Follow the paperless trail

Companies are finding digital paper more efficient, secure, and economical than the tree-pulp-based variety

Companies are finding digital paper more efficient, secure, and economical than the tree-pulp-based variety

digital, paperless
A paperless world is a long way off, but many businesses are taking strides to at least create a less-paper world. Companies across various industries are finding ways to cut paper waste, from issuing electronic tickets and PDF receipts to incorporating electronic document management systems.

As with so many other green technologies out there, the driving influence here isn't necessarily sparing trees nor reducing one's carbon impact on the environment (though saving one ream of paper means five fewer pounds of CO2). Rather, it's a matter of boosting efficiency; making an easier-to-maintain paper(less) trail (nice for compliance purposes); boosting continuity (a digital copy of your files is handy if a natural disaster hits); and saving cash in the long term on costs associated with printing and mailing. (For some perspective on mailing costs, U.S. businesses spent an estimated $800 billion on direct mail correspondence to potential and existing customers last year, which translates into over 115 billion pieces of mail.)

Also a boon: less time wasted tracking down evasive faxes and archived paper documents, as well as transferring the data on those pages to electronic format.

Yeah, that's the ticket

One of the growing trends is so-called paperless tickets. ("So-called" because there's still paper involved; just far less.) Last week, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) -- which represents more than 240 airlines comprising 94 percent of international scheduled air traffic -- said that it would stop issuing paper tickets come May 31, 2008. The AITA says that airlines will save $9 per paper ticket that way, which adds up to $3 billion in annual savings for the industry. (Whether any of those savings will get passed on to Joe and Jane Aisle-Seat remains to be seen, but let's not hold our breath, lest we cause that little oxygen mask to drop.)

The IATA says the move will also spare "the equivalent of 50,000 mature trees each year."

Now, I've read some comments about this move, the authors of which have expressed concern that the cost of the paper tickets is essentially being passed on to the consumer, but I think that's a misconception or an exaggeration, depending on how you look at it.

If you haven't flown with a paperless ticket, here's how it works: You make your reservation and receive a confirmation e-mail. Now, you could print up that itinerary, if you need a printed point of reference, but it's not necessary. You could just access that info from your portable device, or jot down the basic on a piece of scrap paper. Then you show up at the airport before your flight and show your ID and a credit card to the nice person behind the counter (or better yet, you swipe it in one of those check-in kiosks). In turn, you'll receive one slip of paper, your boarding pass, which includes all the pertinent info. That's it.

So from a customer standpoint, it's really a lot easier than having to worry about whether your tickets have arrived, or whether you've left them at home on the bed beside the clean underwear you'd meant to pack. Plus with an e-mail confirmation, you can easily get at your details through your wireless device, just in case you've forgotten whether you're taking off at 1:27 a.m. Pacific or Eastern Time.

On a related note, The Boston Globe had an article last month about a company called Flash Seats, which is pushing electronic tickets to concerts, sporting events, and the like.

It works similarly to the e-tickets for airlines: When you order your tickets online, the order is associated with your credit card or identification. And when it's time to go to the game or show, you don't scour the house for the tickets or stand in line at will call; you swipe your credit card or driver's license as you go in. In turn, you get a paper guide telling you where your seats are.

In case your card isn't read, "venue officials verify the person's identity by asking agreed-upon security questions, such as mother's maiden name or first pet's name."

The Cleveland Cavaliers gave the system a spin last season. Participation was voluntary. "About 17 percent of season ticket holders used the system last season, a portion that [increased] to 50 percent during the club's playoff run into the NBA Finals," according to the Boston Globe article.

In addition to reducing paper waste, the system means potentially better control and security. "Team officials say they would like to maintain greater control to improve security, to prevent counterfeiting, and to reclaim some of the money that is going to third-party resellers such as eBay, StubHub, RazorGator, and AceTicket," says the Globe article.

From an end-user perspective, though, you do lose some convenience. Rather than being able to give tickets to friends so they can meet you at a show later, you have to go through the steps of having the electronic tickets transferred to their names, or else be sure that everyone arrives on time to go in together.

