The Mythical Paperless Office Part 1

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Colin Here. I remember the 1970s when the vision of the future included personal aircraft in our garages and offices that didn’t shuffle paper around. The concept was called “The Paperless Office.”

As computers become more commonplace in the 1980s an interesting thing happened: Offices used more paper, not less. Paper companies were running at record production levels. Companies that sold filing cabinets shipped them in record numbers. Computers could churn out paper at a rate that turned us all into filing clerks.

The 1990s weren’t much better. There were some starts, and a number of applications that let you slowly scan documents in, and retrieve them…by keyword or title, or scan date. But mostly these were black holes that hid your documents from you. Microsoft introduced a search feature on Windows, but I never could get that to really work. My co-workers tried, but it was cumbersome and belligerent.

I stumbled into “The Paperless Office” pretty much by accident,

Eight months ago I switched to an Apple Mac. Up until then I had only used Windows and Dell PCs. It’s been a life changing experience…in a good way.

Six months ago I bought a new scanner. You dump in a stack of paper and it scans it. The Xerox Documate 3220 scans both sides at once, which is pretty cool for a $450 scanner. I bought a scanning package called Exact Scan Pro which drives the scanner and creates PDF files.

As I said, it was an accident that I entered The Paperless Office. Since getting the scanner I had been scanning most of the paper that crossed my desk that I needed to keep. The problem in my job is a lot of stuff crosses my desk and then needs to sit and wait for a week or a month or a year. I don’t need that document until I really need it. So my desk is a proverbial tower of babble of papers waiting to die.

Then, I discovered Apple “Spotlight”. That’s the little spyglass in the top right corner of your screen. It’s just a search box, like Google. For some reason I tried it, and I noticed that all of the scanned documents were showing up, neatly organized. Wow, really?! A few more tests, and I realized I could play “Name that Tune” (An old TV show) on all of the stuff I had scanned in. I could start finding documents by typing in a few words that would be in the documents.

That’s when it hit me: The Exact Scan Pro software had been dutifully OCRing all of the stuff I had been scanning. It was putting the searchable text into a hidden layer in the PDF files it was creating. Apple Spotlight would sneak into these documents, find the hidden text and do its magic with it. Suddenly, everything that I scanned could be found.

The beauty of this is that I didn’t need to add tags. I didn’t need to create long, descriptive titles. After a while I realized I didn’t really even need to file and organize the documents at all.

This all got me to thinking: How good is this “Spotlight” and could I trust it? Could I really just scan everything and throw it all away? Could I go that far?

So i started scanning a bunch of test documents, to see what worked and what didn’t work. I tweaked the scanner’s settings to create a B&W and a Color profile, and also profiles for different sized paper (In Asia we use A4 size paper like the rest of the world, while the US is the last remaining country to use 8.5×11 paper.)

My tests were shocking. Pretty much, Spotlight could find anything, instantly. And, pretty much the scanner would OCR everything accurately enough that I could trust it. This meant that perhaps I could just go cold turkey and enter the mythical Paperless Office.

Lets zip forward four months…

Today, I scan everything that crosses my desk that doesn’t just get trashed. In fact, for much of the stuff my admin assistant scans things and sometimes if no action is needed, she doesn’t even bother to tell me. My computer has become a giant repository of “stuff”.

We set the scanner to name documents with the date in ISO format (YYYY-MM-DD) and then add a 3-digit sequence for when multiple documents were scanned on the same date. So a file name might be: 2012-04-01-001.pdf if it was the first document scanned that day. For the most part, I don’t waste the time to change these names. I know this is counter intuitive, but I have better things to do than to add tags, create long file names, and fiddle with trivialities.

The sad fact is that most of the documents that get scanned will never bee seen again. I just don’t know which ones I might need. So I pretty much scan everything.

What I really like is that I don’t have to do front-end work on scanned documents. There isn’t a “time tax” to prepare things that I probably never will look at again. It is not a “work project” to do scanning. If a document crosses my desk I drop it into the scanner, press scan, and then throw it into the trash. I then forget about it unless some actual action was needed from me.

When I need to retrieve a document I use the Apple built-in Spotlight feature. It finds things instantly…and I do mean as fast as Google on a good day. I can enter an employee name, or their ID number, or a property-tax number or a check number or an invoice number and presto! the document is found.

Colin Berkshire