Paper Management
picture of hand buried under paper

More paper arrives in our offices than departs. Most offices are drowning in paper-based information, much of which is duplicated or obsolete.

Paper is on the increase as technology has made it easier to receive - and print off - reams of information.

People don't know what to keep or how long to keep it for, and organisations don't provide any guidance in the form of retention policies.

Desks are piled high with stacks of paper that people don't know what to do with. They keep it nearby because they worry that they may forget to follow up on it in time or that they'll 'lose' it in an ineffective filing system.

Storing and managing paper, whether onsite or offsite, takes up valuable space, and costs time and money.

The Paperless Office Myth

The vision of the paperless office is on a par with the vision of the cashless society*; not only highly unlikely in the foreseeable future but in fact we're seeing the opposite.

Almost 90% of all information in organisations is still maintained on paper, yet 80% of information that is filed 'for future reference' is never referenced again and approximately half of it is duplicated or obsolete.

If your company is making efforts to 'go green', reducing the volume of paper and recycling that which is duplicated or obsolete is one way to improve your green credentials.

The Internet is a vast and rapidly growing information resource and, despite the ability to be permanently online relatively cheaply, people still print information to read offline. This is partly because we read around 25% slower from a computer screen than we do from paper, but also because the main advantage of paper is that it's portable.

Scanning documents to convert them from paper to electronic form may reduce the volume of paper, but doesn't necessarily solve the problem of finding the information when you need it because people often have as much difficulty with finding electronic documents as they do with finding paper.

The Reality of the Modern Office

Overflowing in-trays, paper stacks covering desks and floors, computer screens framed in post-it notes, binders gathering dust on shelves, filing cabinets full to bursting with obsolete and duplicated information.

This description of a typical office may well describe your working environment. It may not be the case if your organisation operates a 'tidy desk policy'.

Nevertheless, tidy doesn't necessarily mean organised, so whether the view is tidy or chaotic it's likely that the same problems exist:

  • you can't find what you need when you need it
  • if you do find it, you don't know whether it's up-to-date
  • you forget to follow up on important information in time
  • there's more duplicated or obsolete information in your files than there is current or useful information
  • you're still trying to figure out what to do with the information you have as the new stuff arrives.

The Roots of the Problem

Many of the difficulties associated with managing paper-based information are symptoms of the following underlying problems:

  • failure to make decisions
  • filing systems that don't work
  • an absence of retention guidelines
  • lack of skills.

We don't make useful decisions on what to do with information because we don't know the answers, so the only decision we do make is to hang onto it.

We keep the paperwork related to our current projects and our To Do list nearby so that we're less likely to forget to follow up on it and more likely to be able to find it when we do remember. This can result in a desk overflowing with stacks of paper and the fact that it's nearby doesn't necessarily mean that we'll remember to follow up on it in time or be able to find it when we need it.

The FAT system can help you make a decision of what to do with every piece of paper that comes into your office. Setting up Permanent and Temporary Action files can help to keep your desk clear of information that you need to follow up on until you need it.

Filing and Retrieval

We don't file the information we want to keep because past experience tells us we're unlikely to be able to find it when, or indeed if, we need it in the future. Filing it ourselves doesn't guarantee that we'll be able to find it again, and if it's been filed by someone else the difficulties are increased.

We need to retrieve information quickly yet we don't place a high importance on filing it. An effective and low maintenance filing system encourages people to file information; they're less reluctant to file it if they know they'll be able to find it quickly when they need it. Taming the Paper Tiger software guarantees that you will be able to find anything you file in less than 5 seconds.

Retention Decisions

More paper arrives in our offices than departs and the problem is escalating. To reverse this trend we need to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

People have difficulty making decisions on what needs to be filed for future reference and how long it should be kept for because they don't have any guidelines to refer to.

Until organisations create retention policies to guide people on what to keep and what to get rid of, people will continue to keep everything for fear of the consequences of throwing it out.

An Overlooked Subject

Despite the fact that effective information management is an increasing problem, the subject is frequently overlooked. When centralised filing systems became extinct, the skills required for creating and maintaining an effective filing system were not passed down to the individuals becoming responsible for their own filing.

Not only is filing a forgotten art but, in the intervening years, the problem has evolved as the rate of information supply has increased and technology has progressed. Unfortunately, the practicalities of information management haven't been re-addressed along the way.

Not Why but How

'Knowledge Management' became a buzz phrase that indicated the high value that organisations place on information. However, many organisations don't go beyond acknowledging why information is important to teach people how to manage it. This may be because they simply don't know how.

Barbara Hemphill, in her book 'Taming the Paper Tiger at Work', says that in her 25 years' experience of helping organisations manage information she has found that people can't successfully manage electronic information until they learn how to manage paper.

Information 'overload' creates a cluttered and counter-productive working environment that adversely affects the productivity of every individual and ultimately increases costs for the whole organisation.


*Since the cashless society was predicted, cash machines started appearing in places they hadn't been seen when this prediction was made - in fast-food restaurants, corner shops, pubs and clubs, on petrol station forecourts, and more.

The UK Payments Council is looking to phase out cheques by 2018 and wants to find "easy-to-use efficient alternatives" to the cheque that is understood by everybody.

Cash is easily understood by everybody. Perhaps the cashless society is even more of a myth than the paperless office.


See Also Did You Know...?
  • Managing paperwork falls in the top 10 time-wasting activities of managers.
  • The average office-worker spends 3 hours a week sorting through the paperwork on their desk.
  • more facts...
Quotable Quotes

It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.

- Frank Zappa

We can lick gravity but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.

- Wernher von Braun