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Taming the Paper Tiger in the Digital Age
August 2005

Manage Your Paper and Digital Information to Increase Profit, Productivity and Peace of Mind
By Barbara Hemphill

The ability of an employee to accomplish any task is directly related to his/her ability to find the right thing at the right time. Research shows the average worker spends 150 hours/year looking for information – and is a statistic which doesn’t account for the time spent recreating information which already exists somewhere in the company, or lost opportunities resulting from misplaced or uncollected information.

Here are some questions every business owner should ask:

  • Are you comfortable that your employees are spending an appropriate amount of time finding the information they need to do their job?
  • Are you maximizing available information to sell additional products and services to existing customers and to acquire new customers?
  • Have you developed and executed a records retention program for paper and electronic files that would serve you well in case of a lawsuit?
  • When employees leave your company, are you comfortable that key information will be transitioned smoothly?
  • Are you comfortable that information is appropriately available so people are not recreating information that already exists?
  • Are you confident you are providing employees with a workplace environment which will minimize stress-related diseases?

Paper or Electronic?
Although computers once promised us the paperless office, research predicts that by the end of 2005 there will be 50% more paper in offices than there was in 1995. Even more significantly, a study by University of Washington School of Information found that only 10% of the people surveyed were happy with their ability to access electronic information.

Since the arrival of computers, the majority of the information management budget is spent on technology, while a large part of their information remains on paper. At the same time, businesses discovered that “going paperless” did not result in “instant organization” – and involved far more expense for hardware, software, and human resources that they ever dreamed.

In years past, businesses had “central filing systems” Now the central file room is gone, and file cabinets are scattered in various areas around the office – with no one person who can identify what they contain. While it is not practical or desirable to go back to a central filing system, it is possible and highly desirable to use today’s technology create a “centrally understood” filing system. The ratio of administrative support to management requires that people at all levels in a company be able to access information.

If the answer to any of the questions at the beginning of this article is “No,” here are six suggestions to help you get started on the road to organization:

Implement a reliable database system for keeping track of contact information.
Software programs such as Outlook or Act will eliminate wasted time looking for contact info. The more you know about your clients and your prospects, the greater your prospects for increasing the value you provide to them. The more you know about your suppliers, the greater your chance for reducing cost.

Treat information in your company as the valuable asset it is.
Create and maintain a records management program for paper and electronic information. Identify what information you should keep, in what form, by whom, for how long. One of the major sources of clutter in offices is employee’s lack of knowledge of what they are expected to keep.

Choose the most appropriate methodology and technology to manage your information.
Do not assume that the most expensive technology is always the best choice. Sometimes “less is more” – even when it comes to technology. If employees are wasting time looking for electronic files, your company is wasting money and opportunities. Programs such as Enfish and Google allow you to find any electronic document in your network in seconds.

Eliminate unnecessary duplication of information.
Implement “The Originator’s Ruleâ„¢: Whoever originates a document is responsible for its retention.” Other people may keep it as long as they want it, but when they no longer need it, they are not responsible for keeping it. The trash generated with the implementation of this rule is staggering!

Create a paper filing system that works – easily and consistently! The key to the least labor intensive and most reliable filing system is a File Index – a “chart of accounts” for your files. A filing program such as The Paper Tiger software allows you to find any physical resource in an entire department in a matter of seconds.

If your filing system is not working, it may be easier to start over than to try and fix it.
Empty the old stuff out of your most accessible file space, and put it into less accessible space. Begin your new system. As you need information from the old files, incorporate it into the new system. Eventually, the two systems will be combined – or can be tossed or put in storage.

So, you have decided to get organized! “Where do you start?” First break the clutter cycle. Research shows that 80% of what we keep we never use, and the more we keep the less we use! Determine whether you want to keep each piece of paper at all by asking yourself these “Art of Wastebasketry” questions:

Does this require any action on my part?
Just because you receive information–even if it’s from your boss–doesn’t mean you need to keep it! If it doesn’t require action, file it or toss it right away! If it’s just an FYI, read it and toss.

Does this exist elsewhere?
Is it in the library? Do you know an expert on the subject who’d be certain to have more complete information if you really needed it? Is the original filed elsewhere? Is it necessary to keep a hard copy if it already exists in the computer?

Is this information recent enough to be useful?
Today, information becomes outdated very quickly. Would you want a customer to decide whether or not to choose your services based on a three-year-old brochure? The information in a 6-month-old magazine article about computer software has undoubtedly been superseded, as has a downloaded product review from an on-line service. In many cases, it is more appropriate to keep track of the source of the information, so you can get the latest version, rather than keeping the information itself.

Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use this information?
Usually, “just in case” is not good enough! Files labeled “Miscellaneous” are of little value, because there’s nothing to trigger you to look there. If you can’t identify how you’d use the information – at least well enough that you can file it for future reference, it’s unlikely that you’d remember you have it, let alone be able to find it later.

Are there any tax or legal implications?
Here’s where “just in case” works. Unfortunately, we’re frequently required to resurrect paper that we’d much rather have forgotten. Sometimes, having outdated information in your files can create unnecessary problems. A client of mine was sued. When the company’s files were subpoenaed, the prosecuting attorney found my client’s unsigned contract proposal, and used it to prove wrongful intent. My client lost the suit and had to pay $147,000. Had the files had been properly cleaned, I don’t believe that would have happened.

If you answer “No” to all the above questions, but are still not comfortable throwing something away, ask one last question:

What is the worst possible thing that could happen if I didn’t have this information?

If you can live with your answer, toss it – and live happily ever after. For years I have orchestrated “File Clean-Out Days” with companies. I used to live in fear that someone would come back to me afterward with a horror story of something we threw out, and they needed later. In 20 years, it’s never happened!

Recently a woman told me that one of the big frustrations in her advertising company was staff spending time looking for materials from client projects years prior. I suggested a plan. Why not establish a company policy that “We keep client materials for three years.” At the end of each year, you send a letter to the client saying “We have the following materials from the project we did together. Our policy is to keep client materials for three years. If we don’t hear from you in 60 days, the materials will be destroyed.” What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? Four possibilities than I can think of. (1) You won’t waste valuable time looking for something which brings back nothing to the company, (2) Your policy makes you look very professional, or (3) Your letter reminds the client of your availability, and you get a new contract! Who says using your wastebasket doesn’t make money? And (4), somebody somewhere probably has it anyway – in spite of our best efforts!

People often ask, “How long will it take to get organized?” One thing is for sure, the longer you wait, the longer it will take – and the more difficult and costly it will be!! Can you afford the risk?

About the Author
Barbara Hemphill is one of the country’s leading business organization experts. Author of the best-selling Kiplinger series, “Taming the Paper Tiger,” Ms. Hemphill is working on the next book, “Taming the Paper Tiger in the Digital Age.” She has helped companies of all sizes, including Hallmark, Eastman Kodak and 3M, increase their productivity and efficiency. For more info on her speaking and training please call: 919-773-0722 or visit:

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