Paper Waste Too Often Overlooked in the Age of the Cloud

IT has operated under constant heavy pressure from senior management to cut costs for at least 20 years. The 2008 financial meltdown has increased that pressure from a dull roar to a full scream. And as we approach the 2012 fiscal year with the U.S. economy sluggish and the Euro under threat, that pressure is not going down any time soon.

IT is responding with full architectural change. Nearly every medium-to-large company today is somewhere along the migration to either a full public cloud strategy or internal conversion to a virtualized infrastructure and a hybrid public/cloud architecture, with significant savings as a major goal.

Yet through all of this one of the largest areas of waste has yet to be tackled in most organizations. In many it isn’t on the radar. This is the huge amount of office printing that companies churn out daily at great financial and environmental expense.

A 2008 white paper by GreenPrint Technologies cites estimates that the average employee prints 10,000 sheets of paper a year at a cost of $.06 to $.13 per sheet, for a total annual printing cost of $600 to $1,300 per employee. And the sad fact is that that situation has not changed in the vast majority of companies in the last three years. So if your organization has 1,000 employees, it is spending up to $1.3 million a year churning out paper.

And that is only the direct financial cost. It does not include the cost of distributing, filing, updating pages, storing, and eventually disposing of all that paper. And it does not count the inefficiencies of paper versus electronic, starting with the time employees spend searching for the report they need and then manually searching through it for the statistic or fact they want. Nor does it include the environmental impacts caused by all this printing.

Yet people still print out reams of copies of presentation books, white papers, office memos, even e-mail for filing. And the fact is that at least 80% of that printing is pure waste. That means one million dollars per thousand employees. In this era in which all documents are created digitally, with pervasive wired and wireless digital networking, with computers on every desk, laptops in every briefcase, smartphones in every pocket, and a fast growing population of tablets — which is poised to explode with the introduction of $200-$250 Android devices — paper is largely an anachronism, and one that business can no longer afford. Companies could actually save money next year by equipping all employees with $200 Android tablets and taking their printers away.

But people are creatures of habit, and they are used to printing everything. So it is not enough to just ask employees to cut back on their printing. Cutting paper requires a strategy, and the key is charge back. As long as the cost of printing comes out of the IT budget, LOB and departmental managers have no motivation to curb the printing habit. The minute they see that cost coming out of their budgets, they will get very interested in strategies for minimizing it.

However, this program has to have the full backing of senior management, especially the CFO. Otherwise this will quickly devolve into a political battle with business management that the CIO will loose.

And it should not be all stick. IT should offer support for business users tablets and smartphones as reading devices, without which an electronic publishing policy will create genuine difficulties for employees, particularly those who need access to those documents away from their desks. And IT should invest in applications for distributing documents of various types. E-mail is a good solution for distributing all-company memos and newsletters, but it is an awkward method for delivering presentation slides to meeting attendees and usually cannot be used to distribute large files. A document database accessible to laptops and both iPads and Android tablets, where employees can publish their finished documents and from which employees can download the documents they need, is essential.

Managers print e-mails to file them, for instance with other client or project documents. The answer here is to copy and paste the e-mail into a word document and file it and all other important electronic documents in a networked file system. If your company does not have an e-filing database that allows business users to maintain electronic filing systems, then you should add this to replace paper filing cabinets.

Obviously these changes will require appropriate training in the new systems and methods, with follow-ups to get people comfortable with the electronic approach. IT should develop champions in business units, power users who enjoy helping others master technology, who can be trained become advocates for paperless operations among coworkers. The most effective advocates are people who already are influencers, including but not limited to the heads of departments, divisions, LOBs, and of course C-level management. When the boss asks for electronic documents that he can read on his iPad at meetings, then all his direct reports will immediate switch to electronic documents at least in public, and that will move down through the organization. But influencers among coworkers, particularly those who are seen as cool and adept at technology, are also important for developing general support for the move away from paper.

IT certainly should support the tablets users bring to the office. iPad users, who often include many managers and C-level executives, may well be happy to get to use, and show off, their cool tablets. IT might also want to designate a standard tablet that the company can buy in bulk and supply to employs. Given that the latest Android tablets from Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble are priced between $200 and $250 quantity one, less than the average one-year cost of an employee’s printing, it should not be hard to cost-justify the purchase.

About Bert Latamore

Bert Latamore is a freelance writer covering the intersection of IT and business for SiliconANGLE. He is a frequent contributor to CrowdChats focused on theCUBE coverage of major IT industry events and site editor at Wikibon.org. He has 35 years’ experience covering the IT industry including four with Gartner, five with Meta Group, and eight with Wikibon. He lives in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, Moire, and their dog, cat and macaw. In his spare time he enjoys reading, hiking and photography.