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Virtual Paper Cuts

June 1, 2000
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Intranets/Extranets, Featured Article
Inthe spring of 1979, deep inside a government office in Washington DC, utopian-thinkingbureaucrats introduced the world’s first paperless office. Using “ electronicscanners, microfiche readers”  and anarray of other tools, workers dutifully took their seats and began to pore over theirdaily assignments. Things began well, but then a few minutes into the workday, the phonerang. That’s when someone sheepishly announced that there wasn’t a practical wayto take messages.

Overthe next two decades, various experts -- including the likes of Alvin Toffler -- announcedthat the paperless office was inevitable. After all, “ making paper copies ofanything is a primitive use of machines and violates their very spirit,”  he wrote. Fast-forward to today and paper salesare growing at an annual rate of about 10 percent. In fact, paper consumption nearlydoubled from 1980 to 1995, according to the American Forest and Paper Association. Peopleprint e-mail messages, they print reports, they print just about everything. It’ssafe to say that more than a few offices have been reduced to pulp by the onslaught ofpaper.

However,before you split your spleen laughing at the utter absurdity of the paperless office,consider this. It’s really beginning to happen. OK, it’s not an entirelypaper-free office, but a paper-less (as in less paper) environment that has a lot fewerscraps floating around, clogging people’s in-baskets and brains. According to arecent study conducted by the British research group NOP, 55 percent of businesses withmore than 500 employees are now connected to an intranet. Seventy-two percent ofrespondents believe that these intranets reduce costs and save paper.

Clearly,intranets are the foundation for this rapidly changing world. Like interstate highwaysystems, they allow traffic -- in this case documents and files -- to flow to the desiredlocation. Yet it takes more than a roadway to build a paper-free transit system. Itrequires software and e-business systems that can manage the task effectively. Today, anemerging crop of products is helping to make the paperless office a reality.

Overthe last few years, core ERP and HRMS have electronically enabled everything from benefitsenrollment to payroll, from recruiting to 401(k)s. That switch also makes knowledgemanagement and advanced data mining possible. Although the feds still require a papertrail for certain documents, “ it is possible to handle most work processes and formselectronically,”  says Edward J. Wolff,director of human resources for Earthlink, Inc., the nation’s second-largest Internetservice provider.

“Andthere are huge advantages in doing so,”  Wolffsays. “ There’s no problem tracking documents and figuring out what the latestversion is, there’s no filing and easier retrieval, and people’s desks look alot better too.”

Earthlinkhas found the e-ticket for benefits enrollment, including life, medical, dental, and401(k). It also has migrated to electronic systems for employee record updates,performance reviews, summary plans, employee directories, and an array of other processesfor the 2,800 workers who were part of Mindspring (which merged with Earthlink earlierthis year). In October, it will expand the capability, along with paperless payroll, toall 5,800 employees. “Because we’re a high-tech company, employees have embracedthe change and adapted well,”  he says.

Onecompany that already has perfected paperless payroll is Microsoft. It has crunched stacksof paper by putting data on CDs, letting its employees access W4s and check stubs online,and handling time-card reporting -- for both exempt and non-exempt employees --electronically. Workers can enter tax information through the intranet and reviewinformation around the clock. HR has tax guides and other reference materials at itsfingertips. No shuffling endless stacks of paper, and no riffling through overstuffed filecabinets.

Microsoftestimates that it saves more than $1 million a year by using electronic payroll functions.Nearly 80 percent of the savings is realized through online earnings statements,distribution, and postage costs. About 17 percent of the cost savings accrues throughautomated time and attendance reporting.

Approximately3 percent of the cost savings results from direct deposit and slightly less than 1 percentthrough the use of electronic W4s.

Suche-systems are quietly revolutionizing the workplace. And in their own quiet way, they’reushering in the paperless office. Combined with online recruiting and other functions,they are finally making electronic HR a reality. But it doesn’t have to stop there.

Byadopting various other tools, including scanners and programs like Adobe Acrobat, some HRdepartments are eliminating additional nagging links in the paper trail. Suddenly, workerscan function in an entirely electronic realm.

Infact, one of the roadblocks of the past -- and one that still partly exists today -- isthe complexity of exchanging documents in different formats. You receive a fax, and thenprint and file it. If you need to share it with a colleague, you wind up faxing it again.Ditto for word-processing files or spreadsheets. Unfortunately, this entrenchedprint-and-share process adds time and complexity to everyday workflow.

Contrastthat with the following: You receive faxes via an e-mail attachment, you view them withinthe in-basket on your computer and forward them to someone else at the click of a button.Likewise, if you need to exchange a document -- anything from a Web page to a spreadsheet-- you simply click a button and convert the document to Acrobat. At that point, you canquickly post the file on your intranet and others can download it without worrying abouthaving the original application.

Ofcourse, all this won’t eliminate every scrap of paper. There are still times when it’sabsolutely necessary to print a document to take on a plane or review in bed. And as thefailed government attempt to engineer a paper-free office clearly showed, it’ssometimes faster and easier to jot down a telephone message than to pull up the rightprogram and type a note into a computer. Yet, remember this: Every time employees revertto paper, it becomes a bit more difficult to keep track of all the loose scribbles andscraps.

Somecompanies already have established a mandate to go entirely paper-free. One of them is ERPvendor PeopleSoft, which decided more than five years ago to push the envelope, so tospeak. At the time, it decided that virtually all office functions would be handledwithout paper. It now manages nearly every employee process electronically, includingbenefits enrollment, payroll and 401(k) administration. For the latter, it sends outstatements in Adobe Acrobat and lets employees view them and, if they wish, print them.

Akey to succeeding in a paperless world, says Chuck Hebert, information systems manager, isintegrating systems so that there’s no need to print paper. Among other things, thatled PeopleSoft to develop a system to handle electronic signatures and track electronicemployee communication. “ Electronic systems are more accurate, cost-effective, andenvironmentally friendly,”  he explains.Later this year, the more than 7,000 employees of the company will be able to accessvirtually all information, including reports and benefits statements, via a portal.

Ifit’s essential to vanquish paper, it’s also crucial to provide easy-to-usesystems that duplicate the experience of using it. The best programs offer a metaphor thatdoesn’t necessarily duplicate a paper-intensive process, but provides the intuitivefeel of paper and pens. This can include providing graphics tablets for annotations andsignatures or scanning in a signature file so that it’s possible to communicateelectronically rather than reverting to the printer.

Creatinga paperless office requires more than simply banning paper and issuing grand edicts,however. It demands a cultural shift. Because most of us resist change, it’simportant to educate and train employees about the advantage of e-HR, how to use e-paperand digital processes, and what to do if they feel stuck. It’s also a good idea tobuild in incentives to working electronically so that employees understand the benefits ofgoing paperless.

“Today,almost every process can be handled electronically. It’s no longer a question oftrying to search for the right technology,”  saysThomas B. Hickey, a vice president with MetaGroup, a Stamford, Conn. consulting firm.

Itturns out that the federal government had the right idea -- just at the wrong time. 

Workforce,July 2000, Vol. 79, No. 7, pp. 16-18 -- Subscribe now!

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