Would you like an e-ceipt with that?

I wrote about e-receipts a while back after learning that at Apple Stores, you can opt to have a receipt sent to you via e-mail instead of issued in paper form on the spot. To me, it seems like a natural evolution in receipts. That's how my proofs of purchase show up when I order online, or when I pay bills online, so why not when I make an in-store purchase? (I might be a bit warier for purchases made with cash, but as long as there's an electronic record stored with my bank or credit card company, I feel fine.)

But the paperless push doesn't just end for end-user purchases. Environmental Leader reports that UPS is trying to convince SMBs to adopt electronic billing by tugging at their eco-conscious heartstrings: "UPS has partnered with the National Arbor Day Foundation to make a $1 donation to the organization for every customer who opts for the paperless PDF invoice."

As UPS describes it, the benefits of a PDF receipt are numerous. It no doubt saves the company cash on printing and mailing receipts. And for customers, it means you receive receipts faster and in convenient electronic format.

Make the pile lower

Electronic tickets and receipts are, to me, really low-hanging fruit in the drive toward the paperless office. They represent the end part of complex workflows that are often tied to hard-to-change business practices and technology (or lack thereof).

One of the most obvious ways to cut paper (and print) waste at the office is to crack down on all the superfluous printing and copies end-users make. The average employee reportedly wastes $85 worth of printer paper and ink each year through unnecessary prints. Products such as GreenPrint offer an easy, non-disruptive tool for putting a dent in the pile. The utility lets users preview printouts and easily remove specific pages, text, or graphics from a print session.

But companies are taking further steps to reduce paper use, in the name of boosting efficiency. Insurance company Lloyd's (of London) has most recently garnered attention in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Times Online for company CEO Richard Ward's paper-cutting efforts. According to the Times, "a colleague in IT told him that each day Lloyd's was sending four tons of documents to its sorting office in Chatham, all carried by those white vans."

Ward told The Wall Street Journal that he's tackling the paper deluge on a small scale, liking it to "eating an elephant with a teaspoon." "We have to take small bites out of that elephant to make sure we can digest the changes we're making," he told The WSJ.

Among changes Ward has implemented, as he outlined in a speech in May: "Last year, we introduced an electronic filing cabinet - a document repository that enables claims and premiums to be handled quickly and efficiently without the need for paper files. ... Currently a fifth of all in scope claims are being processed using the Electronic Claims File. This is a significant increase on the 5 percent at the beginning of the year."

"In addition," he added, "if you look at Accounting and Settlement, more than 80,000 premium-related transactions have been processed electronically. Once again there has been a significant increase from the beginning of the year."

He says that the company's processing 30 percent of its claims electronically now, but the the goal is to hit 100 percent by March 31. "We might have a symbolic crushing of a van, and it might become a piece of art somewhere inside or outside the building. That might be quite appropriate to do once we've reached our goals," he told the Journal.

(Notably, crushing an otherwise useful van might not be the ideal way to celebrate an eco-friendly achievement of reducing paper waste and boosting efficiency, but that is another story.)

Keep your fax straight

There are plenty of other recent examples I can point to of organizations strolling the paperless trail. Rosen Hotels and Resorts recently announced that it adopted a fax server solution called RightFax from Captaris and integrated its Microsoft Exchange, Cisco CallManager, and Canon MFPs (multifunction peripherals). The end result: a central document management solution, used at the company's seven hotels, as well as its medical center and the insurance agency, to easily store and share documents that used to be passed around in paper format.

Among other features, the combined solution lets employees send faxes from just about any desktop app, or right from the MFPs, rather than having to deal with paper. Moreover, faxes are filed into SharePoint, where they can be accessed from within the network or remotely. Also handy: Employees on the go can receive immediate notifications when important documents are received.

Paper still plays a vital role in the business world, and no doubt will for years to come. But as more companies trade in reams of paper, stacks of pricey ink cartridges, and boxes of mailing supplies for PDFs, digital ink, e-mail, and document management systems, we'll collectively reap the benefits of a less-paper world.

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