What it is?

Let’s begin with a couple of borrowed quotes:

“Digital transformation is the profound and accelerating transformation of business activities, processes, competencies and models to fully leverage the changes and opportunities of digital technologies and their impact across society in a strategic and prioritized way, with present and future shifts in mind.” Or, put more simply:

Digital transformation — the use of technology to radically improve performance or reach of enterprises.”

Having been involved in the digital revolution since the early 1980s (Office Automation) and through the 1990s (the Paperless Office) and now into the 21st Century (Enterprise Content Management) I have watched and participated as thousands of clients have, with all good intentions, tried to transform their enterprises into digitally-empowered entities.

Whereas there are many aspects and functions of any enterprise to transform, the high-level aspects are the customer experience, employee experience and business processes.

As a designer of Enterprise Content Management Solutions, my involvement has usually been in the area of business processes, most specifically, Workflow, Electronic Records and Document Management (EDRMS), Email Management and Document Imaging. These are of course, now very old-fashioned terms and likely to be usurped in the near future but for now they are terms most of us are familiar with.

Why is it so hard?

To the layman, it should be a piece of cake. “Work only with electronic documents and get rid of all paper.” Done, next problem!

Of course, it would be that simple if we lived in a vacuum but we don’t. We have to interact with the world outside. We have to deal with other organizations, with local government and state government and federal government and we all have to meet a plethora of rules and regulations, many still mandating paper. There is also a huge number of people who still prefer to work with paper. Even today, there are a lot of barriers to the digitization of all records.

It isn’t a technology problem

Thirty years ago, we struggled because by today’s standards, the technology was massively expensive and patently inadequate for the task. Someone may well say the same thing about today’s technology 30 years into the future but from my viewpoint, we now have all the proven, operational technology we need at affordable prices to digitally transform any process.

Why are we still obsessed with paper?

When I talk to clients today and examine their operations I see many of the problems I saw 30 years ago. I see veritable mountains of paper, I see scores of manual processes crying out for automation. For the record, we still receive as many requests for physical records management systems (i.e., managing paper and files and archive boxes) as we do for electronic records management solutions. Our clients still have millions of boxes of old paper records in offsite storage warehouses. Our clients are still spending millions and millions of dollars storing paper they will never look at again. Our clients are still struggling to obtain the imprimatur of someone senior enough to automate the capture of all emails. This is real life in 2017.

I still see organizations spending years and vast amounts of money trying to implement records classification and retention systems designed for the paper-bound world of the 19thcentury. Virtually, “Doing it this way because we have always done it this way.”

Discovery, not Filing

I see one of the core problem as a blind adherence to the cultural heritage of paper and filing. These ancient customs were primarily focused on ‘filing’ almost to the extent of an obsession. Unfortunately, most of today’s records management systems are also obsessed with filing when they should be obsessed with finding, with ‘discovery’.

It is the obsession with filing that most impedes the digitization of records in most enterprises.

Remove this fixation on filing and suddenly digital transformation becomes a whole lot easier, less costly and significantly less intrusive for the ordinary worker who just wants to quickly search for and locate everything he or she needs to get the job done (or work process completed).

It reminds me of a definition I wrote for Knowledge Management back in 1995:

“A knowledge management system provides the user with the explicit information required, in exactly the form specified at precisely the time the user needs it.”

Surely, isn’t this still what every organization needs? We used to call it management by exception. “Please don’t overburden me with stacks of paper, just give me what I need when I need it.”

Paper is great for lots of things but not for records

Paper is great for taking notes, for doodling, for sketching, for napkins, for hand towels, for prints, for novels, etc. It is great for a great many things, it is in fact a wonderful invention but it should not be used for records. It should not be filed away, it should not be stored in boxes on dusty shelves in huge warehouses. It should not consume a large part of your operational budget every year. You have better things to spend your money on. The feeding of paper mites should not be part of your job spec.

If you truly want to digitize your records then you need to lose the obsession with filing and boldly outlaw paper records. Be brave, be bold, be innovative, be authoritative.

Focus entirely on dealing with data, information and knowledge – none of which require paper.

How to begin the Digitization Process?

My experience tells me that it can’t happen overnight but, you have to begin as you intend to go forward.

Start by telling your suppliers you will no longer accept paper records from 6 or 12 months hence. Tell them they will no longer receive paper from you. Tell them everything must be in a digital form. Tell your clients you will now only communicate in a digital form. Concentrate on getting the very best out of digital tools like Office365 and email. Find ways to capture every digital record either on creation or receipt. Stop printing out digital records like Word documents and emails, manage the electronic record instead.

Implement a secure, scalable image and data repository, a central records database. Convince your corporate Records Manager to become a Corporate Information Manager. Tell him/her that you want them to focus on discovery, not filing. Bite the bullet and make it happen.

In time (and I accept that this may be a long way off), get rid of printers and photocopiers; all you should need for the transition from paper are document scanners to convert paper records into digital records. Remove the temptation to print anything. Remove the need to access paper copies by providing instant, secure network access to digital documents stored in your central records database. Your objective should be to manage only digital records and to make it as easy and as fast as possible for any employee to find what they need from your digitized central records database.

Of course, the real secret to successfully digitally transforming a process or organization isn’t technology, it is all about having a cohesive plan, an adequate budget, resolve, leadership and senior management support.

If you are having difficulties, you won’t be Robinson Crusoe, you will be one of many like-minded reformists. Rest assured that your issues won’t be with technology and tools because they are available, proven and getting better all the time. It will most probably be because you don’t have the imprimatur of senior management or because you have yet to convince enough senior people of the benefits of digitization or because you don’t have the required budget.

My advice, take a break, have a coffee, contemplate and then tackle it again and again and again. With enough resolve and determination, you will get there. Sleep more peacefully at night knowing you have saved millions of trees as well as saving your organization millions of dollars.

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