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Killing ourselves with paper; rationalizing your computer-generated reporting needs.

Killing Ourselves With Paper

The CEO has just ordered his second project in 3 years to review all of the accounting reports. The amount of paper and microfiche generated by the powerful and sophisticated computing facilities developed by the organization over the past two decades is awesome. Not only does every office have small mountains of computer printouts, but there is also a large store-room on most floors, and only the devil knows how much space is consumed in the corporate warehouses. The staff specialist dutifully reviews the reporting needs of each of the divisions and reports back that indeed, all of the reports were needed and should be retained. There was one report that would likely vanish in the Spring with the arrival of the new budgeting system. What the staffer did not mention, was the fact that the new budgeting system would introduce another series of reports that would increase the paper load even further.

A major Canadian retailer of petroleum products launched a project to examine reporting needs. The target of the project was to trim the "system" by 50%. With a mandate from the President, this project, over a two-year period, worked its way through each of the major divisions of the firm. A project team worked with senior managers to re-examine their basic needs for management information. The project was completed and the players returned to their regular jobs. Amazingly, the organization had achieved a cut exceeding 60%. In addition, a number of clerical functions were reassigned providing additional benefits. The work was generally unheralded and the participants were quite modest in reviewing their achievements. In the end, much of the effort gained few headlines.

What was the lurking fear that engendered the CEO's request? Simply stated, he wondered if all of that paper was of any value. Certainly, the CEO had managed quite nicely with precious little paper and sensed there might be a great waste of energy and resources involved. The CEO may have been right but large organizations are not well equipped to automatically police the expulsion or retention of possibly unnecessary reports. The purpose of this article is to explore this phenomena, its root causes and suggest some ways to overcome the issues.

What are the

Reasons For

Burying

Ourselves

In Paper?

Individuals and organizations have many different reasons for maintaining the voluminous flow of paper within their business lives. Following are some of the common reasons:

20 Year Syndrome

- the belief that "we have been doing it this way for 20 years and there is no reason to change" is still a powerful inhibitor to change, even if the change will help the organization survive today's increasing business pressures.

Surrogates

- how many people generate reports, not for their own use, but for the consumption of others? How many of the people receiving these reports wonder why on earth do they continue to receive them? Years ago, during a project to implement a new general ledger, I asked a manager how he could possibly read all of the 59 reports designated for his group. He indicated that he only needed about 9, the other 50 were prepared for others who needed them. Upon further investigation, few of these reports were actually needed, but no one had stopped to question the process.

System Constraints

- some computer systems are so archaic that the only way to get any information out of them is through voluminous paper reports. Typically, the lack of exception reporting, tolerance adjustments, online queries, online validations, etc. will lead to a dependence on lots of paper.

Inherited Reports

- when the new manager of Financial Reporting took on new responsibilities, it was unlikely that this included a review of reporting needs. More than likely, the new manager took all of the old reports as a basis, and added some new ones until the job became "comfortable". When that happens, the thought of cleaning out old reports is given a relatively low priority.

Inertia

- changing reporting requirements is like any change; it takes a significant amount of energy to make it happen. Particularly, if the resources needed to achieve the change report elsewhere. Information services people usually are a shared resource. To complicate the issue, information systems folks often speak "strange languages", are very scarce and tend to be distracted with the complexities of the technology itself. Not only that, the testing effort needed to ensure that the results are accurate probably means the job should be left until after quarter-end or longer.

Audit Needs It

- probably the most abused excuse for excessive amounts of paper is the often heard phrase "but, the auditors need it". The Tax Department, the Legal Department, and Purchasing all come in for their fair share of this form of rationale. Often, however, the question has not been raised at all and the cost/benefit of reporting has never been reviewed.

Implied Demand

- some reports are produced ad infinitum because a senior manager asked for some numbers on an ad hoc basis. Just in case the question is ever asked again, elaborate production of the numbers are put in place. These never die. Sometimes, reports are kept several layers down in the organizational structure only because the players at the level "think" that some senior manager has asked for the information to be kept.

Comfort

- it is not hard to believe that many people today still do not trust the electronic media. Far better to print off a copy of the report and stash it in a filing cabinet - just in case the computer fails and the information is "lost". Unfortunately, we still have people in business today (young and old) who refuse to use technology.

There are likely a number of other reasons which vary on the above themes. The net conclusion remains the same - we are killing ourselves with paper. However, we seem powerless to do away with the bulk of it.

How Can

Technology

Help?

The first answer to this question usually involves applying micro computers to reduce the amount of paper. Unfortunately, micro computers or personal computers are usually surrounded by a variety of printers - generating more paper. Worse yet, the numbers coming off the PC do not match with the numbers off the mainframe computer, necessitating the need for a series of reports to reconcile the differences. There are some trends in the evolution of information in technology that do lend themselves to reducing paper if properly applied. Some of these trends include the following:

Price/Performance

- the "bang for the buck" from information technology is getting better all the time. The implication here is that technology can be applied to business problems that previously were not viable economically. This in itself will not reduce the amount of computer generated paper.

