Why isn’t the world paperless already?

Image source: businessgreen.com

Image source: businessgreen.com

About 18 months ago, our firm were told by head office that we would be implementing a paperless workpapers system. This essentially means that the core compliance part of our jobs could all be done electronically and therefore wouldn’t involve any paper.

As I was leading the project team that was implementing this change for our firm at the time, I saw the potential to make just about everything electronic, and while it has been tough for many people to adjust (and not just the older people in our office), I can’t imagine going back to the old paper ways. Everything was just so tedious and involved endlessly accumulating more more more! It was almost like consumerism!

As part of our transition away from paper, we challenged so many perceptions about what we actually needed to retain. So much of what we had previously kept (because we retained everything) was just a waste as it wasn’t important, would almost never be needed, and could certainly be obtained from the relevant government authority or from our electronic system anyway. People also had crazy perceptions about why a certain piece of paper must legally be retained in original form, which in most cases ended up being complete and utter bullshit.

When I consider the whole paperless concept and how far we have come, I just can’t understand why so many people still rely on paper records and can’t see the enormous inefficiency of this approach. And while I’m no environmental crusader, everyone knows that paper use is disastrous for the environment, and so that’s just one more reason to be rid of it.

How did we do it?

Our practice uses a system called APS for practice management and accounting/tax preparation, and this software has an electronic workpapers module that integrates with our general ledger module. We had to do a stack of training and establish a lot of new systems to get everyone up to speed, but I really do believe that the APS product has been a great success.

In addition to the APS workpapers module, we also needed a good PDF generator/editor, and we used APS’s AdvanceDocs. It is quite powerful in how it can manipulate PDFs, and we also have it set up so that your scanning (from various multi-function devices around the office) automatically appears back at your computer in AdvanceDocs, ready for you to manipulate as you choose.

What do we still have left to do?

There are still plenty of tasks that we undertake (and therefore some jobs that some people have) that could be made obsolete if we chose to reform our approach to them. While I am very conscious of the human element in this issue, I am keen to push the change through so that when administration staff depart in future, some of them won’t actually need to be replaced.

Unfortunately some of our current administration staff are quite scared about what the change means for them, and they therefore resist it as they probably believe that it will do them out of jobs in the future. I would personally hate to be in a role like that as it would say to me that what I do is so basic that I can easily be replaced by a machine, and the parts that can’t be replaced are no longer considered necessary anyway. Still, this has happened many times throughout history, and it will continue happening, so people really do need to ensure that they are changing with the times and looking forward to see if/when their own role will become obsolete.

Making my personal life paperless

With the paperless project at work taking up so much of my time and energy, it shouldn’t have been surprising that I would eventually want to make my personal affairs as paperless as possible. I made a stack of changes as a result, some of which include:

  • Changing to electronic statements: Every day when a piece of mail arrived, I thought about how I could stop that mail from arriving in future. Sometimes I could just log onto my online account with that service provider (or create one with them) and switch to electronic statements (via email, or via logging into their portal), but others I had to just call up.
  • Consider changing suppliers if they don’t support paperless: Most suppliers could be changed to paperless, but because our mobiles are on a really old corporate plan (that is dirt cheap) and they don’t do electronic statements for corporate plans (how dumb is that?) we have to stay with paper statements for them. I seriously considered changing to another supplier because of it, but with further investigation nothing would beat the pricing that we have currently so I just had to leave it.
  • Choosing not to receive marketing material: Where possible, I made sure that I wasn’t sent marketing material from various organisations (they often have an option you can select to stop them from sending promotional crap to you).
  • Getting a “No Junk Mail” sticker: I put a “No Junk Mail” sticker on our mail box so that we wouldn’t receive any more catalogues and other promotional garbage. At first my wife didn’t like this idea (she liked reading through the catalogues) but since it’s been done she hasn’t missed any of them, and I just think of how much paper we don’t have to take from the mailbox and put straight in the recycling bin, especially since we have only just made it through the Christmas period! Not only did we save paper, but I’m sure we saved a stack of cash not buying things that we don’t actually need!
  • No longer buying newspapers at all: I stopped doing this quite some time ago actually, but for many years there I bought the local newspaper on a Saturday. Eventually I realised that it took me about 15 minutes to read anything that was of any real value in the whole paper, and they were always the articles that were displayed on their website anyway. So I figured I could just avoid the hassle of going to get it altogether!
  • Shredding unnecessary paper records: We previously kept everything in a comprehensive filing system, and once a year we would clean it out into a separate archive box and put it under the house. The whole project at work made me realise though that there was no reason why I would need a phone bill from two years ago, so why did I even bother archiving it? So we went through the old archive boxes and realised that most of them could be shredded as well! So now we are down to far fewer archives that I will just scan in when I get around to it.
  • Not keeping paper in the first place: For anything that does come through the mail, consider whether you really need to keep it at all? For example, our mobile phone bills still come in paper form (see an earlier point above), but once we have looked at them (and we realise that I have won with a lower bill than my wife yet again) what is the point in keeping them? They are paid automatically on our credit card, so once we have looked at them we just shred them.

That’s obviously what we have already done, but there are some other things that I am still contemplating, including:

  • Switching to eBooks instead of hard copy books: My wife and I read a lot (she can read much faster than me though) and therefore own a lot of books, but I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in even buying hard copy books. I know that they look nice in a bookcase, but owning a heap of them really is a bit of a waste of money and space. Obviously getting books from the library makes even more sense, but if we have to own books then owning them as eBooks (and reading them on our tablets) would make more sense and be cheaper too.
  • Not even keeping “permanent” style records and instead putting them in the cloud as well: Some records, like the contracts to purchase our real estate, have been retained in hard copy form. Arguably we could just keep them electronically (in Australia electronic versions of documents have the same legal standing as the original paper ones), but I just need to bring myself to make that final change. There aren’t many of these documents, but for the sake of completeness we really could convert them over.

So why hasn’t the rest of the world done this already?

I think a lot of the world has done it or is considering doing it, and often businesses have done what they need to from their end but it is now up to the consumers to embrace the change.

My experience leading our project team at work has shown that with some change, you can phase it in over time, but to kill off the old elements you really do need to make it compulsory after a (hopefully short) introduction period. Otherwise the people that resist change will just do the same thing they have always done – a bit like the old folks that still go into their local bank branch every pension day and withdraw cash then have it printed up in their little passbook accounts!

In Australia, the federal government will require all government services and public interactions to be available digitally (on an opt-in basis) by 2017. Some of this has already occurred with my.gov accounts linking up taxation, Medicare, Centrelink (welfare office for non-Australian readers), child support and some other services, and more will surely follow. While this is optional at this stage (as it needs to be), I hope that it eventually becomes compulsory. This should then drive the change through the private sector as well, since if everyone can go paperless for the government, then they can use those skills to interact without paper with everyone else.

I am also hoping that we will see significant change in the amount of mail going through our postal services in future, with a lot of talk about how Australia Post is losing money on its regular mail delivery (i.e. not parcel delivery) services. In fact, in order to stem the losses, Australia Post have floated the idea of mail deliveries only three days per week (down from the current five days per week) and I hope that this proposal is approved and implemented soon. Again, it will change the employment prospects for plenty of people, but we really do need to embrace the change that is staring us in the face.

So, do you think you could make the switch to paperless?


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