Before information can be social, it must first become digital. That's what I concluded Monday after meeting with executives from Xerox Global Serices, the wing of Xerox focused on document management and that aims to help companies manage (or cut down on) the amount of paper flowing through their organizations.
It might seem counterintuitive that the storied old copier company would want us to use less paper and buy fewer printers, but the Global Services division represents Xerox's efforts over the past years to adapt its business to a Web-based, networked world by consulting companies on how best to lease or buy printing equipment, and, perhaps more importantly, digitize hard copy records.
The fact that most work remains on paper could not be any more timely. President Barack Obama wants the United States government to embrace Web 2.0 technologies (as his campaign brilliantly did) to help us organize and share information, boosting transparency and efficiency in the public sector. But before that can even happen, this information needs to be put onto computers.
At this time of writing, we're losing ground. A recent survey found that nearly half of government employees agreed strongly that most of their business processes are paper-based and, even in the year 2009, nearly 40 percent said they're "drowning in paper."
The private sector, which many pundits and politicians tell us innovate faster than government, hasn't been much better. Evidently, tales of the "paperless" office that we've dreamed about for decades remain elusive. IDC says 90 percent of companies lack a strategy for their documents. That could explain why Wal-Mart wants to get into the software business by selling medical record software to Doctors offices. According to the New York Times, only 17 percent of doctors have computerized records.
Around your own office, the problems can be more tangibly observed. People print huge PDFs and leave them on the tray. Expense reports and HR documents still get "inter-officed." Of course, there's always a few fighting the good fight, but ultimately exercising futility, with the "please consider the environment before printing this e-mail" note below their signature.
John M. Kelly, a vice president at Xerox Global Services, says that companies could save exponential amounts of money by digitizing many of these records and decreasing the amount of print devices needed in each office. Xerox recently worked with KeyCorp, a financial services company, to cut its load of printers, fax machines, copiers and scanners from 10,000 to 3,500. They have decreased the amount of paper output, and he expects KeyCorp to save $6 million over the next few years.
I write frequently about the merits of sharing information over social technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networks. But meeting with Xerox made me wonder how much institutional knowledge we don't yet have access to (and thus can't publish inside these more progressive technology tools). Much of it remains stuck in the filing cabinets of Baby Boomers who will retire in a few years. Worse, they will take that knowledge with them if given no efficient way to upload it. What's left inside their desk your facilities department will dump into a recycling bin, and that'll be that.
The success of social tools inside businesses and the government will be in capturing this data and making it available for others to view and edit. It seems like they have plenty more to do before that becomes a reality.