Penetration

- with improved price/performance, organizations are moving to greater penetrations of technology throughout. In some cases, this means a computer on every desk. With this improved access comes the opportunity for reducing paper.

Distribution

- a trend that system developers have pursued for the last decade is "data entry at source". This means that fewer people today fill out paper forms that get sent to a data entry group that keys the information and produces a variety of reports for verification. Rather, the information creators enter the data themselves. Who better than the creator to ensure accuracy? Once into the system, the data is available to others.

Integration

- many organizations are making significant steps to integrate their information. Integration means only one vendor file, only one client file, only one inventory, etc. Moreover, complex inquiries can be resolved through relating the various pools of data.

In addition to the above trends, there are several pieces of technology that support the reduction of paper if applied properly. These include the following:

Optical Disks

- huge volumes of "printed matter" can be supplied to information consumers on optical disks. For example, Digital Equipment Corporation now delivers all of their operating systems support documentation in this fashion. Similarly, aircraft maintenance manuals are distributed via this media.

Relational Data Bases

- data base management systems such as IBM's DB/2 now provide powerful query facilities that allow fast access to vast amounts of information. Also, online entry of transaction data allows timely and validated updates to the data bases.

Imaging Technology

- some estimates that suggest only 10% of an organization's data can be computerized have overlooked the rising power of imaging technology. Not only can the cost centre manager's signature be captured, the shipper's handwritten notes on the invoice can be viewed by the purchasing office seconds after arrival.

Online Systems

- although these systems have been around for some time, it seems that a number of other factors have only recently made these systems as effective. For example, the new Executive Information Systems (EIS) allows senior managers to access operational data using simple keyboard commands, a mouse or a device that looks suspiciously like a TV remote controller.

In addition, there are several other pieces of the technical puzzle that aid the war on paper. For example, super sophisticated laser printers that generate forms as needed, improved graphics capabilities of computers and improved data communications capabilities, all support the thrust for less paper if applied appropriately.

How to

Make It

Work

The above material suggests that technology itself will not reduce the mountains of paper. If anything, technology provides the power to produce more, faster. The following suggests some successful techniques:

Non-delivery

- if the paper reprints come off the mainframe computer and are distributed by some administrative function, one often used technique is to arbitrarily cut the flow. For those consumers who notice the disappearance (and not just the functionary who does the delivery or the filing), the flow can be resumed. This was a technique once used in a major service bureau that produced detailed billing reports for every sales person, their managers, the clients as well as the technical support group. The results were impressive. The next step was to maintain the data on magnetic tapes and provide an access routine for specific accounts on an "as needed" basis.

Demand

- senior managers can demand their subordinates to reduce the amount of paper. A new President of a major pipeline company announced his intention to eliminate all of the paper from the organization. A Silicon Valley company in California currently has a target of a 5 minute lifespan for any paper that enters the firm (I am not sure what they do with computer magazines and the infuriating little mail return cards inside). Their implementation of imaging technology is a case study for the industry. Demands by senior managers make the most progress if they are specific and quantified numerically.

Review

- organizations can institute a review of paper reporting needs and develop recommendations for changes. Although the review process can be assigned to staff personnel or external consultants, only line management can implement change. To do this, the line needs senior management demand and the corresponding support for resources to make it happen. Too many projects of this nature fail miserably by assuming the staff role can make real change. How can a staffer challenge the user's claim "I need it for my job." If the rationalization behind the jobs gets pushed too far down the chain, the safest route for the cost centre person "stuck with the job", is to keep all of the existing reports as they are. If a manager distributes the task to a layer of supervisors without reviewing the final choices, gaps or inconsistencies may result. In the final analysis, only the responsible manager can provide the "challenge" to the review process to net out the information truly needed to manage the business unit.

Introducing New Technology

- a progressive hospital that is making great gains in reducing paper and speeding communications (even life supporting data) has a critical principle for all investments in technology "If the business processes do not change as a result of the project, the project will never receive approval." This may sound a bit harsh, but what is the use of putting a shiny new engine in a 20 year old car? To effectively introduce new technology, business must shift and adapt to leverage the investment fully. This means that information technology projects will unlikely be successful without the full partnership of the consumer and the delivery units.

Conclusion

The amount of computer-generated paper is staggering, and still increasing. Wise investors today might still shore up their investment in pulp and paper stocks. However, the lurking fear of many senior managers about the waste is usually well founded. Progressive organizations have found ways to effectively combat the surge. Appropriate application of technology can help.

Ron Gilmore's knowledge of large mainframe systems, data communications networks, business modeling and systems planning have enabled him to assist clients in energy, finance, and government. Some of his major assignments have involved systems management, increasing management understanding of systems leveraging the work of professionals, and quality assurance.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Canadian Institute of Management
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gilmore, Ron
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Dec 22, 1989
Words:2165
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