The Mythical Paperless Office Part 2

by Colin Berkshire

Colin Here. So for about four months I have been scanning the documents that cross my desk. The scanner is a cheap ($450) Xerox Documate 3220 and the scanner driver (ExactScan Pro) OCRs the documents and files them away. I just use my Apple Spotlight to find the documents. It works superbly.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t use a document management program, like Paperport. My thinking is that these apps are pretty crappy. And, they aren’t convenient. And, they often keep your documents hostage in their own file system. I don’t want to worry if my documents might become inaccessible in five years. I just don’t want to lose all of my scanned documents. I don’t trust these content management systems that use proprietary files and file formats.

But the bigger reason that I don’t use any document management system is that I don’t need to.

Initially it was tempting to add tags to documents, to want to write descriptions, and to make up titles. Somehow, I felt the need to ensure that I had done the responsible thing to ensure that I could find things later. But I am also over-worked and I really don’t enjoy clerical stuff. If I imposed the rule that documents needed to be tagged, and have good titles, well, then, I would probably never scan anything, and then I would have this giant stack of papers on my desk, and I would have to rummage through it all. What is the point of that? The whole point was to immediately scan everything and then dispose of it. To do that you need to have a simple process and you need to know you can find things later.

The Apple Spotlight, combined with ExactScan Pro and the Xerox 3220 scanner is the ideal combination.

So you are now asking: You don’t rename the files? You don’t file these into folders? You just trust that you can find things later? My answer is: yes. It works.

Let me explain a bit more:

20 years ago the accounting department made a profound change in our company. We stopped filing invoices and most paperwork by vendor or source. The basic problem was that our staff couldn’t alphabetize worth a dang. But the bigger issue was that each piece of paper had very low value, and we were investing a couple of minutes of time into every one, just to alphabetize it. Worse, a lot of tile was spent culling out old papers, and expanding folders and shifting things around.

The CFO was an elderly, brilliant man and he saw this. He then declared that as of that moment in time, we would no longer alphabetically file any accounting records. It would simply be “dumped” into chronological folders. Initially those folders were monthly but eventually they became weekly. Paper would come into the office, be processed, and then be put on the top of the pile for that week. At the end of the week, somebody would collect the piles from everybody, make no attempt to order things by day, and dump them into a cardboard box. That was it!

We exclaimed that we would never find anything, and that it would take forever to paw through a week of paper (or perhaps two or three weeks.) There was a mutiny in the office that actually cost somebody their job. But the CFO truly was brilliant. And, the system worked. It worked shockingly well. The time spent looking for those very few documents we needed to retrieve was significantly less than the filing time. What was a dozen filing clerks suddenly became a part-time job for one person. It was revolutionary!

So, using that same line of thinking, I just keep the scanned documents chronologically by their scan date. The ExactScan Pro software puts the scan date in ISO format (YYYY-MM-DD) and then appends a 3-digit sequencing number on the end. That’s it. Surprisingly, this works shockingly well. (For all of the same reasons that filing accounting paperwork chronologically does, too.)

Usually, Apple Spotlight finds exactly what I need. When I struggle to think of the right words, then I might need to guess about when I got the document. Now, I don’t scan a thousand documents a day. So using the Apple Finder (Like Windows File Explorer) to flip through documents is super-fast. I can flip through at a rate of one second each, so it is just 5~10 minutes to find that super-rare truly lost document. (Like, I mean, I have to do this maybe once or twice a month.)

OK, I agree that there are those documents which are genuinely important, or that I NEED to file in some orderly way. I do rename the file names for them, and I will move them into the proper folders. But I resist the temptation to do this. It is just a waste of time. My thinking is that unless I will get fired or go to jail if I cannot find the document, I am not going to fiddle with it. It is very tempting to waste time primping your files and it is for the most part a totally unproductive thing to do.

My experience in the first four months has been that I can find documents faster than anybody in the office. I have never been unable to find anything. Usually, I have things at my fingertips instantly. That is, thanks to the Apple Spotlight feature which is fast and simple and just works.

For me, the paperless office has arrived.


See Part 1