People are in love with paper. It’s one of the longest love affairs in history. In the near 2,000 years since it was first created, paper has become the keeper of mankind’s history, culture and beliefs. Despite the explosion in digital communications, our passion for paper shows no signs of abating, and the business world is no exception to this trend.
A growing body of evidence shows that reducing the business dependence on paper could boost efficiency, reduce risks and cost, and enhance a firm’s ability to extract and harness the full value of their information. Yet a study earlier this year found that for a third of firms the consumption of paper is going up. One in ten companies with between 500 and 5,000 employees said their use of paper is in fact increasingly rapidly.
In Europe, 58 per cent of mid-sized firms store all their paper on-site, and the most popular on-site storage space for business is the basement. Unwittingly, this could mean the beginning of the end for those assets.
The trouble begins because, in a world where information has tangible business value, those responsible for paper documents focus first and foremost on the content of a document rather than on the paper itself.
So they gather up the papers with information they want to keep and protect, put them in a box or folder, arrange them neatly in alphabetical order on shelves in the basement, ensure they have a detailed record of what is held and where, switch off the neon strip-lighting and lock the door behind them.
Left behind in the dark, paper documents are at the mercy of their chemical and physical environment. Temperature and humidity are the often first to attack; but over time insects and rodents, pollution and chemical contaminants can take their toll as well. Then there is the potential risk of flood or fire damage.
Protecting paper from all this is a challenging task. It demands strictly controlled climatic surroundings, with stable and preferably low temperatures, low relative humidity (but not so low that paper dries out and becomes brittle), limited exposure to light (but not so low that shade-loving mould is able to flourish), good ventilation (which can leave the door open for rodents and insects) but low levels of pollution (which can be a challenge for basements in urban areas), dust control and safeguards against chemical cross-contamination from other materials, including other documents and even things such as shelving, paint and packaging.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that paper is by its very nature extremely prone to deterioration. Before 1850, paper was made using long plant fibres such as cotton, flax or straw that meshed together to create strong and durable paper. Today paper manufacturers use short-stringed and therefore weaker wood pulp, which is then strengthened artificially using aluminium-sulphate, and battered about during the mechanical production process. Recycling paper weakens the structure still further.
In the case of brochures or glossy documents other chemicals are then added to the mix in the form of dyes, inks and adhesives. This has created highly acidic documents that essentially come with a built-in self-destruct button. Not only are they physically less resistant to attack than older paper, the very act of deterioration releases chemicals that accelerate the process and can damage other documents stored alongside. Decomposing newspapers are the greatest offenders of all.
Not surprisingly, many firms do not have the time or resources to address all these risks, or even to fully understand them; and inevitably compromises need to be made between the ideal environment for paper storage and business needs in terms of access and use. Moving paper archives out of the basement could address some of these risks, but also introduces additional ones in terms of heat, smoke and light damage, not to mention the potential accidental damage caused by a clumsy employee.
So what can a company do? I recommend that businesses take a good hard look at their paper-based information; decide what is most important to the business, or used most often, and then digitise those documents; archiving the remainder in a secure, environmentally-controlled and monitored off-site location.
In the longer term, however, it is important to create a culture where employees become less dependent on paper. The AIIM study quoted above found that a staggering 77 per cent of e-invoices received by firms are promptly printed out as hard copies, and in 10 per cent of cases more than once, and in 16 per cent of cases only to be re-scanned as a digital PDF later, with the hard copy presumably ending up in the basement archives. This is an inexcusable waste of resources and paper. If you took just one step to mark the third annual ‘Word Paper Free Day’, let’s hope it was a commitment for this to eradicate this kind of practice in your workplace.