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IT Strategy: Becoming paperless is achievable, and I am getting close

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DURING the late 1980s I made a very conscious decision to go paperless. So I started a determined corporate and personal campaign to first reduce and then totally eradicate all paper from my life. Today I can confirm that the battle is still in full swing. Getting rid of paper is like playing an infinite ‘whack-a-mole’ game. Eradicate it from one source and it just pops up from another. Do I still believe paperless is achievable? Yes, and I am close. Since the 80s I have gone from six filing cabinets and three cupboards to just one cupboard shelf of hanging files for personal and one for business. Will I achieve paperless in my lifetime? Perhaps.

I started life in a giant corporation working in, and running, various operations that saw me with a team of 60 people in the 80s rising to more than 1,000 in the 90s. So my first planned action in this war was to produce a series of rubber stamps for dealing with paper as fast as I could. These were novel, as follows:

• FILE
• IGNORE
• DESTROY
• DO NOT REPLY
• RETURN TO SENDER
• RETURN TO SENDER – NOT REQUIRED BY PETER COCHRANE
• PETER COCHRANE CANNOT DEAL WITH PAPER PLEASE SEND AN EMAIL

These saw paper volumes drop immediately, and I set about reducing the number of filing cabinets, cupboards, Xerox copiers and printers throughout the organisation. In the next phase I refused to initiate the writing of paper letters. Received letters would be scanned and replied to as an email attachment. And legal documents would be annotated line by line with comments in ink rather than a full-blown letter. With a signature they constituted a legal agreement/document. I then made a series of promises to all my managers and people:

• I would reply to any email within 12 hours, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
• I would process all purchase orders with 24 hours of them arriving on my screen
• If I emailed or called people to talk or leave a message, I expected a reciprocation
• All internal paperwork received would be destroyed immediately

Being an R&D organisation, we were always under pressure to provide reports and papers to the company and customers. This employed two people full time reproducing and mailing paper reprints, pictures and movies. We overcame this by setting up an open ‘help yourself’ web page and server, and two people were released for more interesting work and retraining.

How could I justify all this? My workload entailed an awful lot of national and international travel and I was out of my ‘physical office’ for about 40-50% of the time. Adhering to the old and official modes of working would have just seen a growing people frustration and a slowdown of the work output.

I had been empowered by the chairman to lead the charge in ‘company transformation’, and driving a 100-year-old organisation into the future was a part of my mission, and experimenting with everything was within my gift. Did it work? My people rose to the challenge, but much of the management above and to the side of me found it much harder. This was especially true when we simultaneously embraced open plan, hot desking and mobile working.

In the 80/90s, being mobile meant carrying a toolkit to break into telephone wiring with crock clips as connectors were a rarity. Dial-up modems at 1200 to 9600bit/s were the norm, and getting connected was always a challenge. But one step at a time, one obstacle after another, we overcome, adapted and adopted new technologies and techniques on the fly to make remarkable progress including a halving of the number and layers of middle management. So by the mid-90s, BYOD and DIY IT became the norm and we had no IT department.

Since 2000 I have had my own company and those heady corporate days are long gone. I have even more freedom to be radical, but paper persists. By and large we scan in everything and destroy all the original paperwork. But legal documents and some invoices, bills and receipts have to remain in paper form to satisfy customers and governments. This war will end with the last gasp of old-world thinking, and we have to wait a while yet for that funeral.

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and the former chief technology officer at BT

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