may just as equally lead to costly complications. Before making any decisions, remember to plan and analyze both business needs and workflow.

Kerry Mogg, MLIS, has worked as an archivist and records manager. She currently works in the area of access and privacy in healthcare.

Elisabeth Davies, PhD., is a library and information science researcher at Western University.