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Why paper still rules the enterprise

Why paper still rules the enterprise

A new study shows just how much business is still being done on paper via printers, scanners and other office equipment. But is that such a bad thing?

Printing, scanning and other paper-based activities are alive and well in the corporate office. While there’s been a shift away from the gargantuan multi-function device for some companies, mostly because employees prefer to stay in their work-pods, we’re still reliant on paper for our daily routines, according to a study by Wakefield Research and Infotrends.

The concurrent studies, released this month, show that 73 percent of the “owners and decision-makers” at companies with fewer than 500 employees print at least four times per day, according to Wakefield, which focused on small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). The Infotrends study focused more on corporate workflow and found that onboarding, invoicing, and printing notes are still common occurrences, especially in paper-centric departments like human resources, legal and accounting.

Infotrends found that a company might spend as much as $27,000 per year on document-management systems and maintenance for an average of 5,000 pages per month.

Workplace trends

One of the most interesting trends when it comes to printing, according to Brother International spokesperson Jeff Sandler, is that corporations are relocating printers from the central hub across the hall and from the employee’s own desk and making them more accessible in workplace pods for a smaller group of workers.

“In a lot of cases, folks eliminate local devices at their desks and the centralized multi-function device (MFD) because they don’t want to travel that far to get to those devices,” says Sandler. “We’re not advocating that you get rid of all copiers and MFDs. We’re seeing smaller groups of employees using smaller devices closer to where they work.”

Randy Dazo, group director at InfoTrends, says that paper is still a major part of a corporate workflow. “Companies use paper as part of their workflow and transactions for legal processes and compliance with internal and external standards,” he says. “Paper is the lowest common denominator to capture and store this information.”

[Related: 14 Tips for Creating a Paperless Office]

He says the modern workplace falls into two distinct categories. Employees use printing and scanning for unstructured activities and ad hoc businesses processes. They might use a centralized MFD for this because it is more “in the moment” to scan a receipt for expenses, convert a printed business document to text for a meeting, or even scan a printed email.

The other category is for “transactional” processes in a more structured setting, such as HR, accounting and legal departments. In those settings, printing and scanning tend to be part of a daily workflow, such as scanning purchase orders or printing out invoices.

Going paperless? Not so fast

Another interesting trend when it comes to printing, scanning and copying is that there was an initial rise in all of these activities when online access became so prevalent. Ken Weilerstein, research vice president at Gartner, says that printing levels in particular went higher because there was so much more content available online.

Today, he says employees print an average of 400 pages per month. He says many companies have figured out the easiest ways to “go paperless” by digitizing storing documents online, but it wasn’t possible to eliminate all printing and scanning completely.

“Paper is portable, universal and familiar way to share and annotate documents,” says Weilerstein. “It is easier to read long documents on paper than on-screen. Paper is universally accepted as valid for contracts and other legal documents, and the signatures are familiar and accepted to a greater degree than any sort of digital signature.”

Keith Kmetz, program vice president for imaging, printing and document solutions at IDC, says that many companies have implemented a “paperless light” concept. It means, almost all internal processes are entirely paperless, but external processes still involve printing and scanning as a way to integrate into a digital storage system.

Another trend that Brother’s Sandler points out is that the rise of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets has made larger companies more dependent on printing and scanning, not less. Employees need a way to move documents easily onto mobile devices.

Sandler says companies are still scanning insurance forms, turning printed slide-decks into a PDF you can use on an iPad, and importing signed contracts. The proliferation of mobile devices has created a new need to digitize documents and make them easily available.

The fax machines lives

Along with the printing and scanning trends, faxing is still another part of the corporate workflow, although it is diminishing rapidly. Weilerstein says there is still a divide between larger organizations and SMB, and that faxing is still used to bridge that divide.

“Before you can do away with fax, both parties have to agree on how they will communicate, and enterprises lack the clout to force their customers to abandon fax,” he says. “As is the case with other ways eliminating paper, they just don’t always find it worth the trouble.”

Last year, IDC’s Kmetz conducted a survey to find out why companies are still using fax machines. Overall, he found that some companies are faxing a little less and some a little more, but the trend has stayed relatively flat. In most cases, faxing is still part of a workflow because of the low costs, simplicity, ease of tracking, and security. It’s definitely not going away, he says.

That could mean rethinking some strategies about centralized document management. Employees in those structured settings such as accounting and legal might still rely on faxing and need a device that supports that, while “ad hoc” activities might not use fax.

[Related: Can Office 365’s Skype for Business replace your PBX system?]

Sandler says that’s why it’s important to do a yearly review of processes within a company and find out whether that MFD in the corner is sitting idle most of the time, if employees are still faxing and scanning in most departments, and if printing is increasing or decreasing.

Additional trends

Gartner’s Weilerstein notes a few other trends related to printing, scanning and copying. He says there has been a push lately to go “paperless” when it comes to digital signatures, although some industries such as real estate and legal have resisted this surge.

Color printing is on the rise. He says companies are now printing about 20 percent more in color than black and white in recent years, mostly due to a price decrease in color printing supplies.

Printing legal documents has come under more scrutiny as well. Tuan Tran, general manager and global head for laserjet hardware and enterprise solutions at HP, says there is a trend with “pull printing” where the user prints a document but then has to authenticate his or her identity at the printer in order to generate the print job.

“Organizations have been deploying software that allows users to issue print jobs and then pick them up at any printer or MFP in the office, rather than having them default to the one nearest their desk,” says Weilerstein. “The printer pulls the job from the server at the time it is needed, rather than the printer server pushing the job to the print at the time it is used.”

He says the main driver for the timed printing and authentication is that it prevents another employee from picking up the documents. Weilerstein says there has been a dramatic increase in timed printing, print server use, and pulled printing in recent years.

In the end, workplace trends shift – sometimes edging over to the paperless office or moving to more localized printing in work-pods. All of the experts agreed: It’s important to compare industry trends against the actual needs and processes for your own employees.

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