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Busting the myth of the paperless office: The hidden costs of printing

In the early years of computers, there was much speculation about what the office of the future would look like. In this 'Tomorrow's World'-type scenario, the working environment was always streamlined and paper-free. However, even now in the second decade of the 21st century, many businesses are still bound by paper-based processes.

Yet a recently-published report by the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) showed that although 74 per cent of respondents had business improvement campaigns that would benefit from paper-free initiatives, only 24 per cent had a specific policy to "drive paper out of the business."

OKI commissioned a survey of over 2,000 office workers on their evolving attitudes towards printing and paper use, both at home and in the office. As a provider of managed document services, whether businesses and other organisations are in control of their printing volumes and costs was a particular area of interest.

The results are surprising – particularly at a time when many organisations are attempting to reduce their overheads either to meet government targets, or help enhance the bottom line. Firstly, the research quashes any predictions that the paperless office will become a reality in the near future. However, they also suggest that many organisations are wasting significant sums of money by not controlling their print output or streamlining their document workflow.

Printing daily

Perhaps the most striking statistic revealed in the OKI poll was that 92 per cent still carry out some kind of printing daily, with nearly half, (45 per cent) printing ten pages or more each day. A significant 15 per cent print out more than 50 pages on an average day in the office.

Why is this? The top reason (64 per cent) was the importance of the document and the need for hard copy evidence (54 per cent). Presumably, in many sectors this reflects tightening regulations and the need for compliance. However, this hardly accounts for printing 50 pages or more daily.

Fortunately, colour printing is still reserved for occasional documents. Only six per cent said that more than 70 per cent of their printing was of this type.

Personal printing in the office

The quantity of printing that still goes on wasn't the only surprise. Some organisations might be shocked to discover that 79 per cent of respondents use office equipment to print personal documents, with nine per cent claiming to do this at least once a day.

There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps employees working long hours in the office or at home may then feel 'entitled' to carry out personal administrative tasks in the office? The main reason given in the survey was the lack of a printer at home (38 per cent). This answer was more prevalent among the younger age group (25 to 34 year olds) who are increasingly used to carrying out most tasks digitally.

The next more popular answer was simply 'ease of use'. This speaks volumes about attitudes to printing. While most businesses are becoming meticulous about cutting down lighting and other energy bills, the cost of printing, in both monetary and environmental terms, is often overlooked.

Need for better management

So, have our printing levels spiralled out of control? There are many examples that suggest this could be the case. For instance, the AIIM report suggests that some people (13 per cent of those polled) print out electronic documents, forms or PDFs and then scan them back into the system. At first glance this may appear senseless. However, in an unstructured document workflow, it is likely that at some stage a physical signature is needed or a senior member of staff demands a hard copy for review or for legal requirements.

Adopting a printing and document management strategy

While no-one would suggest that organisations suddenly become heavy-handed about employees printing when they need to, it's frustrating to witness the lack of any document management strategy. By taking expert advice and adopting some straightforward measures, these organisations can cut bills and use of paper significantly.

Tellingly, only 27 per cent said that their organisation had a printing policy in place that was being actively enforced, with nearly half, 47 per cent, admitting that they had no such policy whatsoever.

Measures can begin simply – for example, ensuring that for everyday work, double-sided printing is the default option. Energy can be saved by turning printers off at night – 61 per cent of survey respondents said that no-one in their office was responsible for this small, quick task.

For more dramatic results, diverse and ageing printers can be replaced with new multi-functional devices that use less energy and enable paper-free document flow, such as scan or fax to email. This not only cuts down printing but prevents the possibility of sensitive and confidential documents left lying around.

While a policy developed internally can bring short term benefits, the specialist advice of a managed document services provider can help with more sophisticated streamlining of document workflow to ensure organisations are using printers and multi-functional devices as efficiently as possible. Solutions are tailor-made for the individual needs of each organisation or department.

Using expert advice to ensure printers are set up and used correctly alone can help reduce unnecessary printing and the costs involved. This can also help to eliminate over-runs and improve 'right first time' rates.

Managed document services are also a way to buy printers, supplies, maintenance and support in one all-inclusive contract to reduce capital investment and on-going costs.

Example 1: Homes for Northumberland

Homes for Northumberland is responsible for the management of over 8,500 homes on behalf of Northumberland County Council. The company previously deployed approximately 50 devices from a broad range of different vendors. These were scattered across its Blyth headquarters, Alnwick site and Blyth stores depot to support its intensive requirement for general office and administrative printing.

Many of these printers were ageing and in need of repair. Without a maintenance contract in place, the company found that the process of carrying out general repairs to the printers was consuming too much in-house IT resource and the team realised that, if not addressed, the problem would grow over time. The sheer number of printers and the fact that they came from multiple vendors meant that managing stocks of consumables was an expensive and unwieldy process.

Homes for Northumberland decided to look for a single supplier, capable of taking over all responsibility for supply, service and consumables for copy, print, fax and scanning requirements within the company at a fixed cost per print. It also began to look at the possibility of investing in a managed document services solution. The company spoke to OKI, following a recommendation from its IT reseller partner, DP Supplies.

Volume analysis

Following an analysis of volumes printed by Homes for Northumberland's existing printing solutions fleet, OKI proposed a managed document services solution, designed to improve printing efficiency and productivity. OKI calculated that this would involve a 42 per cent reduction in devices, while providing more multi-function printers (MFPs) to facilitate the growing need for scanning of documents, folders and email.

