In a paperless world, email is paper
Are you old enough to remember the job bag? Maybe you called it something else but fundamentally it was a big manila envelope into which was stuffed every relevant document, form, approval and paper scrap for a particular job. The envelope was assigned a unique reference or job ID (frequently concatenating something like the client ID, the job type and the month and year) and travelled merrily around the company via the internal mail trolley. The hard-backed job book was the trusty source of the precious job ID and heaven help anybody that denied its mastery over the work in progress!
We’ve all heard the paperless office goals, the grand desire to drive paperwork out of the business. Of course it is a great aspiration for many reasons; get some efficiency and visibility, save on printing costs, clear the clutter off the desk, reduce the off-site storage, even save some trees.
I think it’s fair to say that very few of us have ever seen this come to fruition. Plenty of document scanning and capture activities have removed the paper from certain processes. Those tend to be the high volume areas like contract management and supplier invoices. But there are rafts of activities that continue to attach themselves to a piece of paper in some way. Making them paperless has involved scanning the form on the multi-function printer in the corner and emailing it around.
In my opinion email has become the equivalent of the paper job bag, and in some cases made things worse. Emails are generated on a whim. They can pull in unrelated individuals and issues in a single missive. They drag reams of history along with them until someone snips it off to create an orphan without context. They allow looseness of language and ambiguity of intention. They permit denial of ownership and shirking of responsibility. They defy the core needs of clarity and purpose, status and outcome. They exist within a system so buried in volume that they readily slip through the cracks.
So when someone says to me, “we want a paperless office” I say, “and what about email?”
If you replace every piece of paper with an email will that resolve the problem? No – it won’t and you know it. I think what people really want is to orchestrate their knowledge business in a framework that marries flexibility with compliance and responsibility with visibility.
Imagine a world where everyone did what they were supposed to when they were supposed to; with the ability to do more or do less as the case demanded; to flexibly solve problems while remaining rule compliant; to complete or delegate; to escalate or collaborate; and all at the fingertips of audit and risk.
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