“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 (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, business processes and business models.

As a designer and purveyor 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 we have to work with.

To the layman, it must seem like an easy problem to solve; “work only with electronic documents and get rid of all paper.” 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 banks that make us fill in forms online but then print, sign and mail them in. There is still a plethora of rules and regulations, many still mandating paper, that inhibit the digital transformation.

Of course, there is also a huge number of people who still prefer to work with paper. Even today, there is a lot of opposition to the digitization of records.

If we look back 30 years or so, we really 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 hence, but from my perspective, we now have all the technology we need at affordable prices to digitally transform any business process.

Maybe not surprisingly, 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.

Even more surprisingly, we still receive as many requests for physical records management systems (i.e., managing paper and files and boxes) as we do for electronic records management solutions. Our clients still have millions of boxes of old 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 (rather than printing them and putting them on file).

Disappointingly, 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 19th century. Virtually, “Doing it this way because we have always done it this way.”

I see the core problem as 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 the ease of ‘discovery’.

In my opinion, 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 appropriate?

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.

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

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

Of course, the real secret to successfully digitally transforming a process or organization isn’t technology, it is resolve and leadership. If you have failed, it isn’t because you didn’t have the tools, it is because you lacked the leadership and resolve, and determination required.

Take a break, have a coffee, contemplate and then tackle it again. With enough resolve and determination, you will get there. Sleep more peacefully at night knowing you have saved millions of trees.

 

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