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The Growing Problem Of Paperwork – 1956 And Now

By Author: Caroline Wigley
Total Articles: 4

The Growing Problem of Paperwork is a title from a paper written in 1956 – and to avoid accusation of plagiarism, I confess this right at the start and that it belongs to a paper by American organizational theorist Ben S. Graham.

The reason for appropriating the title? Because paperwork remains a growing problem for so many organisations today.

And many of the issues Graham outlined as contributing to the ‘problem of paperwork’ are the same now as they were then.

The volume of paperwork is continuing to grow.

The cost of processing paper is increasing all the time – expense to cover stationery, printing, postage, storage, staff time.

Delays caused by manual error and inaccuracy slow any procedure and create problems further down the processing or business line.

The Growing Problem of Paperwork 1956 version, written for that year’s Paperwork Simplification Training Conference and a series inaugurated by Graham (1900-1960), promotes the value of efficient systems. Whereas the author recognised that paper-based processing could mean integration with a ‘machine’, I doubt he could have envisaged the development of technology since and how the capabilities of ‘recording magnetic impulses to operate electronic computers’ have moved on.

The BBC’s recent article (and cited not only to prove that my research isn’t restricted to delving through 1950s’ archives) Moore's Law: Beyond the first law of computing points out that in 1947 the first transistor measured approximately 2.5 cm across, and now billions can fit into that same space.

Today we can better Graham’s vision and create effective, efficient, streamlined processing AND eliminate the paperwork – removing the ‘paper’ and automating much of the ‘work’.

Graham defined paperwork as “the recording, storing, analysis, and reporting, or transmitting of information (sometimes facts) for only one reason: To help somebody do his job better.”

But there is no reason why this has to be in a written document, paper-based – and with today’s document management technology we can eliminate the physical piece of paper from almost any document-centric process.

Responding to a query and how much more efficient for the Customer Services department with all necessary information displayed instantly at the touch of a button?

Automate invoice processing and the Accounts Payable team regain the visibility and control lost with a lengthy manual, paper-based procedure. The process becomes fast and efficient, the invoice image routed automatically to the relevant recipient, authorisation levels and escalation procedures enforced.

In the Purchasing department, online purchase request is simple and easy with automatic population of known fields and preferred vendor options and/or vendor enforced choice for popular items.

Removing paper and automating processing reduces risk of human error, processing time, and cost. What it increases is efficiency – creating straight-through processing for as many documents as possible.

In his paper Graham says that people “involved in paperwork activity” are “not much more than 50 percent productive”. He gives a figure of more than 8 million people in the US at that time “engaged full time in doing paperwork”. That represented 4.7 percent of the population (168.9 million) – that’s an awful lot of un-productivity.

Removing paper and automating processing allows staff to drop the unprofitable, long-winded manual processing and focus on value-added, strategic tasks.

Almost sixty years on from publication of Graham’s paper and the media, internet, social media, blogs and industry articles are still talking about the ‘growing problem of paperwork’.

Graham pointed out the challenge posed by paper-based systems “will grow tomorrow and become even more important”.

And that too holds as good today as in 1956.

I am indebted to Mr Graham for the inspiration for this article.

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