I recently did a presentation to a group of small business owners about the right way to “Go Paperless”. Before I talk more about that presentation I need to preface this by saying that our firm, a document imaging and document management service bureau, does not generally service the small business community. Was I really qualified to speak in front of that group? Our company is a small business and we are paperless, so maybe I am qualified. I did think that the questions and concerns I would get from departments at Fortune 1000 companies or medium sized businesses, our core client base, would be different for small firms. I was wrong.
I provided this group sound business practices for going paperless. For instance, I talked about having a plan and understanding the amount of resources you want to devote to the effort. The plan should include whether or not you will go back and scan historical documents or scan only the new documents that come in the door (less costly). Get a good understanding of the quantity and condition of the existing paper files. The plan should determine if there are some documents that never need to become paper in the first place like invoices to customers (sent via email) or presentations. Of course the plan should include whether your idea is to completely eliminate paper or to just focus on certain areas of the company where the paper is a problem like payables or client files that are difficult to get to or have a long retention period.
After we discussed the plan I launched into our pet peeve – most people underestimate the effort it takes to scan documents to create a useful and trustworthy paperless information resource. Most of our prospects think that scanning is simple. Of course after I described all of the real issues that we face day to day with scanning documents, the group had come over to our side. I tried to scare them straight with talk of prep nightmares like pulling a million staples or removing all of the “Sign Here” stickers. We talked about how not all scanners will display text that has been highlighted with orange or green highlighter, in fact that highlighted spot is an unreadable black splotch. We talked about buying a scanner that can handle all the different sizes of documents that you may have including double letter size. I did give some basic tips about scanning at 200 DPI resolution, black and white format, using Adobe Acrobat PDF format, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is great as long as the original was a good quality document and don’t forget to check the work of the teenager you hired over the summer to scan.
The last topic was how and where should all of this information be stored so I can find it when I need it? This is the point where I really started to think I am going to lose this group because our main ideal at Millennia Group is to always put all of this information in database. The best way to describe this is to think of your accounting system as the database. When you scan the customer contract with all the terms and conditions of your relationship, it is ideal to have a link from that customer screen in the accounting system to the scanned contract. This way you can quickly open it to verify that the current invoice going out is correct. Even if that customer changes its name or address in the accounting system, that specific contact will always be linked correctly. That is not the case if you just scan the contract as ABC Company.pdf and save it to your computer – as soon as that company changes its name to XYZ Corp, that pdf file must be edited or nobody will be able to find that contract. Most large firms have an actual electronic document management system to store the scanned document files and in reality, these systems are just databases. Small firms could also use something like Google Docs or SharePoint or just a well structured folder system on a hard drive to store the digital documents. These methods may not be “Ideal”, but they will work just fine for many small business applications.
So why was I wrong when I assumed that the questions and concerns would be different for small businesses? Because the bulk of the questions had an underlying theme of fear. Fear of not scanning every page. Fear of shredding the original documents after you scan. Fear of cost. Fear of not being able to find the file you are looking for. Security fears. Fear of the legality of the digital document in court, and so on. I think these fears can all be summed up as fear of change and that issue is the same, big company or small. So how do you manage this? Start with a small bite, maybe just the customer files or employee files or old tax returns. Get into the habit, conquer the fear and then take a bigger bite. But please remember to make a plan, follow some basic scanning rules and then enjoy the new found Paperless world.