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Offices will probably never be completely “paperless,” despite the longstanding technology prophecy to the contrary. But sharp reductions in paper use are still possible, as one Vermont state agency is trying to prove.

Vermont’s Department of Information and Innovation (DII) handles IT procurement for the state, and much of that work is paper-intensive. The agency sets up contracts with outside vendors, such as antivirus-software providers or hardware sellers, to maintain the state government’s technological infrastructure. A given contract handled by the DII may need to be seen and approved by several people before it can be accepted, and each step still requires printing and signing by hand. The DII might handle 80 such contracts in a month.

About a year ago, officials in the agency began trying to make the process more efficient and less costly by relying more on online tools. The DII became a beta tester for software from IBM and Silanis that lets agency employees sign a document digitally by appending a bit of data that verifies and records the identity of the signer electronically, without the need for unique handwriting. The system then automatically alerts the next person in line that it’s his or her turn to review it. There’s no need for a physical document to be passed around, collecting signatures. The flow of contracts through the organization is no longer limited by employees’ walking speed.

Similar measures in any organization could yield savings that add up quickly. Ken Bisconti, head of IBM’s Enterprise Content Management division, says that when companies stop printing e-mails and other documents that are “born digital,” they can reduce paper consumption by 80 to 90 percent. François Ragnet, a program manager with Xerox Research Center who focuses on document technology, envisions a future in which many more documents are stored online and automatically update themselves, so that paper is needed only in limited circumstances.

For now, though, paper can be minimized only up to a point, says Kris Rowley, the DII’s chief information security officer. Final versions of contracts must still be printed and physically filed. And not every department within the state government is willing or able to use electronic signatures. “Paper in the office is never going to go away,” says Rowley. She’s also not sure how much money the effort will save. Still, she hopes the DII can do its part to shrink the anticipated $153 million gap in the state’s budget. “Vermont has always been about green,” she says, and “there’s an awful lot of paper wasted—there’s no need for it, especially with technology the way it’s going.”

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Credit: Technology Review

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, The Future of the Office

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