I am open to adopting new technology. I love playing with the latest and greatest gadgets. It’s a big part of why I’m in the game. I get to experience and learn about systems and networks that are well beyond my personal budget. However, I also hate to see people buy into the hype of an idea without checking the math.
One such example is the idea of going “paperless”. A nearly paperless office is an ideal that I think is quite attainable for many organizations. It just requires a few free tools (like CutePDF), a trained and on-board staff, perhaps a scanner, and some storage infrastructure to store the digitized documents. For the purpose of simplifying the calculations, let’s assume you already have a scanner and the storage infrastructure in place.
Going completely paperless might be a bit overkill though. With your commitment to steer your organization to its paperless existence, are you going to get rid of all of your printers or will printing still be allowed when absolutely required? If you could get rid of all the printers, you would no longer have printer purchases or maintenance. At the very least, you might be able to reduce the number of printers that are required throughout the building. You could probably make the transition with your current infrastructure and really minimize your paper usage by creating PDF files, using email, and utilizing print-to-fax.
After the low-hanging fruit and minimizing your paper usage, the investment costs jump up with the next step. One common implementation that I have heard frequently is purchasing Apple iPads to use instead of print-outs, agendas and related documents would all be pre-loaded on the iPads for meetings or available through apps like Dropbox. I sometimes wonder if there is somebody in the area going around shopping this idea around.
The return on investment (ROI) is worth calculating for any such decision and, frankly, I don’t think it adds up.
Let’s assume that all of the back-end infrastructure is taken care of: there is plenty of file storage, compatible PCs, and a staff member trained to prepare each iPad before each meeting. This will reduce the costs of the paperless option and give it a head-start. We will simply focus on the part of the project that calls for implementing iPads in exchange for printed documents.
- The new iPad at its lowest cost (WiFi and 16GB storage) costs $499.
- With Kinko’s costs and profit built-in, black and white pages cost $0.10 and color prints cost $0.49 .
- Averaging 80% of print outs are monochrome and 20% are color, the cost to print averages to: $0.19/page
- Since each individual would need to have an iPad, it would cost $499 per person. If that same person, in one year, needed 100 pages printed off, it would cost $19.
500 pages/year (41/month): $95
1000 pages(83/month): $190
2000 pages(166/month): $380
If you had $500 in printing costs in a year or over 2,600 pages printed, for that individual, you would see a return on investment in one year. If that one person printed over 1,300 pages a year you would see the ROI in 2 years.
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Reduce.org states that the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. I think that number is incredibly high. I use maybe 100 pages a year. If that single person used 60 pages a month, or 720 pages a year, it would total to $136.80 in printing costs/year or a 3.65 year ROI.
If the first steps that I mentioned earlier (training to convert files to PDF, sharing files across the network instead of physically, etc) were to be taken, I think the number of copy paper used by the average office worker would be far less. Others that try to promote the paperless approach cite costly statistics from INC Magazine:
In the Average Office
Nineteen paper copies are made of each original document; 7.5% of paper documents get lost completely; 3% of the remainder get misfiled; $20 in labor is spent filing or retrieving a document; $120 in labor is spent finding a misfiled document; $250 in labor is spent recreating a lost document.
Source: Lawrence Livermore Labs; Coopers & Lybrand.
If it is costing you that much to file a document or find a misfiled document, there is something incredibly wrong with your file organizing. By implementing the low-hanging fruit to become a nearly-paperless office, your digital filing would be far less costly. If you are truly starting from scratch, which I don’t think any organization in today’s world could be, then yes, you will see great reduction in costs to become paperless. However, I think the project should be done in an iterative manner, reevaluating after each milestone. After the low-hanging fruit, I don’t think your gains make it fiscally-wise to proceed to the next step unless you count environmental impact into your equation.
With the focus on using an iPad as the ultimate paperless device, the question becomes ‘Why does it have to be an iPad?’ A Kindle Fire would work and bring the investment cost down to $200/person – a much more attainable ROI. Perhaps laptops should be used with replacing the desktop and providing the mobile device needed to go fully paperless. Laptops would cost more than an iPad but would also do much more as well as converting some of your sunk costs from PCs into better fitting your needs. This becomes particularly true if you start buying accessories for the iPads like covers and keyboards or taking into consideration the electricity to charge the devices.
All in all, the project would be $500 per person. If you had a staff of 12 attending the meetings, that would be a $6,000 investment. With an ROI of 3-5 years, that is not an investment I would recommend making strictly for the paperless argument. If there were other needs that would be accomplished by the devices perhaps it would warrant the investment.
My recommendation would be to reduce paper usage as much as possible through other methods, discourage excess printing, but continue to print the necessary documents for now. After the other methods have been in place for a while, reevaluate the project and recalculate the ROI for individual’s reduced paper usage. However, if people know about the plan (“If I print a lot, I can get an iPad.”) the project may be self-defeating. Is the whole project just a cover because the executive wants the company to buy them an iPad?
What do you think? Is there a line to be drawn where the project towards the paperless office is no longer beneficial? Would you advise the organization to make the investment or to hold off on going completely paperless by issuing iPads to all managers?