Homes for Northumberland was so pleased with the proposal that it decided to refresh all the devices at its Blyth headquarters, Alnwick office and Blyth stores depot. It now pays for its printing resource on a cost per page basis, with OKI supplying an invoice on a quarterly basis. This approach incorporates toner supply, repair and maintenance, and saves the housing company money while making budgeting more predictable. It also acts as an 'inflation buster', with the cost per page kept constant for a five year period.

The managed document services approach frees up the time of the company's IT services and support team, which no longer needs to carry out printer maintenance. Typically, it also means less printer downtime as an engineer can be out on site the next day if there are any problems. In addition, OKI provides a customer help desk for issues that can be resolved over the phone.

By reducing the overall size of the fleet from around 55 devices, including printers, copiers and fax machines, down to 29, Homes for Northumberland has been able to significantly reduce the volume of expensive toner stock it has to keep. Now it simply phones OKI for new consumables whenever it needs them.

The company also gains major benefits from the functionality of the printers themselves. The new printers are highly energy-efficient, which helps keep running costs low. Also, the new MFPs have provided capabilities that it didn't have previously. It can scan a document to email, for example, or it can send an incoming fax to a PC or a network folder.

Example 2: Aut Even Hospital, Ireland

Yvonne Kehoe is IT manager at Aut Even private hospital in Kilkenny, Ireland. Instead of addressing complex IT issues, she was forever ordering new toners and fixing paper jams for the hospital's 52 printing devices. However, the hospital decided to invest in OKI's managed document services and she now has far more time to devote to her main job. The change is saving the hospital 23 per cent of its previous printing costs.

Aut Even Hospital has 71 in-patient beds and around 50 consultants, who are leading practitioners across a wide range of medical and surgical services. However, according to Kehoe, there was one operational area that wasn't working as efficiently as it should. The hospital had a variety of printers from seven different manufacturers and no maintenance support agreement from any of them.

These devices were used to print all the hospital's documentation, including patient labels, wristbands and care plans for new admissions, patient information leaflets and exercise sheets for physiotherapy patients. If something went wrong, it was more than just inconvenient.

"Take the admissions printer," said Kehoe. "It's a very busy area and if the printers ceased to function, firstly the patient's experience would be affected and secondly we wouldn't have the information to give to the nursing staff or to the theatre – there could be serious delays. We are talking about people's lives here, after all."

But one of the most time-consuming aspects of the set up was managing consumables. "I was ordering new stock from so many different places, just trying to manage everything was taking a lot of my time. And then there was the job of chasing invoices and making sure everything was up to date on that side," she adds.

So when Kilkenny-based IT solutions company Business IT Solutions (BITS) suggested to Kehoe that the hospital tried OKI's managed document service, it seemed like a lifeline.

OKI's first step was to assess the volume of the printing carried out by the hospital over a month. "We'd never investigated this before – so we had no idea what we really needed," said Kehoe. However, using these figures, OKI managed to consolidate the hospital's printer stock down to 47 devices.

Small savings add up

This was just the start. One of the most important benefits of managed document services as far as Kehoe is concerned is the constant support and the fact that consumables are now replaced as and when they are needed. "The majority of machines are networked and we have the option of remote monitoring and management. When the printer detects that a toner is down to, say, 20 per cent, it automatically orders a new one and this is sent out straight away.

"All I do now is make sure deliveries go to the correct department, so this has really freed up my time. We have also been able to set up a standing order for payment so all that tracking down of purchase orders and matching up invoices from seven different suppliers is now finished," she adds.

There are further bonuses – areas of waste that, taken individually seem relatively small, but which together add up to a substantial amount over time. For example, Kehoe recalls that with the old printers staff would replace toners before they had actually run out because warning signals were being shown. As a result, toners which could have gone on longer were being thrown away.

"Now consumables are monitored more carefully," she said. "Also, where possible, all printing is double sided which is saving a good deal of paper. Altogether we have shaved almost a quarter of our printing and consumables bill."

There are also other benefits which are not measured in cost, but in peace of mind. "Some devices have a secure print option accessed only by a pin code which means printing confidential material is very simple.

"Also recognising how critical some of the printers are, OKI has included spare devices in its service, so if something went wrong with the admissions printer we can replace it immediately, without having to wait for an engineer to arrive. It's great to know that there won't be a problem that could have serious repercussions," said Kehoe.

"I used to spend my working life fire-fighting. There were always paper jams and when anybody else tried to genuinely help, they sometimes made it worse. Now I can go back to being an IT manager," she continued.

A practical compromise

There's a danger that by focusing on the paperless ideal, organisations are allowing money to leak away in the here and now. On the other hand, a realistic assessment of current behaviour and assets could lead to a quick win now and a faster move towards a hybrid 'paper-light' environment in the near future.

There is much to consider. For example, our recent survey also revealed that many employees are now expecting to connect to office printers from their own smartphones and tablets. Of the 24 per cent who bring their own phones and tablets into the work environment, a substantial 45 per cent print from these devices from the office printer. Mobile printing apps which enable the wireless use of a variety of printers are becoming increasingly popular. Depending on the organisation involved, a managed print and document policy may need to take this into account.

The survey demonstrates that, despite calls for the paperless ideal, paper documents are going to be in circulation for a good few years yet. However a practical and well-managed approach with expert guidance will help bring printing into this century, while still making the significant cost and energy savings required.

Rob Brown is the managed document services manager at OKI Systems UK.

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