Going Green – One Step Closer to a Paperless Office

 AJAX technology plays an important role in an organization’s effort to create an electronic document workflow. This feature will focus on how AJAX can be implemented to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint, provide statics about paper usage in the office, and discuss how organizations in the ECM community are banning together to create The Paperless Office Coalition to create education materials and methods for a company to deploy ‘green solutions’.

Simon Wieczner, Snowbound Software

September 17, 2009

A huge amount of writing and effort has gone on for the past 20-30 years describing the “future” paperless office which has yet to materialize for many of us. But we are all seeing trends and significant changes towards this future vision. Some like the Kindle or online newspapers are dramatic reductions of paper usage.

Some of them are as follows:

  • Insurance claims are now often done totally in a paperless manner once paper documents are stored
  • eTickets for airline travel minimize the complex paper tickets that used to be necessary.
  • Boarding passes now can be displayed on your iPhone or Blackberry rather than printed out
  • Handheld PDA’s are used for taking restaurant orders
  • The Amazon Kindle and clones allow many to read books and newspapers without ever going to paper
  • Newspapers are now totally available online
  • Banking, credit card, and stock portfolio statements are accessed online
  • Checks can be created online with by using electronic fund transfer, no paper is ever used
  • Mortgage and other loan applications are submitted electronically with minimal paper documents
  • Class papers for college and high school students are sent via email
  • Workflows are created using document repositories accessed electronically – routed to necessary workers with little paper being generated
  • Doctor’s insert their observations and prescriptions into a PDA or laptop, creating no paper at all
  • Sending corporate or neighborhood emails rather than printing memos or bulletins

Where are We Today?

But we have a long way to go. We can point to many more examples of where paper is still used than to paperless office examples:

  • 15% of an organizations revenues are spent creating, managing & distributing documents
  • 60% of employee time is spent working with documents
  • 85% of business documents are in paper form
  • 5 - average number of times a document is printed
  • 90% of a business's information is in documents
  • $4,500/year - at $30/hr, the amount that knowledge workers waste working w/paper

* From www.thepaperlessproject.com

What more can be done?

One factor inhibiting adoption of electronic versions of paper documents is the current set of vendors and installed base of applications. Systems that were put in place 10 or 15 years ago continue to dominate the computerized workplace for small businesses like auto dealers, doctor’s and dentist offices, accountants and small to mid-sized banks. Due to the huge effort and expense involved, there is vast reluctance to change the “standard scenario” of client software that was created in DOS days still used to access a simple server repository. Sure, the client software has been upgraded to seem Windows-like but much of the latest imaging technology has been shoehorned on, making the systems hard to modify or update, fragile and difficult to provide support for users.

With the complex and varied array of client systems out there including Windows 2000, Windows XP, Vista and Macintosh of various flavors, most middle-scale content management system vendors are both reluctant and unable to upgrade and support these systems. So changes are relatively small – improvements in UI, for example – and dramatic changes to reduce the use of paper records via adding scanning systems and methods to view and manipulate the images of documents are hard to find.

This is where powerful technologies like AJAX are possible solutions. With no client software, the ability to utilize any browser, minimum bandwidth requirements, a small but robust set of easy use to functions and no installation effort, this is a true avenue to progress.

AJAX technology (defined very loosely to be asynchronous JavaScript and XML) can be implemented in a variety of ways so there is some disagreement of what constitutes an AJAX application. The point behind AJAX however is simple - programming that utilizes the capabilities of most modern browsers without additional software. This means an application can be deployed to a diverse client base with any kind of hardware and operating system as long as they have a browser. The functions can be as simple as displaying an image to manipulating documents, marking them up, conversion or even the creation of new documents.

Why isn’t this happening more widely? Well it depends on technology that utilizes browser capabilities but which has only recently become accepted. Google is credited with the first AJAX applications (Gmail and Google maps) in 2004-2005. In fact the name AJAX was only coined in 2005. And as with all new technologies, adoption depends upon knowledge that something can be done and then finding the people who can actually do it successfully. This kind of revolutionary solution to client software issues is still in its early stages.

How Do I Envision the Future?

I see workers accessing, reviewing, proofing, marking up, forwarding and storing a multitude of documents using any web accessing device they have available – whether iPhone, Blackberry, a netBook, a PC, Mac or other device. Documents will be primarily in electronic form such as PDF, RTF, Word, JPEG or TIFF or scanned to electronic form as they’re received. Routing of documents will be done electronically through a workflow system accessing documents stored in a central repository.

The job of the content management solution vendor will be to take care of the server-based backend and use AJAX to display the stored documents on a standard browser. Once the backend is complete, getting users working should be a training issue, not a client software development, QA, installation and update issue.

Development and maintenance costs of such systems should become much more affordable, allowing more vendors to create useful and innovative solutions, thereby allowing small and mid-size offices of all kinds to utilize them.

As originally published on ECM Connection, reprinted with permission.