The best part about World Paper Free Day is that you don’t have to wrap presents, mail cards, or send out invitations. Indeed, those very activities are frowned upon. The event, sponsored by AIIM, is intended to call attention to and look for ways to reduce the use of paper in business organizations.

Scheduled for this Thursday, this holiday is naturally close to our hearts, writing as we have about the use of paperless, paperfree, or at least paper-light processes in organizations and industries such as the New York Legislature, the Veterans Administration, the Kentucky Sanitation District, manufacturing companies such as Phoenix Manufacturing and RMS Medical Products, colleges and universities, the food distribution industry, the field of financial planning, and invoicing.

“Everybody is invited to join and share the mission for this day: Do not print, do not copy, do not fax paper, do not distribute printed information,” according to the official event Facebook invite.

It’s easy to think of World Paper Free Day as having an environmental focus to it, in that saving paper by extension saves trees and produces less waste that needs to be disposed of. However, there are other reasons to save paper, as well.

“Paper is only a symptom,” writes AIIM’s Bryant Duhon, describing the company’s two Twitter chats on the subject (here’s a transcript of the first; the second is scheduled for Thursday at noon EDT, using the hashtag #wpfd). “The real purpose of WPFD is to draw attention to how you can improve your business by automating manual (paper-based) processes. Paper slows you down. Time to speed up.”

AIIM’s survey this summer, Winning the Paper Wars, found that 74 percent of respondents have business improvement campaigns that would benefit from paper-free initiatives. It turns out that all that paper has a number of costs involved, ranging from buying it, keeping track of it, and disposing of it. These costs include re-keying data, searching for paper copies, and filing the paper, paying for storage, outsourcing paper storage costs, and losing track of workflow because a piece of paper came up missing.

In the New York Legislature, for example, these costs — for paper copies of bills that are usually tossed into the recycling unread — come to more than $50 million a year. After the University of Oklahoma’s College of Arts and Sciences digitized its files, it gained two offices and saved $15,000 on an intern.

Organizations that have moved toward getting rid of paper also report faster response times and increased productivity. Respondents said they felt that driving paper out of the process would improve the speed of response to customers, citizens, or staff by four times. And those who actually had experience with paper-free processes reported that the speed improvement was more on the order of 4.6 times. In addition, two-thirds of those adopting paper-free processes report payback within 18 months — and 50 percent said they see payback within a single 12-month budgeting period.

At the same time, paper is still entrenched in some businesses. The AIIM survey went on to find, for example, that only 24 percent of respondents had a specific policy in place to drive paper out of their business. In fact, the amount of paper flowing through business processes is decreasing in only 41 percent of organizations. And for 19 percent, the amount of paper is actually increasing, which AIIM attributed to additional regulatory requirements or a need for more management feedback.

Not only is inertia a powerful force — “We’ve always done it that way” — many legal documents still have archaic requirements for paper copies, physical signatures, and so on, though this is changing. Kentucky Sanitation District #1, for example, found that after its digitization project, it was able to respond to an audit request in about an hour rather than in days. Plus, some people just feel more secure about having a paper copy, even though paper is harder to protect, easier to tamper with, and easier to lose.

And some of the other reasons people prefer paper can be pretty silly — in New York, for example, some people were concerned that computers wouldn’t look nice in the Capitol.

The result is that too many everyday processes still require paper. For the world truly to become paperless, the focus needs to be not on scanning and digitizing paper documents, but on creating actual born-digital versions of paper documents. These born-digital versions include information that can be more easily repurposed. Only then can we have a paper-free world.

Except for the paperless bathroom. They’re still working on that.

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